To sustain huge armies in the field, each nation had to wage total war that is, commit all resources to the war effort. The civilian made as significant a contribution to the war effort as the soldier at the front. Thus, a new front, the home front, became an important factor in winning the war.

The 369th InfantryThe 369th Infantry was the first black American combat regiment in World War I.
War Economy

In August, 1914, all the belligerents envisioned a short war. They saw no reason to disrupt their economies and tried to continue "business as usual." As the war continued, however, the obstruction of international trade and depletion of the labor supply forced the belligerents to make certain adjustments to meet the ever-increasing production demands of the military.

To put their economies on a war footing, governments established special agencies to direct their economies. These agencies assumed complete control over raw materials, labor, and transportation. The government dictated its needs to industry and then allocated the necessary resources for production. The production of consumer goods had to be curtailed so that additional facilities and resources could be committed to war production.

These changes required the cooperation of industry and labor unions. Private industry abandoned its normal production and devoted its resources to the war effort. Labor leaders agreed to wage controls and longer working hours. They also promised not to strike for the duration of the war.

War Finance

Not only did the war cause drastic changes in economic production, it also required new methods of financing that production. The government, because of its massive purchases of armaments, replaced the individual household as the chief consumer of the nation's goods and services.

To finance the war effort, many of the belligerents levied special taxes and issued war bonds for sale to the public. These efforts alone proved insufficient, however, and many countries were forced to use gold and cash reserves that had been accumulated before the war. When possible, they also secured loans from allied or neutral nations.

War and Society

Conditions at home varied from country to country. The United States did not suffer as much as the other belligerents because it was in the war for only a year and a half. In Europe, however, resources were strained to the point of collapse. As a result of Britain's blockade of Germany, the Central Powers suffered the most. The European Allies were also in a desperate position, but aid from the United States in 1917 and 1918 helped ease their situation.

Impact of Total War

Because of the demand for labor, women entered the work force on a massive scale, doing work traditionally performed by men. In many families, women became the breadwinners.

The emphasis on armaments production also directly affected life at home. Luxuries disappeared from stores because the only nonmilitary items being produced were the barest essentialsmainly food and clothing. Toward the end of the war, even these were in short supply.

Shortages caused governments to institute rationing in an attempt to achieve fair and equal allocation of scarce goods. This meant that even if certain items could be found, government-imposed restrictions limited personal consumption. As a result, black markets emerged in many countries.

War and the Rights of the Individual

For a nation to conduct a total war, it required maximum commitment from the private citizen. To achieve these goals, governments, even in democratic countries, felt it necessary to silence dissent. In the United States, a series of laws was passed making writings and public statements against the war or the government treasonable offenses. In Britain, the Defense of the Realm Acts placed similar limits on British citizens.

Censorship and propaganda were employed by all warring nations. Newspaper reports from the front were reviewed by government authorities, and negative or defeatist information was deleted. Mail was censored both at home and at the front to prevent military secrets from being revealed and to stop the spread of information that might lower morale.

Most governments maintained special offices to disseminate propaganda. Stories of military victories were often exaggerated to help boost morale. Enemy victory was portrayed as a threat to civilization. The hysteria created by this exaggeration was so intense that many citizens of German descent living in Allied countries changed their names.