Global Conflicts — The First ‘World Wars’ Came Long Before 1914

Canadian troops at the Second Battle of Ypres, 1915. A painting by Richard Jack.

Canadian troops at the Second Battle of Ypres, 1915. A painting by Richard Jack.

“World War One was not history’s only recorded ‘Great War’.”

(Originally published in September, 2013)

THIS COMING SUMMER, the world marks a grim milestone – the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.

The four-year conflict, which was fought between 1914 and 1918, was like no other war in history up to that point. An unprecedented 70 million combatants from more than 40 nations took part in the fighting. When it was over, an estimated 20 million soldiers and civilians were dead. Not surprisingly, as an event so manifestly cataclysmic and so global in its reach, it went by a dizzying array of names. Here are some of them:

To the millions involved, the epic struggle was known simply as the “World War” — la Guerre Mondiales in French or Der Weltkrieg in German. Other variants included the “War of Nations” or the British name for the conflict: “The Great War”. Etched on each one of the millions of bronze Victory Medals awarded to American veterans that served in the is the inscription “The Great War for Civilization” — an ironic choice of name given the unmitigated barbarity with which the conflict was prosecuted. Similarly, some on the Allied side referred to conflict by the misleading title the “War for Democracy” or the regrettably inaccurate “War to End All Wars”, which sadly it was not. In German-occupied France and Belgium it was also called La Guerre du Droit or the “War for Justice”. Yet to so many of the soldiers who fought in it, the conflict was known simply as “the Big One”. The term “First World War” only came into general usage after 1939, when the 20th Century’s second global conflict had broken out.

German troops advance across No Man's Land in 1915.

German troops advance across No Man’s Land in 1915.

Other “Great Wars” by Name

Interestingly enough, World War One was not history’s only recorded “Great War”. In Paraguay, that’s the preferred name for the six-year struggle that country fought against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay beginning in 1864. And for those involved, the name was hardly hyperbole — the bloody South American conflict snuffed out more than 300,000 lives. Strangely, one of the belligerents in that struggle, Uruguay, had a Guerra Grande or “Great War” of its own too. The 13-year fight, which began in 1839, was an internal struggle between conservative nationalist forces and the progressive Colorado (or coloured) party. The conflict drew in a number of European powers on the side of the reformers including France, Italy and even Great Britain. Both London and Paris sent troops and ships. Even an Italian legion under the command of the noted general and revolutionary Guiseppe Garibaldi took part in the fighting. The struggle also served as the backdrop for the Alexander Dumas novel The New Troy.

A decade-long fight between Spain and Cuba beginning in 1868 was also known to participants as the “Great War”, as was a two-year conflict in the early 15th Century between Poland and Lithuania and the German Teutonic Knights.

World Wars

Some dispute the accuracy of referring to the 1914 to 1918 conflict “The First World War”. A number of fights, even some as as far back as the 17th Century, drew in most of the planet’s leading powers of the day and like World War One were also trans-hemispheric.

The death of British general Wolfe at Quebec in 1759. Winston Churchill argued that the Seven Years War was actually the first 'world war'.

The death of British general Wolfe at Quebec in 1759. Winston Churchill argued that the Seven Years War was actually the first ‘world war’.

Case in point: In his definitive A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill referred to The Seven Years War as the first “world war” — and not without some justification. After all, the conflict, which was fought from 1756 to 1763, involved most of the major imperial powers of the world at the time including: Britain, France, Spain and Russia. Furthermore, the action in that conflict was indeed global — it was fought on the fields of Europe, across the vast the wilderness of North America, India, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean as well as the Atlantic and the distant Pacific.

A similar case could be made for calling the War of Austrian Succession (1740 to 1748), the War of Spanish Succession (1701 to 1714) and possibly even the nine-year War of the Grand Alliance (1688 to 1697) “world wars”, although that might be pushing it a bit.

America’s own War of Independence expanded into a global conflict as well. While it began at Lexington and Concorde in 1775 and was largely fought within the 13 colonies, eventually its shots were heard ‘round the world. As the war raged in America, King George’s enemies from Spain, Holland and France joined in and soon England was fighting in the West Indies, the Mediterranean, Continental Europe and the Sub-Continent.

Then there was the 12-year-long Napoleonic Wars, which drew in more than 40 distinct states, kingdoms and principalities including France, Britain, Russia, Prussia, Portugal, Denmark, Spain, Sweden, Austria, the Ottoman Empire, and even Persia. It too qualifies as a world war.

Although there have been a number of global conflicts in human history, the expression “world war” didn’t actually become a part of the English language until the first years of the 20th Century. Even before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, the term had entered the lexicon. Many observers of the day recognized that the tangled web of military alliances that had long since defined the relations between the great powers of Europe threatened the peace. Many warned that a crisis or showdown between two states might quickly draw all into an epic “world war”. In fact, the phrase appeared in English language newspapers as early as 1909. When conflict erupted between the nations of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente five years later, it formally became known as the World War.

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