The First World War and the Philosophy of Warfare


Samuel Griffin

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Publication Date

Spring 2021


This essay analyses the effect that the First World War had on how societies and militaries understood and viewed warfare. It frames World War I as a watershed moment for warfare philosophy and ideology, and argues that long-held myths and romanticized visions of war went to die on the battlefields of Europe, along with millions of soldiers. The initial patriotism and optimism of combatants were quickly replaced by horror, cynicism, and disillusionment. This change in attitude can be seen by comparing the pre-war doctrine of belligerent countries’ politicians, generals, and officers to the attitudes of the soldiers and officers by the end of the war. A comparison between first and second World War mindsets is also revealing of the change after World War I, as it shows a stark contrast in the attitudes of those going off to war. This essay builds off the work of historians like John Mueller, who argues that World War I “served as a necessary catalyst for opinion change.” This essay also argues that wartime rhetoric such as naming the conflict “the Great War” or “the war to end all wars” suggests that contemporaries understood that the conflict had changed warfare forever. Analysis of art, propaganda, and political rhetoric surrounding the war also reflects this change in society’s opinions. Finally, the post-war optimism for peace and democracy, which resulted in the creation of the League of Nations, sets the First World War apart from previous wars and suggests a fundamentally changed attitude towards war.


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