World Wars

When did people begin to use “World War I” and “World War II” to describe the 1914-18 and 1939-45 conflicts?

My understanding is that WWI was called “The Great War” between 1918 and 1939. Was it ever called just “The World War”? When did people stop referring to the 1939-45 conflict as just “The War” and give it a label?

I find all this interesting, because defining the term “World War” as it has been used in this century, it is easy to find at least two or three other conflicts that qualify: Notably The Seven Years War (French & Indian War, inclusive) and The Napoleonic Wars (War of 1812, inclusive). Even the War for American Independence would seem to qualify after the entry of France and Spain.

Maybe Hitler started World War V!

Just a WAG, but perhaps the term “World War” was created before WW2. The book To Kill a Mockingbird has a reference to “World War helmets.” I don’t remember when the book was set, but it seemed to be in the first few decades of the 20th Cent. Sorry I can’t be of more help, but history class was several years ago.

“I had a feeling that in Hell there would be mushrooms.” -The Secret of Monkey Island


What is the definition of a World War?

Good Question, Bobinelli!

If a World War is one in which the conflict spreads over more than one continent, then WWI barely qualifies. If a World War is one in which nations from differnt sides of the globe do battle then the Falklands War counts. The Spanish-American War, fought between nations on different continents in places as distant as Cuba and the Phillipines would qualify on both counts.

My guess is that it has more to do with the number of countries involved. WWI and WWII each had in excess of a dozen countries up in arms. I haven’t done a count, but I think the belligerents in The Seven Years War and The Napolionic Wars also number in the double digits.

Wasn’t the gulf war coalition composed of 23 nations?

TKAM was set in the 1930’s but written around 1960, so it’s conceivable that it could be a slip-up on Harper Lee’s part.

I would think to qualify as a “World War,” the totality of the conflict would have involved the entire world.

This would include factoring in the number of nations, over how broad an area was the war wage, and what was the death toll in relation to the size of the armies and populations of the participants.

WWI would not “barely qualify.” Though fought primarily in Europe, the participating countries came from all over the world, including Africa and the orient. In Europe, the war was fought on two far flung fronts that stretched from Northern France and Belgium to the Balkans, Turkey, Isreal, Iran, Eqypt, and China, and also included a high seas war off of 4 major continents. The death toll was such as had never been seen before.

The arguments for Napoleon’s wars are close, but I don’t think the loss of life was near what WW1’s was, and the war was basically fought in Europe with some side action in the middle east. Also, I don’t think Napolean took on the allies at once. It was more like a series of smaller conflicts.

The Seven Years War had a series of allies matched up on both sides, but the action was not as concentrated and was more widespread. Further, it was really a Britian vs. France with auxilliary allies and colonies, while WW1 was a clear lineup of 3-5 major powers on each side. Also, there would be no comparison with the loss of lives of soldiers and civilians.

But your question is interesting. One might even be able to go further back, and wonder if the Roman or Alexandrian conquests could be considered types of “World Wars.”

“Its fiction, but all the facts are true!”

falcon2 is right! We have world wars all the time, and don’t even know it!

I propose we get rid of the term completely. Let’s go back to calling WWI “The War between the Nations” and split WWII into “Hitler’s War” and “The Pacific War”…and lets call that recent unpleasantness in Kosovo “Hank”!

JFTR - The last time the United States was in war was WWII. Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf were considered conflicts because Congress never declared war.


Coarse and violent nudity. Occasional language.

Though it may have had the potential to become one, the gulf war was not a “world war” by any means. First, their was but one very localized agressor, Iraq. Second, a “coalition” of nations on one side is not the same thing as many nations fighting each other. All wars are to some degree fought by primary parties with a supporting cast.

WWI should more rightly be known as the EuroWar I (or XX more honestly)–to call it a world war is a presumptious disregard of other impartiality of several continents. WWII on the other hand was fought on five continents with multiple interconnected rivalries.

Wars are named after they are over. (I can just see it otherwise: “We’re busy fighting the Thirty Years War right now, so the war will end in another sixteen years.”). At that point, people start fishing about for terms to describe the particular war and eventually one wins out. Sometimes it takes a long time for the title to be determined: it took hundreds of years for “The Wars of the Roses” to be the consensus name for the civil wars in England in the 15th C. (For centuries, they were called “The Cousins’ War”).

“World War” as used in WWI and WWII has no hard and fast definition. WWI was called the Great War up until after WWII, which seemed to be even “greater.” People retroactively retitled it WWI.

There isn’t any set number of countries or continents that are needed for the term “world war”; it only requires a consensus that the name is appropriate. Since WWII was worldwide in its fighting and consequences, it seemed appropriate (Roosevelt put forth “War for Democracy” as a title, BTW). Since WWI was also brutal and wide ranging in both the number of participants and where it was fought, it was considered as similar enough to WWII to be called the same name.

So the main reason why those are world wars and others aren’t is that a consensus agreed that this should be the name of those conflicts, not because of any particular definitions.

The excellent British historian John Keegan has postulated that in the future, what we know as the First and Second World War will be seen as two parts of one large conflict. (Some historians already promote this view).

If you haven’t read any Keegan, pick up “Six Armies in Normandy”, or better yet, “The Face of Battle”, a terrific look at what the experience of war meant to the individual grunt in the front line in Belgium-France, at Agincourt, Waterloo, and Ypres (all fought within 100 miles of each other).

Incidentally, I notice that “WWI” and “WWII” (the American usage) seem to have supplanted the British/Canadian usage of twenty years ago (I had a prof who got quite shirty if you used anything other than “First World War” and “Second World War”. Of course, he also wore an ascot…)

Thanks, Rodd, I was just gonna say that I think the names “World War” were assigned to give an implication of continuity, since WWII clearly arose from unresolved issues (or, arguably, issues that were not resolved well) from WWI.

WWI also called The War To End All Wars, until, well, it wasn’t.

I’ve got a copy of a book by a guy named J. L. Hodson, a British writer who toured the US in 1943 and 1944. It was published in London in 1944. I just flipped through it (I must admit not looking real closely) and he uses the term “World War I”. I saw no references to “The Great War” or “The World War” to refer to the war of 1914-18. However, I didn’t see “World War II” either, though it seems logical that if one were to refer to a World War I then there must have been a World War II. Hobson instead uses the terms “the war in Europe” and “the war against Japan”, making me think that a lot of people (at least British people) in those days saw them as two separate wars. I can see the logic. The war in Europe started in 1939, and Britain didn’t get into it against Japan until almost 1942, when the Japanese attacked British and American possessions in the Pacific and Asia. Russia didn’t get into the war against Japan until the very end.

This is the only war-era book that I have and it’s kind of hard for me to find more of them in English since I live in Spain (though will be home for a visit soon). Some of you guys find books published in the 40s and let’s compare evidence. Looks to me, though, on the basis of this one book, that the terms “World War I/II” were in use toward the end of the Second World War.

As for the question of war nomenclature, wars get called whatever people choose to call them. Some people call the Civil War the War between the States, and I’ve also heard The War for Southern Independence from you know what kind of people. I remember reading that the official name is The War of the Rebellion. And, of course, in other countries it’s the “American Civil War”, since in Spain they had their own Civil War, which they call The Civil War and we call the Spanish Civil War. Then, there’s the Spanish-American War, which they call “la guerra de Cuba” over here.

There have been a lot of different candidates for the title of World War, but I’d say it isn’t a World War unless there is fighting in all five continents, excluding Australia (since it was never fought over) and Antarctica as geopolitically insignificant… The first was the one we call the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), in which there was fighting in Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia. In Spain this one is just called “The War of the Succession”.

Chuck’s post was excellent, and I completely agree with Rodd Hill about John Keegan. If you can only get hold of two of his books, read “A History of Warfare” and “The Face of Battle”. Papa, this stuff is right up your alley.

I would say that World Wars are defined more in political terms than geographical ones. If a war involves most of the major powers of the era in which it was fought, it’s a world war. So World War One (aka the Great War) would qualify even though it was almost entirely fought on one continent.

I would also say that in order to qualify as a World War, the conflict has to seriously threaten a major power. So the Korean War and the Gulf War wouldn’t qualify under this standard.

Of course, by these two standards, several wars prior to 1914 would qualify as World Wars; the Napoleonic Wars, the Seven Years War, the War of the Austrian Succession, the War of the Spanish Succession, and perhaps several others.

Without getting into the issue of which wars are justifiably called world wars, I will note that the OED cites “world war” to 1909 (apparently in reference to an article speculating about future wars) and cites a reference to 1914 talking about the (then-current) “world war.”

WWII is easier: the OED cites an article in Time magazine of September 11, 1939 calling the just-begun hostilities “World War II” (an article a week later is cited for using “World War I.”) There is also a reference to the Manchester Guardian in 1919 speculating on “World War No. 2.”


PapaBear - thanks for the reply on your definition, sorry I couldn’t answer 'til now.

Mike King said

“I would say that World Wars are defined more in political terms than geographical ones” Which sounds good to me.

Would anyone agree that you could define a World War by hypothesising on the outcome should the instigator be victorious?

For example if Nazi Germany and the Axis powers had been victorious we would all almost certainly be under Nazi rule or at least our respective nations would have endured this for a while.

Regarding the first World War I see it the same even though the fighting was centered around Europe and the Mediterranean. If you look at the world in 1914 the majority of the countries along the Pacific Rim, Africa, South America, East Indies were all controlled by European countries. So even though the theatre of war could be considered localised I would say the outcome affected the entire world.

If you apply the same idea to the Napoleonic wars I’d say that we could certainly consider it a world war as victory for Napoleon would have had a massive effect on the rest of the world.

Anyway, just my idea for forming a definition.

I’m away for the weekend so won’t be around to reply for a few days - thanks for your time.

There have actually been ELEVEN world wars in our history according to some historians. Besides WW1 (called the “Great War” before WW2) and WW2 there have been:

  1. Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815)
  2. 7 Years War/French and Indian War (1756- well, 1763) between Britain and Prussia who punked the Frenchies, Spain, Austria and Russia.
  3. War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) between Britain schooling France and Spain. Louis 14th tried to take over Europe in this war.
  4. War of European Powers vs. Turks (1685-1699) where Vienna, Austria was laid seige by the Turks.
  5. 30 Years War (1618-1648) Started with Protestant revolt in Germany; ended with invasionsof Germany be Denmark, Sweden and France.
    4.** Turks v. Europe** (1453-1520)
    1-3. Three Crusades (1096-1291)

That’s an interesting list, Ugly (or do you prefer Mr. Truth?). I had considered several of the wars on your list but I made an arbitrary decision to cut off my short list at 1700.
I suppose you could argue that the Mongol conquests were the first world war. They certainly engaged a good part of two continents and involved most of the great powers of the time.
I was wondering why you left the War of the Austrian Succession off your list.