The lasting legacies of WWI that are still around today

Updated August 10, 2017

The summer of 2014 sees the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Although this devastating conflict raged for just over four years, its effects were felt long after it ended in November 1918. Indeed, many of the social developments and technological advances of the Great War helped to shape the modern world we live in.

War in the air

The aeroplane had existed for just over a decade when the First World War broke out in 1914. By the end of the war, aviation was a vital part of any military effort. Fighter aces like the infamous "Red Baron," Manfred von Richthofen, captured the public imagination, but aerial reconnaissance was if anything more significance, and the potential of air bombing was beginning to be recognised. The postwar years saw a boom in civilian air travel as well, as wartime skills and equipment were put to new purposes.

Weapons of mass destruction

Not all of the war's technological advances would have such obvious civilian applications. Poison gas, first used in April 1915, was deadly and indiscriminate. Tens of thousands of troops were killed by gas and over a million wounded. The random nature of the weapon led to its being banned in the postwar years, but global fears about such weapons of mass destruction remain.


As technology moved the battlefield into the air, it also transformed war on the ground. The first tracked armoured fighting vehicles -- called "tanks" in English because they were built under the pretext of being water tanks -- were deployed in the Western Front's trench warfare. Although initially somewhat unreliable, these armoured monsters changed the face of warfare -- tank tactics would be one of the most important factors in the evolution of the Second World War.

The battlefield of the mind

Medical science made important advances during the Great War, but perhaps none more significant than simply beginning to recognise the importance of the psychological effects of combat. Initial attempts to treat "shell shock" made slow progress, but the precedent was vital. Not every combatant dealt with psychological trauma in the same way -- as late as the Second World War, those suffering from combat exhaustion in the Red Army were frequently accused of cowardice, while the British and American armies viewed it as a medical problem.

War beneath the sea

Although submarines had existed since the 19th century, and had even been used in combat in the American Civil War, the First World War saw them used to a much greater extent to prey on merchant shipping. Submarine warfare against American ships did much to spur the USA to join the war. The widespread use of submarines changed how navies fought; the days of direct engagements between surface fleets were coming to a close.

The map of Europe

The end of the war saw many changes to the map of Europe, but none more significant than the shattering of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Czechoslovakia and Jugoslavia, among others, became independent nations, and an empire that had played a role in European politics in one form or another since the middle ages ceased to exist. The new nations, however, would have problems of their own.

The modern Middle East

Just as the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw changes to the map of Europe, so the fall of the Ottoman Empire saw changes in the Middle East. Formerly ruled by the Turkish sultan, parts of the Arab world now found themselves being administered by Britain or France. Surging Arab nationalism, encouraged by the British as a counter to Ottoman authority, now threatened Britain and France, while British policy regarding Jewish settlement in Palestine foreshadowed the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The ends of empires

In the wake of the war, American president Woodrow Wilson attempted to turn the victory into the foundation of a lasting peace. Wilson's agenda, known as the Fourteen Points, suggested a right to national self-determination. America's British and French allies, holders of large empires of their own, were less thrilled about the idea, but in the wake of the war it gained currency. Many began to wonder if the end was near for the colonial empires.

A new world order?

Another aspect of the post-war settlement was supposed to be an increase in international organisation to prevent future conflicts. The League of Nations was an attempt to fulfill this goal. Although the League, lacking power to enforce its rules and without the support of the United States, was unsuccessful, it did provide a model for the United Nations, which would eventually play the same part with more success.

The crisis of the old ways

The dramatic changes of the post-WWI world have a cause in common. Europeans were shocked by the length and casualty count of the war; to many, it seemed as if the structures of the old order had not only failed to prevent the carnage but actually encouraged it. Revolutionary and utopian movements on both the right and left, many of which still exist today, drew strength from the fact; while their doctrines might seem outlandish to most modern observers, at the time they didn't seem any more outlandish than the collapse of the 19th century's whole system of international relations.

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About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.