The so-called “First World War” was by far not the first war fought on several continents simultaneously: most famously, the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763 affected Europe, both North and Central America, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. And, as the Crimean War shows, the “Great War”, as it is called in many Western Countries, was not even the first war in which non-European soldiers fought for European powers in a European theatre of war. Still, the name is legitimate, given not only its global scale, but also the participation of non-European powers in a primarily European conflict, most importantly Japan and the USA, to a certain extent the British Dominions (given their still close constitutional relations to the UK), and, in a more supportive way, states like China, Portugal or Brazil.
In the following the global aspect of the war shall be analysed. Therefore, it shall be argued that the war served as a catalyst for phenomena of globalisation which in some ways had occurred already before 1914 and to which it added some new aspects, and that it can without doubt be considered a global war because of its global dimensions and the resulting global consequences.
After giving an overview over the international world order before 1914, in the first part of the essay the global scale of the war – most of all labor migration and the employment of non-European soldiers – shall be examined. In a second part, the global consequences of these aspects of the war shall be analysed on the basis of primary sources from France, China and Australia, all of which relate to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Apart from showing the deviating conceptions of the post-war world order of the British, French and U.S. governments, on the one hand, and the Chinese government and public, on the other hand, in this second part the emergence of new local centres of power and the beginning of a more multipolar world shall be outlined, using the example of “sub-imperialist” Australia. Thus, in geographical terms the essay focuses on the British Empire, including its Dominions, especially Australia, as well as France, China and Japan.
In order to stress the consequences of the war, it is also necessary to adjust the periodization to a global understanding of the war and include the directly resulting wars in Central Europe in 1919, the war between Turkey and Greece from 1919-1922, as well as the numerous conflicts resulting from the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, which, understood as one connected bloodshed ranged from Warsaw to Vladivostok – and which was itself a truly global conflict due to the American and Japanese interventions in the Far East – to the war breaking out in July 1914. This “Long First World War” thus lasted until 1922, when Vladivostok fell to the Red Army. In this understanding, the conference in Versailles was taking place while numerous conflicts which directly resulted from the war the conference was supposed to end were still being fought.
The World before 1914 was in many ways more global than one might expect, given the popular understanding of the beginning of Globalisation after 1945 or even in the 1990s. In terms of international relations, the imperial powers had created a “web of fragile and unstable regional security zones”, which meant that imperial rule was difficult to maintain in a global dimension, even more so after the so-called “Scramble for Africa” and the distribution of most parts of Asia among the Western imperial powers and Japan came to their end and the only remaining source for further acquisition of power became China and the Ottoman Empire, both of which were failing empires having missed a modernization of their economy and society. This insecure network enabled regional conflicts to become global processes. The best example is clearly the July crisis of 1914: the regional conflict in the Balkans between Vienna and St. Petersburg immediately turned into a war of global dimensions which affected every single continent and ocean. One part of this mechanism of globalizing a local conflict was the structure of the then most powerful Empire on earth itself: the defence of London’s vast colonial rule and its trade routes relied on the acceptance of the “Pax Britannica” by the other imperial powers. The European conflict between the German and the British governments became thus automatically a global conflict since it was easier to cut the British supply lines than to attack its mainland.
Within the scope of this essay there is no space to discuss the complex reasons of the outbreak of the war. What is important, though, is to recognize that the post-war order was, in many respects, an intensification of the insecure pre-war order, by offering no solution for long-term conflicts like the one between China and Japan, but rather worsening them. I thus accept Bayly’s thesis of the birth of a “multinational, more dangerous world” before 1914 and aim to extend it in the following to the argument of the war being a catalyst transforming the insecure structure of imperial power to an even more fragile multipolar world without a powerful international body of world politics – which the League of Nations was clearly not.
Before discussing the global scale of the war, it is important to recognize the growing global consciousness emerging in many areas before 1914. Although one must not overestimate the role of anticolonial movements in the Western Empires before the war, the Chinese claims at the Peace Conference of 1919 can only be understood if examined in a longer perspective. In China, the revolution of 1911 can be considered a “sharp reaction to the apparently inexorable expansion of European and American economic and political influence around the world.” After the proclamation of a Chinese republic in 1912 this anti-Imperial reaction was expressed in the emerging public sphere, most importantly in new founded newspapers and magazines. Confucianism was replaced by the new ideology of nationalism, the intellectual and bourgeois elite pushed for change both in China and its relations to the world. The World War then played an important part in this pre-war mind-set because it presented the opportunity to accomplish these aims in its nature of changing the international system.
The war which broke out in 1914 was not only fought between the armies of the Entente and the Central Powers, but also between two competing economic blocs. The Allied nations benefited from their vast colonial resources, while the German economy was cut off from both the commodity and finance world market. In addition, the colonies supplied the “mother countries” even financially, India alone contributed £146 million to the British war costs. In this respect, the United States indirectly participated in the war even before 1917 by supplying both the British and the French with credit, while Germany’s “demand for dollars” was restricted by the blockade. For Japan, the economy boomed during the war, “not least on the back of Japanese investment in China […] and exploitation of China’s labour and raw materials.” Another advantage of the Allied position of controlling the world oceans was the availability of labour migration from Africa, the West Indies and Indochina for the British and French armies.
The most important labour market for the Allies, however, was China, which sent around 130,000 workers to France. Xu Guoqi describes the voyage of these workers to Europe and shows how harsh they were treated by their British and French employers. In short, the “voluntary” recruited workers were seen as children and forced to live in barbed-wired camps near the front-line, were they had to fulfil hard and dangerous tasks like digging the trenches. Xu also states that the experiences of these Chinese had a significant impact on the political development of China after the war, since they brought knowledge about Europe to their country of origin. Although these consequences stay rather vaguely in his book, the racist and condescending attitude of the British and the French authorities towards the Chinese is revealing for the subsequent treatment of the Chinese delegation and their claims at the peace conference.
The British and French armies, however, did not only employ workers from other continents, they also deployed about 650,000 colonial soldiers on the European battlefields. In addition, Britain mobilized about 1,5 million Indian soldiers, whose majority fought in Mesopotamia against the Ottoman army. France, however, even used enlistment in some cases to support her struggle against the Germans with troops from West and North Africa, Madagascar and even Indochina.
The racist attitude of the French government concerning these colonial troops is as revealing for the post-war order as the one towards the Chinese labourers. This becomes clear in a speech of Prime Minister George Clemenceau on 20 February 1918 to the French Senate:
We are going to offer civilisation to the Blacks. They will have to pay for that. […] I would prefer that ten Blacks are killed rather than one Frenchman – although I immensely respect those brave Blacks –, for I think that enough Frenchmen are killed anyway and that we should sacrifice as few as possible!
Apart from this large-scale global labour and military migration from other parts of the world to Europe and the resulting European reactions to this cross-continental contact – both on the Western and the Eastern side of the Western Front – the war had also direct and long-term influences on the African theatre of war itself. In general, over two million Africans served in the war, most of them as packers rather than soldiers due to the insufficient infrastructure and the death of many pack animals by the tsetse fly. Over one million carriers were recruited by the British alone for their operations against the German colonial troops, which had a very different duration: While the German colonies of Togo, Cameroon and Namibia were conquered relatively quickly, the troops of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa involved the British and their Allies to a guerrilla war which lasted until 1918. All in all, 10% of all Africans recruited during the war died, among the labourers maybe even 20%. Moreover, the German guerrilla war devastated large parts of East Africa.
The war which had affected and killed millions of people, devastated whole regions in Europe and Africa and which had been fought on land and on sea, was tried to transform into a lasting peace at the Paris peace conference in 1919, while the fighting – as we have seen – continued in large parts of Eurasia. The opening speeches of the Western Leaders, based on the example of the French President Raymond Poincaré at this assembly of representatives from all six continents are an interesting source to analyse the Western understanding of the global dimension of the war shown above. Poincaré opens the negotiations which influenced the whole inter-war period in a degree probably no negotiator had imagined in 1919 by explaining the spread of the war to a global scale with the “pressure of the Central Powers”, which according to Poincaré made Portugal, China, and Siam join the war and thus depicting only the German imperialism as threatening world peace, while himself being the head of a global empire which was erected by means of violence. The entrance of the US and several Latin American countries was in his reading an act of “indignation” at the aggression which the Central Powers carried on “with fire, pillage, and massacre of inoffensive beings”, with which the world rose “from north to south”. The war is thus depicted as a moral struggle and a defence of humanity, in which the smaller nations as well as the United States helped the Allied Nations to protect civilisation. Apart from that, he presents the Allies as guarantors of freedom and independence of oppressed peoples:
While the conflict was gradually extending over the entire surface of the earth the clanking of chains was heard here and there, and captive nationalities from the depths of their age-long jails cried out to us for help.
Since he does not only refer to Poles and Czecho-Slovaks, Jugoslavs and Armenians, but also to the Syrians and Lebanese, this speech can only be considered cynically, given the fact that Syria and the Lebanon became French mandatories of the League of Nations, which had already been agreed in a slightly different way in the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916. In the light of this agreement his description of imperialism clearly shows that France and Britain were only interested in the maintenance or even expansion of their imperial power:
What justice banishes is the dream of conquest and imperialism, contempt for national will, the arbitrary exchange of provinces between states as though peoples were but articles of furniture or pawns in a game.
For our argument it is important to note that the war was depicted as global in front of the future signatories of the treaty, but that in his view Britain and France– together with the United States – remained the active players or the subject of a future global order, while other nations only joined in the war against “Imperialism”.
The Chinese reaction to the peace treaty, by contrast, opens up quite a different perspective on the global dimension of the war. Even the organisational frame of the negotiations was perceived as humiliating by the Chinese government and the delegation in Paris: while China was treated as a minor power, its rival Japan was considered a major power and was part of the “Council of Ten”, existing of the main Allied nations. In the end, Japan received the former German province Shandong, which made the Chinese delegation boycott the treaty. The above mentioned new established Chinese public also closely followed the negotiations in Paris and was shocked by China’s treatment. The example of the South China Morning Post illustrates this process. The paper was founded in 1903 as the first English-language newspaper in Hong-Kong. Unlike other Chinese newspapers in Hong-Kong it enjoyed a freedom of expression and thus played an important role in “consensus building”. The fact that it is an English-language newspaper in a British colony does not strip it of its relevance for the Chinese discourse; on the contrary, it shows the truly global dimension of the debate about the post-war order by taking part in the discourse on a multinational level by expressing Chinese national claims in a possession of one of the opponents of these claims. In 1919, it published several articles on the negotiations, in which the feeling of injustice and the demand for sovereignty of Chinese politicians and the delegation in Paris were reported.
In April it quotes a message from the National Assembly of China to all delegations in Paris, which says that the “unequal diplomatic relations between China and Japan have caused the Oriental question to an obstacle to permanent world peace”. These unequal relations have their origin in the “forcible occupation of Tsingtau”, the “infamous twenty-one demands” from 1915 as well as in the “secret treaties Japan concluded with China since 1917”. Further the message deals with a Chinese delegate at the conference who in the eyes of the authors is a pro-Japanese traitor whom should not be trusted, which shows how important the conference is for the Chinese politicians. Two things are remarkable here: for one thing, the accusations reflect the new self-perception of China as being a democratic nation, having global claims (in which we can see the long-term developments which started before the war) which were important for world peace. For another, this global consciousness seems significant enough to print it down in a newspaper addressed to English-speaking readers. Other articles stress the importance of Shantung for China – the delegation is quoted calling the province “China’s Holy Land”. Finally, the delegation is cited as having two reasons to refuse the treaty: a definite guarantee that Japan would return Shandong to China and the “public opinion of the world [both] are not given”.
China’s case, however, was just one out of numerous claims of colonised elites in Africa and Asia, which were rejected at the Paris Peace Conference. Erez Manela shows impressively how also other national aspirations were created in the so-called “Wilsonian Moment”. Still, one must by no means overestimate the direct impact of the First World War on anticolonial movements. While colonised elites developed the idea of their own nationalism during the war, anticolonial uprisings did not occur in a large scale during or immediately after the war.
Apart from a grown global consciousness in different parts of the world the war also brought a change in the international order with it and created a more multipolar world. In addition to Japan, which gained the most at very little expense – in fact Japan was the only nation whose soldiers were “home at Christmas” and it lost less than 2000 men – Australia is a good example for this development. The British dominion took part in the war on the British side without choice, since it was still constitutionally bound to do so. Having already developed a sense of nationhood before 1914, the war was an important step for the country to gain its full independence and an own national identification. The role of the country in the war and its part in creating the post-war order are illustrative examples of the global dimension of the war. Australian soldiers were not only sent to a global journey – they were trained in Egypt, then fought in Transjordan and Gallipoli and finally at the Western Front –, Australia also became a so-called “sub-imperialist” power by gaining control over German Papua New-Guinea after the war.
In a speech for the national elections in 1919, prime minister Hughes (1915-1923) describes this global campaign as a moment of national community. Yet, for him the main reason for Australia joining the war was to safeguard the Empire. He criticizes the Labour Party for its attempts to stop further Australian participation in the war in 1915/16 and links Australia’s and global freedom: had Labour been successful, “Australia would have been a German colony today”. Since the voters decided against conscription, he states, volunteers had to be shipped to the Western Front, who protected “civilisation”. This moral argument of volunteers protecting freedom he then uses to justify the colonisation of Papua New Guinea. The peace conference, where the country had “the right of separate representation”, Hughes even describes as a moment of nation-building: “This marks an epoch in our history. We were, by the assembled nations of the earth, granted the status of a nation.”
In fact, Australia had no interest in weakening the British position in Asia and the Pacific since the British Empire was the only security against emerging Japan. Still, Australia can be considered a more independent power after the war, now being an imperial power itself. Australia had thus not only an impact on the war in a far off region of the world and as a sub-imperialist power on the post-war order and the creation of a more multipolar world, but the global war had also a decisive impact on domestic politics and the national identification. The importance of this influence becomes clear if one looks at the annual commemoration of Anzac-Day in Australia today.
To conclude, the “First World War” had not only global dimensions in terms of labourers and soldiers from Africa, China or Australia participating in a war between European Imperial powers either in their continent of origin or in another, but this global aspect of the war had truly global consequences. It resulted in a more multipolar world and raised national aspirations in many parts of the world, although in most cases these claims became only successful in the long run. As we have seen, in France, China and Australia, the war was understood as global, although rather different conclusions were drawn out of this global consciousness of the bloodshed. It can thus definitely be considered a global war: it transformed a fragile world order to an even more unstable postwar order and created or worsened all territorial, economic, political, ideological and intellectual conflicts of the 20th century.
Finally, the year 1917 can be seen as the beginning of the end of European rule. The entry of the US into the war on the one hand and the October Revolution in Petrograd on the other hand is, in the long term, the natal hour of the future bipolar world in which both France and the UK only played a minor role and Germany was divided. In 1917 also two ideas had emerged which further influenced not only Europe, but literally the whole world and which both dealt with the term “self-determination”: Lenin’s idea of a socialist world union and Wilson’s – copied – concept of a capitalist and liberal “League of Nations”.
South China Morning Post:
- Chinese at Peace Conference. Peace Delagate Accused of Treason, South China Morning Post, 14.04.1919, p. 11.
- Over-Night Cables: The Council of Four. Last Week’s Discussions. The Kiaochau Question, South China Morning Post, 09.05.1919, p. 7.
- China and the Treaty, Paris, Sept. 15, South China Morning Post, 18.09.1919, p. 7
The Opening of the Peace Conference. The Allies’ effort at the reconstruction of the world. January 18, 1919, in Source records of World War I, Volume VII, 1918-1919. Reconstruction and the Peace Treaty (Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1998), pp. 36-43.
Hughes, Billy: Election speech delivered at Bendigo, Vic, 30.10.1919, DOI: http://electionspeeches.moadoph.gov.au/speeches/1919-billy-hughes.
Bayly, Christopher: The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
Koller, Christian: The Recruitment of Colonial Troops in Africa and Asia and their Deployment in Europe during the First World War, Immigrants & Minorities, 26 (2008), pp. 111-133.
Macintyre, Stuart: A Concise History of Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Manela, Erez: The Wilsonian Moment. Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Overy, Richard: Global war 1914-45, in McNeill, John and Pomeranz, Kenneth (Ed.): The Cambridge World History. Volume 7: Production, Destruction and Connection 1750–Present, Part 2: Shared Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 299-320.
Payne, Stanley G.: Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Smith, Leonard V.: Post-war Treaties (Ottoman Empire/ Middle East), in 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, […], issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2014-10-08. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15463/ie1418.10357.
Strachan, Hew: Economic Mobilization: Money, Munitions, and Machines, in Strachan, Hew (Ed.): The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 134-148.
Strachan, Hew: The First World War. A New Illustrated History (London: Simon & Schuster, 2003).
Xu, Guoqi: Strangers on the Western Front. Chinese Workers in the Great War (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2011).
Yizheng Zou: English newspapers in British colonial Hong Kong: the case of the South China Morning Post (1903–1941), Critical Arts, 29:1 (2015), pp. 26-40.
 Koller, Christian: The Recruitment of Colonial Troops in Africa and Asia and their Deployment in Europe during the First World War, Immigrants & Minorities, 26 (2008), pp. 111-133, here p. 118.
 Payne, Stanley G.: Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 33-95.
 Overy, Richard: Global war 1914-45, in McNeill, John and Pomeranz, Kenneth (Ed.): The Cambridge World History. Volume 7: Production, Destruction and Connection 1750–Present, Part 2: Shared Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 299-320, here p. 301.
 Ibid, p. 301.
 Strachan, Hew: The First World War. A New Illustrated History (London: Simon & Schuster, 2003), p. 70.
 Bayly, Christopher: The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p. 461.
 Bayly: Modern World, p. 463.
 Xu, Guoqi: Strangers on the Western Front. Chinese Workers in the Great War (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 10-37.
 Koller: Recruitment, p. 112.
 Strachan, Hew: Economic Mobilization: Money, Munitions, and Machines, in Strachan, Hew (Ed.): The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 134-148, here p. 137.
 Strachan: First World War, p. 75.
 Koller: Recruitment, p. 113.
 Xu: Strangers.
 Koller: Recruitment, pp. 113-14.
 Cited in Koller: Recruitment, p. 120.
 The deployment of African troops in the French army even had an influence on the German propaganda, which depicted black soldiers as beasts, while the Central Powers were presented as friends of Islam in order to recruit Muslim POWs for the Ottoman Army. See Koller: Recruitment, p. 123.
 Strachan: First World War, pp. 80-95.
 Koller: Recruitment, p. 112.
 The Opening of the Peace Conference. The Allies’ effort at the reconstruction of the world. January 18, 1919, in Source records of World War I, Volume VII, 1918-1919. Reconstruction and the Peace Treaty (Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1998), pp. 36-43, here p. 39.
 Ibid., p. 40.
 Smith, Leonard V.: Post-war Treaties (Ottoman Empire/ Middle East), in: 1914-1918-online.
International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz,
[…], issued by Freie Universität Berlin,
Berlin 2014-10-08. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15463/ie1418.10357.
 The Opening of the Peace Conference, p. 42.
 Manela, Erez: The Wilsonian Moment. Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 99-117.
 Yizheng Zou: English newspapers in British colonial Hong Kong: the case of the South China Morning Post (1903–1941), Critical Arts, 29:1 (2015), pp. 26-40.
 Chinese at Peace Conference. Peace Delagate Accused of Treason, South China Morning Post, 14.04.1919, p. 11.
 Over-Night Cables: The Council of Four. Last Week’s Discussions. The Kiaochau Question, South China Morning Post, 09.05.1919, p. 7.
 China and the Treaty, Paris, Sept. 15, South China Morning Post, 18.09.1919, p. 7.
 Manela: The Wilsonian Moment.
 Strachan: First World War, p. 94; see also: Bayly: Modern World, p. 466.
 Strachan: First World War, p. 73.
 Macintyre, Stuart: A Concise History of Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 157.
 Bayly: Modern World, p. 462.
 Macintyre: Australia, pp. 159-167.
 Hughes, Billy: Election speech delivered at Bendigo, Vic on October 30th, 1919. http://electionspeeches.moadoph.gov.au/speeches/1919-billy-hughes.
 Macintyre: Australia, p. 167.
 See for instance the official Australian website of the commemoration of Anzac-Day: https://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/anzac/anzac-tradition/.