Skip to main content
Black-and-white image of US Army soldier, likely in training, in 1917/18

The impacts of World War I that are still felt today

It's been more than a century since World War I started and ended, but the effects of the conflict can still be seen across the 21st-century geo-political landscape

Image: US Army soldier, likely in training, in 1917/18 near Washington DC |

2024 marks the 110th anniversary of the start of World War I. Amongst the many commemorations of this momentous occasion will come the inevitable accusation that the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ was ultimately pointless. To many, the devastating conflict that marred the beginning of the 20th century was nothing but a senseless waste of time and lives.

But was it? Was the First World War as pointless as people now claim or was it one of the most important events of all time?

A world transformed

The Great War pitted the armies, navies and fledgling air forces of several powerful empires against one another. While the combating parties were mainly European, they also included the United States, a country that was fast emerging as a dominant force in global politics.

Four years of bloodshed finished with a victory for the Allies in 1918 and the result saw the end of the Ottoman, German and Austro-Hungarian empires. The Russian Empire had also already fallen in 1917. While it is true that what arose from the ashes of defeat was not always an improvement on what had gone before, the world was largely a better place without what were some of the deadliest empires on the planet.

Global cooperation

The enormous loss of life in such a short space of time was a horror previously thought unimaginable in a supposedly civilised, sophisticated Europe. Up until the First World War, battles consisted of infantry squares, cannon fire and cavalry charges. They took place on battlefields far removed from civilisation and were usually over in a day.

World War I, with its battlefields strewn with the decomposing corpses of men brought down in their prime, its machine gun massacres, artillery bombardments, motorised and aerial warfare and even attacks on the Home Front from enemies in countries hundreds of miles away came as a massive shock to the system. ‘Never again!’ went out the cry when the guns fell silent in November 1918, but how was that to be achieved? The answer was the Treaty of Versailles and the formation of the League of Nations.

While both were hugely flawed and ultimately undermined by a growing sense of grievance, particularly in Germany, the League showed that another way to resolve conflicts was possible. Following World War II, the League’s successor organisation, the United Nations, was formed. While it has its own flaws, it has provided nations from across the globe with a way of resolving their differences that might never have happened without the horrors of the First World War.

A weapon too far

The First World War saw the widespread use of poisoned gas by both sides. The 90,000 deaths and countless horrific, life-changing injuries this deadly new weapon caused led to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare. Remarkably, this agreement has been stuck to by all but a handful of rogue states to this day.

A technological leap forward

War! What is it good for? Well, as it turns out, huge technological advancements. As well as the development of weaponry such as tanks, which revolutionised warfare so much so that in just over 20 years they were used to bring the mighty France to her knees, there was also a rapid evolution in aviation technology.

At the start of the war, aeroplanes were used merely as reconnaissance aircraft. However, by the war’s end, the first fighter planes had come into being, paving the way for the much more advanced fights and heavy bombers of World War II, as well as the jet engine and the birth of the modern commercial aviation industry.

There was also a great leap forward in medicine. The war’s enormous numbers of wounded soldiers presented new challenges for the medical profession, leading to advancements in the fields of surgery, prosthetics, rehabilitation and psychiatry. These innovations were carried over into civilian medicine, eventually improving the physical and mental health of millions of people around the world.

The Home Front transformed

The war also brought about a transformation on the Home Front. For millions of women, it gave them their first taste of work outside the home and a wage packet in their pockets. This newfound financial independence and freedom proved to be a genie that was impossible to get back in the bottle, eventually laying the groundwork for women’s suffrage and the feminist movement.

There was also a change in the public’s perception of what armed conflict really meant. Used to a romanticised notion that war was played by stiff-upper-lipped gentlemen on faraway fields against hopelessly outgunned opposition, the carnage of the Great War opened people’s eyes to the true horror of war. As a result, the postwar period was marked by art, literature and philosophy that questioned the meaning of life in the face of death on such an unprecedented scale.

Was it a pointless war?

While it is easy to dismiss World War I as a pointless conflict, a dive beneath the surface reveals it had a profound significance despite the horrendous loss of life. It reshaped the political map of the world, led to huge leaps forward in technology and medical science, and brought about societal changes that shaped the 20th century and beyond.

Far from being pointless, the First World War was one of the most important and significant moments in human history.