1916: how the events of the first world war shifted global history

As the Royal Irish Rifles fought at the Somme in 1916, the war was shaping epochal events at home. Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

1916: how the events of the first world war shifted global history

As the Royal Irish Rifles fought at the Somme in 1916, the war was shaping epochal events at home. Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

Two Irish events of 1916 – the separatist Easter Rising and the unionist Ulster Division’s experience at the the Battle of the Somme – have become sanctified in their respective Irish political traditions and stitched into the creation stories of both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

The first world war provided both the moment and the mode for these Irish and Ulster demonstrations of devotion, commitment and military endeavour – both for and against the wider political objectives of the war. In this sense these specifically Irish events are just part of a much wider pattern.

Local loyalties, differences and antagonisms were everywhere affected and often amplified by the war itself. The experiences of the Easter Rising and the Somme thus exemplify the first main theme of my exploration of 1916, which is the inescapably global reach of the conflict.

Testing empires

A second main theme winds through any chronological exploration of 1916.

The evidence of the year itself reveals a number of crisis points where the intensity of the war, often sharpened by a widespread sense that it might never end, began to cause fractures in the bodies politic of belligerent powers. Large-scale war can test states to destruction, as shown by the fate, not just of the Russian empire, but the German, Ottoman and Habsburg empires.

Britain did not itself escape unscathed from the war and its aftermath. The 1916 Easter Rising saw the first separatist shots fired in a campaign which was to destroy the United Kingdom of 1914 and lead to the secession of more than 20% of the country’s land-mass.

The inevitable and progressive centralisation of control in all the belligerent states also put conditional loyalties under pressure. This was a special problem for multi-national states where dynastic loyalties could be strained by national ambitions. There is evidence, for example, of a crisis of legitimacy which from the winter of 1916–17 began to affect the Habsburg lands.

The imposition of compulsory service – combatant or non-combatant – in places as far removed as Belgium, Vietnam, Nyasaland (Malawi), Syria or Senegal alienated moderate opinion and stimulated resistance, which in some cases led to violent rebellion.

When revolt occurred the wartime circumstances almost inevitably led to draconian responses. Challenge was met with exemplary state violence, which in some places – such as Dublin, Trento, Beirut and Damascus – created martyrs whose memory helped sustain and amplify opposition.

The home front

The intensification of war (demonstrated in 1916 by the two titanic battles of Verdun and the Somme) was by no means limited to the battlefield.

Increasingly, whole populations were drawn into a collective national effort in support of the war. In all the major belligerents the year 1916 saw efforts being stepped up to regulate domestic manpower and mobilise all sectors of the community behind the war.

Women played a greater part than ever before, both at home and on the battlefield. This was a global phenomenon.

African women stayed with von Lettow Vorbeck’s column to the very end in 1918. Azerbaijani women tried to stop troop trains carrying away their menfolk. French women unloaded stores in the Marseilles docks.

American women campaigned for peace. Intrepid and skilled British nurses and ambulance drivers were to be found on the battlefields of Italy, Russia, Romania and Serbia.

Lived experience

I have also sought to investigate the human dimension of the war experience. At the core of the story are the personal experiences of individual human beings, caught up in cataclysmic events which changed not just the world, but which affected and altered them, too, in ways at which we sometimes can only guess.

It is one of the boons of military history that armies generally keep very good records, but these are often limited to the soldiers themselves. The fallen in many cases have had their fate painstakingly recorded, most notably in the carefully-tended war graves and memorials of the major belligerent powers.

This is perhaps as it should be, but the concentration on active combatants which characterises so many explorations of the war also serves to deflect attention from the shadowy masses of noncombatants, without whom the armies simply could not function.

Many (though by no means all) of these men and women were very reluctant participants in the conflict, but we need to include them in any comprehensive exploration of the war. Among them were huge numbers carried thousands of miles to the battle zone, from India, Africa and East Asia, for example, to the Western Front. They too deserve their history.

A final theme of my study, almost unavoidable now that we are marking the centenary of the conflict, is the “memory” of the war.

Spread across the world there are monuments to remind us of the war. Many of these are state memorials – like the graves of Unknown Warriors brought home to represent all their fallen comrades – which aim to embed the rituals of commemoration into a public and national narrative of dedication and service.

Some are remote and not much cared for or visited, like the Northern Rhodesia monument by the Victoria Falls in Zambia, or the Habsburg cemeteries behind the old Isonzo front in Slovenia.

And some, perhaps, are not yet built, nor may they ever be, for there are many hundreds and thousands of casualties of the Great War – men, women and children – who have no memorial at all.


This is a version of a paper that will be presented at The First World War: Local, Global and Imperial Perspectives at the University of Newcastle later this month. Details here.

See also:
Gargoyles and silence: ‘our story’ at the Australian War Memorial
The forgotten Australian women doctors of the Great War