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Aug 30, 2009 2:09 pm


Zeroth World Wars



[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

A couple of interesting posts at The Russian Front suggest that the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 should be thought of as a World War Zero, or alternatively that the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 should be. It's often useful to play around with the names we give to historical events and phenomena, because it reminds us that they are just names. And this is an old game for historians (as Dave Stone notes) -- the Seven Years' War is sometimes considered to be the first world war (if not the First World War). But I'm not sure in what sense the Russo-Japanese and Russo-Turkish wars qualify as world wars. Shouldn't the primary determinant of this be that they were fought on a world scale? Even the epic, doomed voyage of the Baltic fleet to Tsushima isn't enough to make the Russo-Japanese War a world war, as all the actual fighting was localised to a relatively small region in Manchuria (if you set aside a few potshots at British trawlers).

But in his post, John Steinberg does give a list of reasons for his argument regarding the Russo-Japanese War (which comes out of research for a two-volumework he co-edited entitled The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective: World War Zero). It seems to me that most of them are not actually about geographical extent but rather other sorts of scale -- of battles, of casualties, of finance, and so on. That is, in Steinberg's formulation the Russo-Japanese War sounds something like an approach towards total war, not a world war. If that's the case then I find this statement surprising:

As for the concept of World War Zero, most western military historians continue to view the Russo-Japanese War as a regional conflict rooted in the age of imperialism. Historians in Asia, appear much more respective.

I thought the Russo-Japanese War was well-known among western military historians (if not among contemporary western military staffs) for its bloodiness. Hew Strachan, for example, refers to it quite often (well, on 30 pages out of 1139) in volume I of The First World War. It's also a common element in diplomatic histories of the war's origins, for Russia's defeat had a tremendous impact on the strategic calculations of all the other Great Powers. So it seems to me that western historians are quite comfortable in seeing the Russo-Japanese War as a step along the road to total war and/or to the First World War in several respects. I think I must be missing something here.

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Jonathan Dresner - 9/10/2009

Very true.

Though it's not only technology which determines scope. Conflicts like the Napoleonic Wars and Thirty Years War were multinational long before the technology expanded the battlefield.


Andrew D. Todd - 9/10/2009

With the increasing range of weapons, generals tended to swing ever wider, in search of an open flank. This reached its perfection in operations like the Anzio and Inchon landings. The wider turns tended to expand wars.

In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Von Moltke the Elder deployed his troops along the Franco-German border for about a hundred miles between the Rhine and the Moselle. The Moselle was the border between the German Saar and Luxembourg. The major railroad lines between France and German ran through Saarbrucken, in the center. Von Moltke had room to conduct repeated enveloping maneuvers, and wound up crossing the Moselle about fifty miles south of the Belgian border, and besieged half of the French army in the border town of Metz. He proceeded though French territory to the Meuse, passing through the gap between the Vosages mountains and the Ardennes, about fifty miles wide, and followed the Meuse to Sedan, south of the Ardennes, where he finally accepted the surrender of a disintegrated remnant of the French army, which happened to include the Emperor Napoleon III. The road to Paris was open by this time, and if Napoleon had retreated into Belgium, he could have been ignored. Von Moltke had no need to violate Belgian neutrality, and he did not do so.

(See J.F.C. Fuller's discussion in _The Decisive Battles of the Western World_, 1954, ed., abridged, John Terraine, 1970)

In 1870, fifty or a hundred miles was an indefinitely large space. In the American Civil War, the dual campaigns of Vicksburg and Port Hudson to open up the Mississippi River were roughly comparable in scale. So was the Gettysburg Campaign.

By 1914, weapons had improved to the point that it was necessary to go around the north side of the Ardennes, to get clear of France's prepared fortification belt. Violating Belgian neutrality meant war with England. The planning for 1914 began back in 1905, with the Von Schliefen Plan, at about the same time that the Anglo-German naval race began. They were related events, obviously. Conflict with England, in turn, implied the necessity of developing an alliance with a non-European power, such as Turkey, which might be able to do something about England's global lines of communication. It also implied the necessity of submarine warfare. The Zimmerman Telegram? If Germany could not have the United States as an ally, it needed to keep the United States occupied in punishing Mexico. All of these things followed from the idea that fifty or a hundred miles was not a wide enough front to deploy an army. Even so, Norway was able to sit out the First World War, but not the Second World War, because the increasing performance of aircraft rendered it a desirable base-- for both sides.


Jonathan Jarrett - 9/1/2009

I was pondering something similar about the Napoleonic Wars not so long ago apropos of just having bought my son an old Risk set. I started by thinking that the choice of Napoleonic-style soldiery was a little odd for a world conflict game, and then paused. Well: there were naval or land engagements in the Americas, the Caribbean, the East Indies, the Balkans and pretty much everywhere in Europe, Russia... and I wouldn't want to guess how many countries were involved. Both major combatants resorted to conscription and some of the campaigns saw casualty rates that come close to the world wars we recognise as such. We basically lack China and Japan, and yes, those are big lacks but we lack China for the First World War and there was no landward conflict in the Americas then. Whose damn criteria are these anyway?


Jonathan Dresner - 8/30/2009

What's the point of "leav[ing] out scope / scale" when the term in question is "World War"? The whole point of the "World" label is to note not the modernity of the war, but the scope and scale of the conflict.

Steinberg's hallmarks, such as they are, are notable aspects of modern wars, but have no real connection to the World Wars other than they were fought in a similar technological environment.


Dave Stone - 8/30/2009

No question that scale / scope distinguish the Russo-Japanese War from World War I. John Steinberg can speak for himself, but I'm sure he realizes that fact as much as anyone, and would say that on grounds of scope, the Russo-Japanese War can't be seen as World War Zero. As I understand Steinberg's argument, he is suggesting that if we look at the OTHER things that make World War I different and new, we see that those things are equally true of the earlier Russo-Japanese War.

Now I do not find Steinberg's argument entirely convincing, and my post was an attempt to explain why. Leaving aside the question of scope, and employing only the criteria that Steinberg uses to see the Russo-Japanese War as like World War I, I find that earlier conflicts qualify just as much as his World War Zero. While my post focused on the Russo-Turkish War, I think very similar arguments could be made for the Crimean War and the American Civil War.

In sum, I was accepting for the sake of argument that we can leave out scope / scale, and suggesting if we do so, there are lots of wars we might choose to label World War Zero.


Charles Fulton - 8/30/2009

No, I think you're right. The criteria applied to determine a "world" war miss what I would call the most crucial: scope. A "world" war which never escaped the Balkans (Russo-Turkish) or Manchuria (Russo-Japanese) is a strange beast indeed. Now, had Britain entered the Russo-Turkish war on Turkey's side, a real possibility, that might have been a different matter. The key factor in both world wars was the eventual participation of all the great powers. One might as well call the Italian Wars of Independence "world" wars.

In re the Russo-Japanese War, it's been a stock element of World War I histories for at least forty years, particularly in discussions of German war planning. It's no sideshow.

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