What do you call it? The experts appear divided.
World War One – The Great War – WW1 – The First World War – World War 1 – The War to End All Wars
What is the correct title or reference to this event history books designate as the first world-wide conflict. Which of the above is it? Sometimes the answer depends upon the country. The popular term in German is der Weltkrieg (the Worldwar), in France, it’s La Première Guerre mondiale, (literally, the First World War.)
It has been reported that the first known usage of the term “world war” in English might have been in the People’s Journal, a Scottish newspaper in 1848 to describe a, “ war among the great powers” being, “…now necessarily a world-war.”¹ But, Karl Marx had used the term world war in his writings in 1850,² and American author, professor, and diplomat, Rasmus B. Anderson, in his book Teutonic Mythology in 1889 described an episode as a “world war.”³
Another German writer August Wilhelm Otto Niemann had used the term “world war” in the title of his anti-British, futuristic and scientific speculation novel, Der Weltkrieg: Deutsche Träume (The World War: German Dreams) in 1904, published in English as The Coming Conquest of England.⁴
But, if you speak English, the diversity of usage is broad. Yet, if we take a look at the primary sources from the war years and after, we find significant clues.
Initially, in 1914 the American press referred to it as the War in Europe, The Great War, or the European War, but once the world came to war again in 1939, the press’s wide variety of references to it revealed many an editor’s penchant to abbreviate headlines and terms. This led to the use of WW1 and WWI.
Another unique, pre-turn-of-the-century reference to an actual prediction of “world war” taking place over colonial and imperialistic territories (the major cause of the Great War throughout the world) came in 1898 in, of all places, the New York Times. “If through fear of entangling alliances the United States should return the Philippines to Spain, Mr. Page asserted that the predatory nations would swoop down upon them and a world war would result.”⁵
Once the war actually began though it was not until August 2, 1914, that the Pittsburgh Press was first to call it the “World War.”⁶
In the month following the first declarations of war and Germany’s invasion of Belgium, a prophetic reference by Ernst Haeckel writing in the Indianapolis Star, on September 20, 1914, suggested at the beginning that it would not be the “war to end all wars.” He wrote, “There is no doubt that the course and character of the feared “European war”…will become the first world war in the full sense of the word.”⁷ Even so, shortly after its outbreak in 1914, the famous British author, H. G. Wells, published what would become his famous title, a book called The War That Will End War.⁸
In expectation of a heroic, but brief struggle, early in the war The J. L. Nichols Co. published Dr. Thomas H. Russell’s Europe’s Greatest World-War, with the subtitle, “A Thrilling Story of the Most Sanguinary Struggle of All the Ages, Its Battles and Strategy; with a Concise Account of the Causes that Led the Nations of Europe into the awful Conflict.” Though edited and printed in Canada, the book was written by a former officer of the British War Office, and the introductory chapter was by the then President of the British Empire Association, Etc., which possibly explains why the book’s title was so narrow as to call it the European nations in conflict.⁹
Extensive volumes such as The Story of the Great War, (an eight volume journalistic annual of the war actually written during the war from 1916 to 1920,¹⁰) and The History of the Great European War, (an eight volume set printed entirely after the war,¹¹) gave credence to the Great War as an official title. Of course, General of the Armies, (and during the war, the American Expeditionary Force Commander) John J. Pershing offered his final imprimatur by firmly cementing the idea of naming it the World War by entitling his 1932 Pulitzer Prize winning book My Experiences in the World War.¹²
Time magazine may have been the first to dub the 1939 to 1945 conflict as World War II in their September 1939 issue¹³ thus forever unofficially categorizing the wars into their prospective order.
In contrast to this, many online references state that the first reference to a hypothetical “World War 2” came just three months after the end of the Great War. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the Manchester Guardian coined “World War No. 2” on February 18, 1919, “with reference to an imagined future war arising out of the social upheaval consequent upon the First World War (1914-18).” But I have been unable to document this reference. Also, it is purported that early on Albert Einstein was to have said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” I could find no factual evidence of his making this statement, and welcome substantiated evidence of these quotes, and will amend as needed.
No matter what the Doughboys called it, the Yanks were coming, and in the words of Goerge M. Cohan, “and they won’t come back til it’s over over there.”
² Marx, Karl (1850). Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850 (The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850), Berlin; and Engels, Frederick, Die Neue Zeit, Vol. 2, Nos 27 and 28, 1894-1895.
³ Anderson, Rasmus Björn (1889) (translator: Viktor Rydberg), Teutonic Mythology, vol. 1, p. 139, London: S. Sonnenschein & Co.
⁴ Niemann, Wilhelm Otto, (1904). Der Weltkrieg – Deutsche Träume , Berlin: Vobach; and translation by Freese, J H (1904) The Coming Conquest of England, London: George Routledge.
⁵ Harper, Douglas (2001-2018). world war. Online Etymology Dictionary, retrieved from httpss://www.etymonline.com/word/world%20war
⁶ ibid., Harper, Douglas (2001-2018). world war. Online Etymology Dictionary
⁷ Shapiro, Fred R. (2006). The Yale Book of Quotations, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
⁸ Wagar, W. Warren (2004). H.G. Wells: Traversing Time. Wesleyan University Press. p. 147. ISBN 978-0-8195-6725-3
⁹ Russell, Dr. Thomas H. (1914). Europe’s Greatest World-War, Toronto: J.L. Nichols Co.
¹⁰ The Story of the Great War, (Vols. 1 -10). (1916 to 1920), New York, NY: P. F. Collier & Son.
¹¹The History of the Great European War , (Vols. 1-8) (printed entirely after the war), London: Caxton Publishing Co., Ltd.
¹² Pershing, John J. (1931). My Experiences in the World War, New York: Fredrick A. Stokes Co.
¹³ Time Staff, (1939, September.) World War: Grey Friday. Time Magazine, U.S. Edition, War & Terrorism section, (September 11, 1939 – Vol. XXXIV No. 11)
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