By Tom Anderson
French military cemetery in Verdun; The Great War for Civilisation 1914-1919.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Ask someone about the military history of the 20th Century, and most people will be able to quote at least three facts. There was a World War I from 1914-1918; there was a World War II from 1939-1945; and there hasn’t been a World War III yet – and we hope there never will be.
All fine and good, but my great-grandfather’s Victory Medal from ‘World War I’ calls it: “The Great War for Civilisation, 1914-1919”. All right, we might be able to predict that people who lived through it wouldn’t call it “World War ONE” – as rather poignantly used in an episode of Doctor Who, where a soldier hears that term used by time-travellers and reacts with horror; it was meant to be the War to End All Wars. And ‘The Great War’ certainly makes sense as a term, one which is still occasionally used today. But why, then, am I finding it in a book published in 1913? And what’s with my great-granddad’s medal saying it ended in 1919?
Welcome to the difference between history and historiography. History is what we live through; historiography is how we try to make sense of it. Or, often, how historians and other powers that be choose to record it. In the midst of that war, nobody knew how long it would last or how it would stand in relation to the coming century. (For the same reason, of course, nobody referred to the Thirty Years’ War, the Hundred Years’ War, the Seven Years’ War, etc. by those names while they were ongoing!) That should be an obvious point, but there are also more subtle ones.
When war broke out in Europe in 1914, it was simply ‘the war’, as most wars are while they are ongoing. Everyone knows which one you’re talking about, after all. Though today we usually think of it as primarily a war against Germany, in practice there were multiple Central Powers opposing the Entente (later referred to as the Allies, with late additions such as the United States). Furthermore, conflict did not end when a state surrendered or called for an armistice. The war unleashed chaos in Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and elsewhere. The 1919 end date given on my great-granddad’s medal, and also quite a few war memorials dotted across the UK and elsewhere, reflects the fact that, at the time, it was felt that ongoing conflicts such as Allied intervention into Russia or Turkey represented a continuation of the war. Furthermore, at first it was felt that the armistice signed with Germany in November 1918 might well fall apart and another round of war commence. Britain remained governed by effectively the same wartime coalition after a general election was held at the end of 1918, and ‘emergency’ war measures were retained into 1919 and beyond. The ongoing Spanish Flu pandemic also likely lent weight to the idea that the crisis was continuing, even after revolution in Germany and the flight of the Kaiser to the Netherlands.
It was therefore only in hindsight that it was decided that the Novermber 1918 armistice now defined the end of the war. Many of the smaller conflicts unleashed by the war would continue on for years later, like the Russian Civil War, the Greco-Turkish War, the Polish-Soviet War, and so on, so it eventually became obvious that a clean line could not be drawn and the defeat of Germany should stand as the conclusion of the Great War. In time, then, some would start calling the war ‘the 14-18 war’ (pronounced ‘fourteen-eighteen war’) instead, though that term has not stuck around. The preferred term nowadays is Frist World War or World War I. But where does that name come from?
The term ‘world war’, or Weltkrieg in German, had originally been coined by the Germans themselves, but later also adopted by the Allies. One Anglophone headline at the Armistice compromised and called it ‘the Great World War’. What the Germans were saying was that it was a war fought in theatres all over the world, with naval battles in the South Atlantic, Japan taking German colonies in China and the Pacific (and even sending ships to the Mediterranean later), Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck clashing with British and South African forces in Tanganyika, and much more. Troops and labourers from as far afield as British India and the young Chinese Republic would also arrive at trenches in Europe.
Von Lettow's surrender.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Though World War I was unquestionably a world war, in some ways it could be argued that its (then) uniqueness as one is exaggerated. There was not a great deal of fighting in Asia (which comprises over half the world’s population, then and now) and essentially none in the Americas, unless one counts the seas around them. There were earlier wars that arguably had a more global component. Winston Churchill described the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763, with skirmishes before 1756) as ‘the first world war’, sometimes paraphrased as ‘World War Zero’. That war was principally an alliance of Britain and Prussia on one side, and France and Austria on the other, with periodic involvement from other European powers like Russia, Sweden, Spain, and Portugal, and non-European powers like the Iroquois and Huron confederacies in America, the Bengal Subah, Carnatic Sultanate, and Nizamate of Hyderabad in India, corporate owners like the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company, Filipino rebel groups, and more. Its theatres were far more extensive than that of the later World War I, with fighting not only across central Europe and the Mediterranean, but also in Iberia, India, both North and South America, and a little in Africa (notably the temporary British conquest of Dakar and Senegal). There were also far more naval battles than in WWI.
The problem with the “World War Zero” thesis, however, is that the Seven Years’ War was not unique. It was arguably the most globally extensive of the European global wars of the ‘long eighteenth century’ from approximately 1688 to 1815, but it does not stand out all that much from others in that period. The Nine Years’ War or War of the Grand Alliance (1688-1697) was principally a European war, but also saw fighting in the Americas and India. The same is true of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1715), which also included some conflict in West Africa. The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) saw a huge involvement of colonial British American troops, in ill-fated attacks on Spanish South America, as well as further battles in India. The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was no mere North American colonial conflict but also a true world war, with extensive fighting in India, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean.
Then, between 1792 and 1815, Europe was wracked by what are now rather clumsily called ‘the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars’, ensuing from political revolution in France later co-opted by the ambitious Emperor Napoleon. To the people who lived through that titanic conflict, it was simply ‘the Great War’ – hence why my hypothetical book from 1913 can use that term, before it was reused for World War I. In some ways, these conflicts were less global than their 18th Century precursors, just because France had been defeated and driven from most corners of the globe, so the Anglo-French colonial conflicts did not directly continue. However, there was still plenty of fighting in those same theatres; in India, Lord Mornington used the alleged French alignment of Tippoo Sultan, ruler of Mysore, to expand British power by military campaign; Britain tried unsuccessfully to take present-day Argentina from Spain, and then Spain’s colonies in the New World rebelled against Spain’s new French-imposed government; there were naval battles in the Indian Ocean; North America saw the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain (including the future Canada). This begs an important question: which of these conflicts do we ‘count’ as part of the Napoleonic Wars, and why?
Sometimes described as "ambitious".
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
This is the importance of historiography. Real life is never so neat, so granular, so classify-able or pigeonhole-able. Categories always have blurry edges. Whether we choose to count these global theatres as separate (if related) wars or part of a wider conflict is arbitrary. The same is true of the earlier colonial battles, some of which (in India and North America) continued regardless of Britain and France formally being at peace at home. Where this is particularly noticeable is when it comes to naming these wars.
American historiography usually does not describe the American side of these conflicts with the European names. Instead, Americans have their own names for the North American theatre of the conflicts, the first two of which are mostly named after their reigning British monarch at the time. The War of the Grand Alliance is called King William’s War, while the War of the Spanish Succession is called Queen Anne’s War. Nor are these the first, but I am focusing on the ‘long 18th Century’ conflicts. The War of the Austrian Succession’s American front has two names – King George’s War for the continental side, and the War of Jenkins’ Ear for the maritime battle against Spain (referring to an incident where a British captain’s ear was allegedly cut off by Spanish coast guards roughing him up). Having had more wars but still being ruled by King Georges, the Americans refer to the Seven Years’ War either by that name or as ‘the French and Indian War’. The French, meanwhile, refer to these as numbered ‘Intercolonial Wars’.
Prime Minister Robert Walpole swooning when being shown the Spanish-severed ear of Captain Jenkins.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In the case of the next conflict, of course, it is the American front that is the most iconic, so the more usual name everywhere is the American Revolutionary War or the War of American Independence. In this case, it is the European front that gets its own name – the War of the Bourbon Alliance, or just the Bourbon War, after the royal houses of France and Spain.
The side of the conflicts in India also get their own names – for example, the four Anglo-Mysore Wars, the three Carnatic Wars, the three Anglo-Maratha Wars, and so on. This can also be confusing, however, as these wars overlapped with each other and cannot be readily separated into distinct conflicts. Some involve Anglo-French colonial rivalry, while others (especially later) are more about British expansion in India for its own sake. The War of the Austrian Succession and Seven Years’ War are also sometimes reduced to merely the Austro-Prussian (and Prusso-Russian) theatre as ‘the Silesian Wars’.
Then there is naming wars after the year in which they take place, which can also run into problems. Perhaps the best known example (in English) is the War of 1812. Many still hear the name and assume the war took place all in one year, when it in fact lasted until 1815.
The point of all this is that naming wars is a bit of a minefield (how appropriate). Even in the unlikely event that everyone can agree on a name now, it might end up being revised in the future with the benefit of hindsight (or, in the case of ‘the Great War’, simply because the name has become reused). So, this is an easy source of anachronisms, intentional or otherwise, in historical writing.
I’ll end by noting that this is not only true of wars, but individual battles as well. Firstly, what to name a battle is not necessarily straightforward. In the Napoleonic era and before, battles usually took place on a fairly discrete battlefield and only over one or two days (generalising). Naming is obvious if this involves a siege of a named city or a battle before it for its control (with the only caveat that multiple battles at the same site can confuse matters!) But many battles also took place in the middle of nowhere. It became customary to name them after a nearby village or geographical feature, but who picks which one? This can lead to the slightly ridiculous outcome that the victorious nation calls it one thing while the loser calls it another (or even two allied nations who fought shoulder-to-shoulder may use different names). Sometimes geographical names can also sound insufficiently grand, for example the 1813 Battle of Leipzig also being known as ‘the Battle of the Nations’ for the number of powers involved. On the other hand, sometimes the names of once-obscure places can be elevated precisely because of how iconic the battles fought there were – Borodino, Austerlitz, Waterloo.
Waterloo is a good example of this ambiguity. The Duke of Wellington had a rigid system that he always named battles after the place he had slept the night before, in this case the village of Waterloo. Others had wanted to name the battle ‘La Belle Alliance’, after a nearby village by that name, which would also have had a delightful double meaning to reflect the multi-national alliance (Britain, the Netherlands, Prussia, and other German states) who faced the resurgent Napoleon there. However, Wellington got his way, and now we have Waterloo Station, Waterloo Road, and Waterloo Sunset, not the alternative. Still, I suppose the Kinks would have struggled to fit ‘La Belle Alliance Sunset’ into the meter of the song...
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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:
The Look to the West series