The First World War: what was it good for?

The First World War was the deadliest in Britain's history, killing around 17 million soldiers and civilians worldwide. But the war also inspired a number of innovations and advancements – in weaponry, technology, medicine and manufacturing. Here, six historians consider what the First World War was good for, and ask why Britain's successes on the battlefields are not more widely recognised…

The First World War promoted advances in medicine, and in sectors such as aviation, that had not just military but also peacetime benefits, says David Stevenson. Here Captain Francis Derwent Wood treats the face of a patient, creating a mask which matches as closely as possible to the man's faces before he was injured, c1916. (Photo by Horace Nicholls/ IWM via Getty Images)

Was the 1914–18 conflict responsible for any positive change? Six historians share the innovations and advancements, from technology to revised views of empire…

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“The war inspired the world’s first true aircraft carrier”

The modern aircraft carrier owes its existence to the breakneck speed of technological development during the First World War. In 1914, Britain’s Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was a tiny force of mismatched experimental airships, balloons and primitive aircraft resembling the Wight Brothers famous flyer, flown by an equally eccentric group of daredevils and individualists. By 1918, the RNAS had evolved into a sophisticated service with nearly all the characteristics of modern naval aviation, including aircraft carriers; bespoke strike, reconnaissance and fighter aircraft; and anti-submarine and long-range reconnaissance capabilities.

British troops go over the top of the trenches during the Battle of the Somme, 1916. The Somme was one of the bloodiest clashes of the First World War, causing more than one million casualties over five months. (Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Although converted from an ocean liner, HMS Argus, the world’s first true aircraft carrier, was equipped with most of the features which define the type today: an enclosed hangar; a full-length flight deck; aircraft lifts; rudimentary but effective fire-prevention systems; and a crude but workable arrester system for bringing aircraft to a stop on the deck quickly and safely.Her air wing included Sopwith T.1 Cuckoo torpedo bombers, the world’s first purpose-built maritime strike aircraft. Had the war continued a few more months they would have featured in an attack on the German High Seas Fleet in harbour, pre-empting Pearl Harbor by more than 20 years.

The modern aircraft carrier owes its existence to the breakneck speed of technological development during the First World War, says Nick Hewitt. HMS Argus was converted from an ocean liner during the conflict. (Photo by: Robert Hunt Library/Windmill books/UIG via Getty images)
The modern aircraft carrier owes its existence to the breakneck speed of technological development during the First World War, says Nick Hewitt. HMS Argus was converted from an ocean liner during the conflict. (Photo by: Robert Hunt Library/Windmill books/UIG via Getty images)

All this innovation had not escaped the notice of other powers, particularly the USA and Japan, which both embarked on ambitious carrier programmes of their own. The aircraft carrier remains the basic building block of aspiring first-rank navies today, despite repeated threats to its status from land-based air forces, submarines and nuclear weapons.

An aircraft lands on the flight deck of HMS Argus. (Photo by: Robert Hunt Library/Windmill books/UIG via Getty images)
An aircraft lands on the flight deck of HMS Argus. (Photo by: Robert Hunt Library/Windmill books/UIG via Getty images)

Nick Hewitt is head of exhibitions and collections at the National Museum of the Royal Navy. His books include Firing on Fortress Europe: HMS Belfast at D-Day (Imperial War Museum, 2016) and The Kaiser’s PiratesHunting Germany’s Raiding Cruisers 1914–1915 (Pen and Sword, 2014).


“It began a fundamental reassessment of race, citizenship, and empire”

The First World War planted the seeds for the great era of decolonisation which followed the Second World War. It began a fundamental reassessment of race, citizenship, and empire that would play out over the following decades.

British former field marshal Douglas Haig, inspects poppies before Armistice Day, October 1922. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Superficially, victory expanded British and French territory and power; beneath the surface, the war created the conditions for people to query imperial ideology. The war exposed hundreds of thousands of subjects from Imperial peripheries to experiences and ideas that corroded European justifications for suzerainty [the right of a country to partly control another]. Colonial troops and workers had fought or laboured in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. During the war, France expanded its existing colonial forces to more than half a million troops, including West Africans, Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Madagascans and French Indochinese. British India contributed approximately 1.4 million men. Both the British and French also hired Chinese labourers.

Indian cavalry soldiers in London, following a reception with George V, 1916. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Indian cavalry soldiers in London, following a reception with George V, 1916. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Imperial rule relied on the belief that European technical advancements rendered European countries culturally superior, and thus morally justified in running empires as a civilising exercise. But the use of these advancements in the cause of mass slaughter caused colonial and imperial intellectuals to doubt these claims to civilisation. At the same time, the experience of fighting for the empire, and a popularly understood link between citizenship and service, led to colonial troops feeling a natural right to more equal treatment. As one Senegalese veteran put it, he felt that after the war, “We were French citizens like anybody else”. But the European empires did not meet these new expectations, and could not answer the blow that the destruction of war dealt to their moral claims. Soon, calls for imperial reform became calls for decolonisation. The war had remade how the world could be imagined.

Dr Jennifer Wellington is a lecturer in modern global history at University College Dublin and the author of Exhibiting War: The Great War, Museums, and Memory in Britain, Canada, and Australia(CUP, 2017).

A British officer stands alongside two of his Japanese counterparts in 1914 in Tsingtao (now Qingdao). Japanese troops played a key role in the capture of that strategic German concession in north-east China. (Photo by Getty Images)

“The war was an example and a warning”

It is hard to find redeeming features in the experience of 1914–18. Admittedly, like other wars, the conflict brought out not just ruthlessness and cruelty but also courage, resourcefulness, and endurance. It promoted advances in medicine, and in sectors such as aviation, that had not just military but also peacetime benefits. In some belligerents it reduced disparities of class and gender – notably by extending women’s suffrage – though much of the associated equalisation was short-lived.

The conflict brought out not just ruthlessness and cruelty but also courage, resourcefulness, and endurance, says David Stevenson. Here, a group of wounded German and British soldiers make their way through the streets of St Quentin following the Battle of the Somme, 1916. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
The conflict brought out not just ruthlessness and cruelty but also courage, resourcefulness, and endurance, says David Stevenson. Here, a group of wounded German and British soldiers make their way through the streets of St Quentin following the Battle of the Somme, 1916. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Politically, the Allies’ victory liberated parts of Belgium, France and Eastern Europe from foreign occupation. The peace settlement was not condemned to fail, and had it delivered the stability that it promised, the sacrifices of the wartime generation might less often have seemed futile in retrospect.

Unlike in the Second World War, however, the fighting overthrew no glaringly oppressive regime. The contrast remains blatant between the scale of suffering and devastation and the meagre positive results. Given this, among the conflict’s primary legacies is as an example and a warning. Its story underlines that it is almost always preferable to settle international differences by compromise – however painful – than by violence; and highlights how much easier it is to initiate hostilities than it is to disengage. Yet even at the time (and especially in the defeated countries), all too many contemporaries drew contrary conclusions. The war’s lessons have proved ambiguous, and their message is one that each succeeding generation is called upon to learn afresh.

David Stevenson is professor of international history at the London School of Economics (LSE) and author of With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (Penguin, 2012).

British troops in the trenches, Belgium, c1914–15. The horrors of the First World War lived long in the memories of its centenarian survivors. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

“The war advanced the status of women and ended Britain’s feudal culture of deference”

War is famously the mother of invention, and if the Second World War speeded the development of such positive and world-changing technologies as antibiotics, space rocketry, jet engines, radar, nuclear power and computers, the First World War was no less revolutionary.

Although the conflict brought its new technologies too – the tank, chemical warfare and warplanes being three examples – most of these were destructive. I would argue that the major positive progress that the war brought us was societal. Above all, perhaps, the First World War saw a huge advance in the status of women, which the pre-war Suffragettes, for all their noisy militancy, had never achieved.

c1901, a woman campaigning for the vote is restrained by policemen. The First World War saw a huge advance in the status of women, which the pre-war Suffragettes had never achieved. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
c1901, a woman campaigning for the vote is restrained by policemen. The First World War saw a huge advance in the status of women, which the pre-war Suffragettes had never achieved. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

The vital contribution that women made to winning the war – as munitions workers, VAD nurses and civil servants, for instance, or merely by keeping the home fires burning – showed that they could do the work of absent men more than adequately. This contribution was belatedly rewarded by a grateful government with the (partial) granting of the vote in the December 1918 general election.

Another vast social advance was the end of Britain’s feudal culture of deference. The comradeship of the trenches ironed out many social inequalities, and the sacrifices demanded by a nation in peril meant that the masses would never again passively accept their place at the bottom of the pile.

Policewomen being inspected by Mary S Allen, a former WPSU organiser, in London, May 1915. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Policewomen being inspected by Mary S Allen, a former WPSU organiser, in London, May 1915. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

On a wider stage, the First World War empowered many combatants in the British empire – particularly in India and Ireland – to demand independence from the binding ties of the ‘mother country’ and gave a new pride and confidence to the ‘white dominions’ of Australasia and Canada to assert their place as new nations in their own right.

Nigel Jones is a specialist in 20th-century history whose books include Peace & War: Britain in 1914 (Head of Zeus, 2014) and The War Walk: A Journey along the Western Front (W&N, 2004). He is creative executive for The Cultural Experience history tours.


“You could argue that democracy was boosted by the conflict – but only briefly”

What was the First World War good for? Not a lot. The war killed nearly 10 million people and brought grief and disablement to countless millions of others. The Europe that emerged was an economically and morally impoverished continent poisoned by hatred, prejudice, violence, radical ideologies and endemic instability.

British prime minister David Lloyd George, French premier Georges Clemenceau and US president Woodrow Wilson in Paris during negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
British prime minister David Lloyd George, French premier Georges Clemenceau and US president Woodrow Wilson in Paris during negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Against this, any marginal positives that came out of the surfeit of suffering pale by comparison. One can argue, perhaps, that democracy was boosted by the conflict: the American president Woodrow Wilson’s wartime admonition to build “a partnership of democratic nations” was heeded, although only briefly. Most European states introduced universal suffrage – including votes for women – after 1918, among them, belatedly, Britain.  Unfortunately, the war’s evil legacies subverted this development and by the mid-1930s populist autocrats and dictators ruled most of Europe. Not until the 1990s would democracy return to east-central Europe.

The other ‘good’ that might be argued – on firmer ground – to have come from the First World War was the release of some minorities from imperial captivity. The pre-war Habsburg Empire in fact treated its peoples pretty decently, but the forcing of autocratic Russia’s border eastward was unquestionably a good thing. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all won independence. For Ukraine, it was something of a tragedy that the Germans lost the war, as German victory would likely have produced a Ukrainian satellite state which – like its westerly neighbours – would have avoided Stalin’s persecutions and genocidal famine of the 1930s. Of course, at the decade’s end, all fell victim to the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian regimes, themselves children of the First World War.

Alexander Watson is professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London.  He is the author of the Wolfson History Prize-winning Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914–1918 (Allen Lane, 2014).


“Within a few years of the end of the war, the sense of achievement, of victory, was beginning to be overwhelmed by grief”

The centenary commemorations this year have underlined the fact that most people in the UK don’t know very much about what happened on the Western Front in 1918. On 8 August, the nation commemorated the Allied victory at Amiens exactly 100 years before. The ceremony received a fair amount of media coverage but from the reaction of many members of the public it was clear that few had previously heard of this critical battle. The contrast with the level of public recognition of the Somme, commemorated two years before, was striking.

German prisoners traipse past Allied anti-aircraft positions near Méricourt-l'Abbé, August 1918. The battle of Amiens fired the starting-gun on a succession of Allied triumphs on the western front that would end in ultimate victory on 11 November. (Photo by Alamy)

Many factors contribute to the anonymity of the ‘Hundred Days’ of Allied victories that culminated in Germany’s defeat in November 1918. Chief among them is the vast scale of the losses: one million British Empire dead, about three-quarters of them from the British Isles. Within a few years of the end of the war, the sense of achievement, of victory, was beginning to be overwhelmed by grief. In the imperfect world of the 1920s and 30s, the simple question ‘was it worth it?’ was increasingly being asked.

Since 1945 the First World War has been viewed through the lens of the ‘good’ Second World War and seen as ‘bad’. Both are simplistic judgments, but nonetheless have been highly influential. Disappointingly, this centenary year has been something of a missed opportunity to put a different view: scholarly historians have struggled to make their voices heard in the mass media. Considering their importance, the Allied victories of the Hundred Days remain surprisingly obscure to non-specialist audiences.

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Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Wolverhampton. His publications include Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory (Aurum, 2016) and Command and Morale: The British Army on the Western Front 1914–1918 (Praetorian, 2014).

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