Was the First World War the first World War?

Before we tackle that conundrum, we need to clarify: what makes a war a World War?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines world war as ‘a war involving many large nations in all different parts of the world.’

Wikipedia, with characteristic wordiness, is more expansive:

‘A world war, as it is commonly understood, is a large-scale war involving many of the countries of the world or many of the most powerful and populous ones. World wars span multiple countries on multiple continents, with battles fought in many theaters.’

Although not mentioned by either of these sources, it can be added that the results of a world war should have major geopolitical consequences.

We certainly don’t need to check off the conditionals – clearly the First World War meets all of them.

By the way, research has found that the term ‘World War’ didn’t come into usage until 1918, almost at the war’s end. The previously-coined term ‘Great War’ predated it, and continued to predominate in British use until, well, the next great war.

Back to the original question: was the First World War the first World War?

Some historians say no, and they propose instead the Seven Years War (1756-1763) which pitted Britain, Prussia, Portugal, several Protestant German states, the Iroquois Confederation and the American Colonies against France, Russia, Austria, several Catholic German states, Spain, Sweden, the Abenaki Confederacy and the Mughal Empire. Battles were fought in Germany, Portugal, North America, the West Indies, West Africa, India and South America.

Important geopolitical results included:

  • the beginning of Prussian hegemony in central Europe,
  • Britain became dominant in both North America and India,
  • France started the long political decline that ended with revolution and
  • American colonists proved that they could defeat a European army.

Sound like a World War to you, too?

The Wars of the Revolutions (1792-1815) are sometimes claimed, too, although others point out that these were really several different wars occurring in an arbitrary time frame.

After everyone has had a few rounds, this discussion may well turn to the hypothetical WW3. We’ve often heard the expression ‘is this the start of WW3?’ Or was WW2 really WW3? Some call WW2 an extension of WW1, but that’s a whole discussion of its own. Or was the Cold War (1945–1991) actually WW3 (or WW4), or was it really a war at all? Whew.

This link is to an article by a Brit who has recently written a whole book about the theory of World Wars.

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official from Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he does work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and has memberships in the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Indian Military Historical Society and the Salonika Campaign Society.