World War I was a mistake. Its consequences were not part of anybody’s expectations (excepting Stead and Bloch 1899) – certainly not of those who set it off, although there was an undertone of fatalism in their decisions (Offer 1995). If one side had possessed an unassailable superiority, then there would have been no call for war. The war’s duration indicates that the sides were matched, that the outcome was uncertain, and that instigating war was therefore a colossal gamble – and, as it turned out, a bad one. The decisions for war were irresponsible, incompetent, and worse. So much for expectations, rational and otherwise.
The purpose of power is to get your way. But to what end and at what cost? And supposing you got it, what then? For example, in spite of their victory, the Allies could not find a way to obtain reparations. Just posing the question of purpose hints at irrationality, given the poor odds of success. For the emperors of Austria, Germany, and Russia, the objective was dynastic but the move was obtuse. Motivating their empires relied (quite successfully) on a communitarian nationalism. That motive was not absent in France and Britain, but a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis may be more appropriate for liberal societies. That calculation doesn’t add up either.
The role of energy in World War I
War is trying to get your way with violence, and violence is the application of energy. So the balance of power was a balance of energy. For most of the war one side had an energy advantage, but not a sufficient one. In 1914 the most concentrated energy was high explosive, both for direct application and as a propellant, but it could not be harnessed for any other purpose due to its volatility. It was available equally to both sides, and not intense enough to be decisive. Mobility was driven mostly by steam power and coal, with a minor role for oil. Beyond the railheads, energy was grain, meat, and potatoes converted into heat and muscle power in horses, mules, and men. Resisting violence required energy to be absorbed and reciprocated. The most effective absorbent was terrain, which cost a great deal of energy to overcome – especially when endowed with forts, flooding, trenches, barbed wire, and contours. The final barrier was living human bodies, and so the balance of forces was measured in body counts on both sides, both alive and dead. During the war, the UK, France, and Italy together had 93% of the population of the Central Powers; with Russia added this rose to 236%, and with the US, to 320% (Correlates of War Project 2005). For all of Russia’s backwardness, its grain-driven bayonets were just as sharp as German ones.
Energy arrives from the sun. It can be harvested in two forms: as low-density renewable energy embodied in grain, grass, and wood; and as dense fossil energy in the form of coal and oil. Energy density can be measured as the Energy Return on Investment (EROI), which is the number of energy units obtained for the input of one. For coal, the EROI in 2005 was as high as 80, while for oil it was around 100 in 1930 (Hall 2009, Hall 2014). The figures would have been lower in 1914, but coal was always a windfall. For a self-sufficient energy economy like Britain (which exported energy as well), a rough measure of this windfall was the proportion of the adult population working to mine coal. In 1911, this was about 4% (Mitchell 1988: 104). Every miner provided fossil energy for 27 adults in the UK, and for yet more people overseas. These extra people in Britain were free to operate an urban economy, produce for the war, and shoulder rifles. In the course of the war, Britain on its own consumed a little more coal than Germany and Austro-Hungary jointly, with France and Italy adding almost a third more, and Russia another 20 percentage points. US consumption during the two war years raised the Allied margin to almost to three to one, and this still leaves out Australia and Canada (Correlates of War Project 2005).
Agriculture and the war effort
But you cannot eat coal, and grain has to be sown again every year. It has an EROI in very low single figures. Even today, with inputs of fossil energy for tillage, fertiliser, irrigation, harvesting, and haulage, the EROI of wheat in Pakistan is only about 3.0, whereas typical early modern yields would have been slightly above 1.0 (Pracha 2011, Staniford 2010). It required muscle to produce muscle power. In Russia in 1910, more than 85% of inhabitants lived in settlements of fewer than 5,000 (Bairoch 1986: 288, Table 3). They fed the country and left a good deal for export. If small towns are taken as part of the farming infrastructure, that gives a rough EROI of 1.5, including exports (O’Connor 1970, Offer 1989: 86). Each country-dweller could only feed himself and another one-half of a person. Even the US still had almost 60% living on farms and small towns. In continental Europe, farmworkers could not go off to war without reducing the supply of food. So Russia (and Austro-Hungary, another agrarian empire, with a rural and small-town proportion of 81%) suffered food shortages in World War I, which seriously undermined their war efforts and eventually their regimes. The EROI of grain could be raised with fossil energy inputs, and this was achieved in Germany, France, and Britain using fertilisers, oilmeal cake, and farm machinery, produced at home or imported. Hence the proportion of the rural population was smaller – about one-half in Germany in 1914. That was still a sufficiently large proportion for its partial transfer into military service to diminish food production, at a time when fertiliser production had to compete with high explosive, and imports of food, feed, and manures largely stopped. In terms of calories consumed per head, Germany suffered a big wartime decline, wiping out a pre-war nutritional surplus of about 20%, bringing daily consumption close to the margin of physical efficiency, and sometimes below it (Offer 1989: Chapter 3). Even in Britain more than 30% lived in small towns or the countryside, although the proportion of farmworkers in the adult population was only about 4.5%. Most men could go off to fight without affecting the food supply.
A vital factor for extensive low-density energy production was land. Continental societies had small endowments of land per agricultural worker. In Russia the mean holding size in acres was around 20, in France and Germany 60–70, in the US 210, and in Canada 289 (Offer 1989: 90). In Germany and England wheat yields, with fertiliser inputs, were twice as high as in the US, but in Russia and parts of the Austrian empire, yields were low (Offer 1989: 99). Britain did not count on its own agriculture, and was able to access the vast acreage of English-speaking countries (and Argentina), which had large land endowments per worker. It was also able to buy up much of the exports that would normally go to the Central Powers.
Britain’s naval advantages
We think of Britain as the first industrial nation, workshop of the world etc., but in comparison with continental powers, it benefited from exceptional endowments of nature. It was more than self-sufficient in coal, and its agricultural muscle power mostly lived across the sea. For transport, water offered much less resistance than land, and combined with steam propulsion was another energy multiplier. For wheat in Kansas, transport to Liverpool only added 20% to farmgate prices (Offer 1989: 85). Much of the overseas grain was produced by people who spoke English and had political and cultural affinities with Britain. Production and transport was financed from London, and Britain dominated shipping and shipbuilding worldwide. But the low energy density of sunlight, grass, and grain meant that food for Britain had to be carried a long way by sea. Warships were the overhead cost of the international division of labour, and the cost was rising. As Britain fell behind in manufacturing, it could not expect to remain the naval leader forever.
British strategy before World War I took note of these realities. With its sea moat as an energy absorber, Britain required fewer human bodies for defence, and so (alone among the great powers) it did not impose a military service obligation. In the absence of such coercion, British society was less militaristic and more liberal than continental ones. Importing grain from overseas diminished the incomes and political influence of the landowner aristocracy, who supported militarism elsewhere. In France peasant-proprietor agriculture was also democratic by inclination. But apart from maintaining a lead in battleships over Germany, Britain’s leaders were not quite sure what else they should do. They pondered this for more than a decade. They regarded war as likely, but keeping the peace was not an overriding priority. The policy chosen was to interdict the flow of goods to Germany when the war came (with or without sending a limited army contingent to France), in the hope that material shortages would eventually cause a German collapse (Offer 1989: Part 3, Lambert 2012). It might have been argued that Britain had a choice of remaining above the fray – but it wasn’t argued. One cabinet minister resigned on the outbreak of war, but he had not been privy to pre-war planning. Britain acted because it felt strong enough to act. This turned out to be a close call, though it is not clear that a quick success for the Central Powers would have been worse than what actually happened up to 1945 (Ferguson 1998: 460–461).
Technological competition in the world wars
Energy resources and delivery systems were embodied in technologies, which mutated rapidly. Technological innovation was largely devoted to capturing and enhancing fossil energy. For example, in 1914 internal combustion was already available, but it was not sufficiently developed to be decisive in land combat, aviation, road transport, or agriculture. Even in World War II, a good deal of transport on the Eastern front was still animal-powered. Technological change was a rolling challenge – every innovation threatened to pull the leader back to the starting line. Some innovations worked to increase the margin of leadership – for example in armour, range-finding, gun calibre, turbine propulsion, speed, oil fuel, and wireless signalling. Others worked for the weak, being cheaper than the weapons they challenged, and enabling asymmetric warfare: the torpedo, mine, torpedo boat, the submarine (using diesel and electric power), and potentially (at sea) aviation. Britain had to respond quickly. A bottleneck in high explosive production was overcome in Britain when acetone was fermented in a new process by a Manchester professor. In Germany, imported ammonia for explosives and fertilisers was replaced in the nick of time by fixing nitrogen from the air.
New technologies could have been decisive, so it is tempting to think of British dominance as depending on a lucky succession of technological leapfrogs. But as each innovation declared its existence, it could be copied, adapted, or otherwise managed. What mattered was the capacity to innovate with an adequate cadre of technologists, and a sufficient margin of superiority elsewhere to absorb temporary setbacks. Britain achieved that margin in both world wars. In World War II, the decisive medium for Britain was the air, not the sea, and the critical energy was petroleum, no longer coal. Fortunately, the global distribution of oil was even more favourable to Britain. In aviation, radar, and signals decryption, Britain managed to stay in the game, if not always ahead of it. This leapfrog competition came to a decisive halt at Hiroshima, which introduced an explosive so powerful as to be genuinely paralysing. Technology was always going to get there, and the atomic bomb brought the folly of world wars to an end for the time being.
Markets vs. hierarchies in wartime
Britain’s liberal polity raised an issue of industrial organisation, namely of markets versus hierarchies. The challenge was allocating scarce energy in order to prevail against an adversary doing the same. For all the vaunted efficiency of markets, it is the rule that in wartime – when the stakes could not be higher – hierarchy is preferred. War in 1914 entailed the certainty of massive battlefield mortality. The problem for a market society was whether you could pay a person enough to incur a high risk of getting killed. The risks were too high to be undertaken merely for wages. There may be a lesson here that the US, with its ‘professional’ army, might wish to learn in view of its poor performance after Vietnam (and going back to Korea). Britain appealed to the communal values of ‘King and Country’, and this produced a respectable flow of volunteers for more than a year. But even the conscription that followed still required consent, as the case of Russia demonstrated.
The distributive consequences of the war
If people are compelled into sacrifice, equity requires that it be equal (Offer 1989: Chapter 4, Offer 2000). The term ‘war socialism’ was coined for wartime arrangements in imperial Germany. In Britain, conscription applied equally, and had other egalitarian consequences – the shortage of labour gave rise to full employment, increased wages, and opened up new jobs to women. Housing shortages led to rent controls. Market forces were partly suspended in food distribution. Under wartime scarcity, a free market will leave low earners with no food at all. Hence combatant countries (and non-combatant neutrals) implemented rationing. But equality is supposed to be inimical to incentives. Food supply under rationing was adequate in Britain and France, but not in Germany, Austria, and Russia. Substantial black markets may have restored incentives, but undermined legitimacy, both for being conducted outside the law, and for undermining the equality of sacrifice. In Russia, Germany, and Austria the imperial regimes were disgraced and overthrown. The expectation of reciprocity in sacrifice was manifested between the wars by emergent welfare states and the accession of labour parties to power. On the winning side, the rentier classes did well too, making their spare money available (and perhaps even some money they didn’t have) in return for war bonds, which delivered a high-interest windfall after the war. This combination of redistribution to the rich and to the poor was stressful for public finance, and exemplified a standoff between money and labour that continued in Europe between the wars.
Editors’ note: This is the seventh in a series of Vox columns by leading economic historians on the First World War, which will be collected in a Vox eBook at the end of the year: “The Economics of the First World War”, edited by Nicholas Crafts, Kevin O’Rourke, and Alan Taylor.
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