“Even in the twentieth century the term ‘total war’ could not be applied to any war.” To what extent do you agree with this judgement?

The concept of 'total war' is a contentious one, carrying connotations of a conflict that mobilises all of society's resources—human, industrial, and technological—towards the war effort, disregards the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, and sees the state seeking to control and direct all aspects of social life. This essay will argue that while no war fully actualised the concept of 'total war' in every respect, both the First and Second World Wars approached this concept closely, albeit in different ways. 

The First World War represented a step towards 'total war' through the scale of mobilisation and the societal impact it had on the countries involved. In Britain, for instance, the Defence of the Realm Act (1914) granted the government wide-ranging powers, including control over the economy, labour, and communications, and even the ability to suppress public information. Simultaneously, the introduction of conscription in 1916 reflected the shift towards total mobilisation of manpower. However, certain elements of 'total war' were absent. Firstly, there was a significant distinction between the home front and the war front, both spatially and experientially. The civilians at home were detached from the actual theatre of war. The British historian Niall Ferguson, in "The Pity of War", disputes the notion of WWI as a 'total war' arguing that the vast majority of people did not experience the worst excesses of war, and in countries like Britain, civilian life continued with a semblance of normality. 

The Second World War moved even closer to 'total war'. Technological advancements, such as strategic bombing, meant that the distinction between the home and war fronts became increasingly blurred. The Blitz in Britain, the Allied bombing of Germany, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan demonstrate this. Civilians became targets and were directly involved in the war. Furthermore, the extent of government control over the economy and society was unprecedented. As Professor Richard Overy emphasises in his work "Why the Allies Won", war economies were established across the globe, with high degrees of state control, rationing, and the channelling of resources into war production. In this respect, WWII seemed to encapsulate the essence of 'total war'. However, Overy also suggests that even WWII did not fully realise 'total war'. Firstly, he states that despite the heavy bombing, most civilian life went on. Secondly, he suggests that the concept of 'total war' implies that all resources could be mobilised for the war, but practical and moral limitations existed, for example, despite the increase in women's work, their mobilisation was not total. 

In conclusion, the term 'total war' is a useful theoretical concept, but its application to even the most destructive and widespread conflicts of the 20th century—WWI and WWII—has limitations. While both wars exhibited characteristics of 'total war' such as large-scale mobilisation, societal involvement, and extensive government control, neither fully realised the concept in its entirety, retaining certain distinctions between the home and war fronts and limiting the mobilisation of resources. Therefore, while 'total war' might not be an entirely accurate description for these conflicts, they nonetheless represent significant steps towards the totalisation of war in the modern era.