Total War

Up until the 20th Century and the First World War, soldiers were often dressed in bright and garish uniforms, making them very easy to distinguish from terrain. Most wore soft caps and lacked any sort of protective equipment. Horses and mules played central roles in military affairs, from carrying cavalrymen into battle, to transporting supplies and pulling artillery. Most forces used cavalry as a crucial tool, being maneuverable and able to strike quickly – mobility was their key advantage. These cavalry forces still wore armoured breastplates and carried swords into battle and a lack of major conflicts in Europe for nearly a hundred years meant that there was no need to change the tactics used.  However, the technology of weaponry had advanced greatly in the years preceding the war; defensive weaponry such as the machine gun, barbed wire and artillery had been created and the standard issue weaponry for soldiers had been improved, from muskets to rifles and semi-automatic pistols.


When war began along the Western Front, the outdated tactics used in previous conflicts began to show their age. As both sides attempted to outflank one another, more and more defences were constructed along the frontlines. These defences, specifically designed to withstand infantry and cavalry assaults, meant that a heavy price was paid before any kind of breakthrough could be achieved. Eventually, the western front stretched from the Belgian coast all the way to neutral Switzerland and a lack of tactical knowledge on both sides meant that neither side could achieve a breakthrough.

French soft kepi

Title: French soft kepi
Description: A typical soft cap worn by French Poilus prior to the First World War. Source: IWM: UNI 278 by-nc

French Adrian Steel Helmet

Title: French Adrian Steel Helmet
Description: An "Adrian Pattern" steel helmet worn by French Poilus circa. 1915 Source: IWM: UNI 11315 by-nc

After many failed attempts to break through German lines, Allied command realised that this new form of mechanised war meant that changes and reforms needed to be made to their forces. New inventions such as the tank became essential for crossing no-man’s–land, artillery bombardments became more accurate and effective and where most armies began the war with bright uniforms and caps, they introduced darker clothing and the majority introduced steel helmets to protect soldiers. Horses were replaced by railways and cars, rifles began to be replaced by automatic submachine guns and nations mobilised their entire populations to assist in the war effort. Machinery became a vital tool in war, with engineers in high demand to operate tanks, maintain cars and an ever increasing number of artillery pieces. Aircraft for the first time became a tool of war, allowing for aerial reconnaissance as well as later on, bombardments.

This war was the first “Total War”, involving not just soldiers from across the world, but the civilian populations too, creating the “Home front”. For the first time, civilians were exposed to the horrors of war through photographs and film as well as air raids from planes and zeppelins.