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The age of mass war


The period between the eighteenth century and the Cold war saw different developments in warfare, but also in humanitarian action. From eighteenth century well-defined battlefield, through major inventions of industrial revolution that had major effect on the evolution of warfare, this historical period also saw the creation and development of humanitarian law and action. Images and reminiscence of events associated with the era that culminated with the outbreak of First and Second World Wars, show the evolution of ways of waging war, but also how humanitarian organizations had to adapt their work accordingly in order to be able to respond to the challenges before them.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the typical features of war in Europe conjured up those of the ancient Greek tragedies, with their unities of action, time and place. War unfolded in well-defined places, such as battlefields in open country or towns and fortresses that came under siege.

Its protagonists were mainly the soldiers and warlords themselves, in that a key element of victory was their valour in combat. Victory on the battlefield often guaranteed absolute victory, and war therefore had a beginning and an end.

With the French Revolution, the patchwork of European countries entered a period of reconfiguration, expansion and conquest. On 23 August 1793, revolutionary France decreed mass conscription and paved the way for mobilizing all the resources of the “nation in arms”. From then on, universal conscription led to the enlistment of a much larger number of citizen-soldiers, ending the use of mercenaries in Europe. More numerous as well as more motivated, the conscripts fought in the name of popular ideals.

With the passage of time and development of technology, history of warfare has also seen an evolution in weapons innovation.

Europe in the nineteenth century also plunged into world conquest by colonizing peoples deemed “inferior” and engaging in cannonball diplomacy. Soon it was not only all the resources of a nation, but also those of its distant colonies, that could be mobilized for war.

Concurrently, technical “progress” in the arms field, and in particular ballistics, with the invention of the rifled barrel, automatic fire and improved explosives, increased the precision, range and destructive power of rifles and cannons. The development of the railway, the symbol of the industrial revolution, also meant that armies could be rapidly amassed. Even before the car and the airplane made their appearance, these developments upended the spatial scales of modern combat ‒ and increased its deadliness.

The wars of the late nineteenth century foreshadowed the conflicts of the twentieth century in some respects: First, the American Civil War (1861‒64) saw troop mobilizations and massive losses, an ideological cleavage on the question of slavery, the enlistment of civilians, the influence of the press and of technological and strategic innovations, etc. Later, during the Boer War (1899‒1902), the British established concentration camps for women and children to deprive combatants of their support. The mortality rate in these squalid camps augured quite badly for the fate of civilians in the wars that lay ahead.


This film, combining colourful animation with recent images, brings to life the history of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement from Henry Dunant and the Battle of Solferino through to today. The film explains the meaning of the Geneva Conventions, the universal humanitarian principles underlying the Movement's efforts and the general activities carried out by the different components, the ICRC, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the National Societies, as they work together to help those in need.

The nineteenth century also saw the awakening of a global humanitarian consciousness. Paradoxical as it may seem, America during the Civil War and Europe at the end of the nineteenth century ‒ an imperialistic and bellicose patchwork ‒ were also the birthplaces of modern humanitarian law and action. The first major progress was seen in the medical field. There, the humanitarian impulse was initially directed towards wounded combatants on the battlefield and later gradually extended to other categories of people and other kinds of suffering. The first editions of the Bulletin International des Sociétés de Secours aux Militaires Blessés, the forerunner of the International Review of the Red Cross, attest to the extraordinary progress in war medicine that followed the founding of the International Red Cross Movement in 1863.

In adapting to the evolution of conflict, humanitarian action also became global and acquired a mass character, although it did so gradually and in fits and starts. According to Dr Elizabeth van Heyningen Dr Elizabeth van Heyningen, University of Cape Town, South Africa Dr van Heyningen is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. She wrote The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War: A Social History, the first general history of the concentration camps of the South African War in over fifty years. , the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century also saw the development of international humanitarian action before the First World War.

By combining mass participation, firepower, nationalism and the hunger for conquest, the wars of the industrial age reached their climax in the two world wars of the twentieth century. In 1919, in the novel Les croix de bois, Roland Dorgelès Roland Dorgelès, Novelist Dorgelès was a French novelist and a member of the Académie Goncourt. , a French novelist, gives a description of the “industrial war”. Here, he portrays the first-hand experience of the shelling of a French unit that has taken refuge in a cemetery.

Roland Dorgelès, a French novelist, gives a description of the “industrial war”
Voice-over for the audio was provided by Pavle Kilibarda.

What, is it from the Boche, or from the seventy-five firing short? … The pack of fire surrounds us, tears at us. The smashed crosses riddle us with whistling splinters. … The torpedoes, the grenades, the shells, even the tombs are bursting, everything is blown up; it is a volcano in full burst. The night in eruption will crush us all to nothingness. Help! Help! Men are being murdered!

The First World War played a pivotal role in the evolution of war. The division of the world that followed had a major impact on the century’s conflicts, and its echo continues to reverberate in modern identity politics. The origin of many trends in today’s conflicts can be traced back to the First World War. At the same time, a study of the 1914‒18 conflict reveals deep differences between then and now.

Although the First World War was a global conflict, it is still often associated solely with trench warfare in France and Belgium. Relatively neglected in the West, the Dardanelles Campaign is, according to Emre Öktem Emre Öktem, Galatasaray University, Turkey Mr Öktem is a professor of international law at the Faculty of Law at Galatasaray University, Istanbul. He authored numerous books and articles on international law (human rights, humanitarian law, minority rights, terrorism, and statehood). He is actively engaged in interfaith dialogue in Turkey and is a member of the editorial board of the International Review of the Red Cross. and Alexandre Toumarkine Alexandre Toumarkine, Orient-Institute, Turkey Mr Toumarkine is a senior research fellow at Orient-Institute, Istanbul. He headed a collective research project on “New Religious Movements in Turkey” that formed the basis for the current research program “New Religiosities in Turkey: Reenchantment in a Secularized Muslim Country?” , one of the key episodes of the World War I on the Ottoman front between the British, the French, the Australians and the New Zealanders on the one side and the Ottomans under German command on the other, for which they offer an analysis for the first time from an IHL perspective. The campaign was carried out for establishing control of the straits between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea on the borders of Asia and Europe. It drew close attention and fuelled rumours and propaganda on the belligerents’ respect for the law of war, and it still remains a founding event in Turkish national identity, as well as in that of Australians and New Zealanders.


Éric Germain takes a historian’s view at moral issues of the globalization of the battlefield which helps clarify what is at stake in the development of methods of combat. This development began in 1914 with aerial and submarine warfare, espionage and propaganda. Finally, the latter years of the conflict saw experimentation with the new, unmanned technology with the invention of prototypes of radio piloted and radio-guided weapons, known today as drones and missiles.

An excerpt from the Review article "Out of sight, out of reach: Moral issues in the globalization of the battlefield" by Eric Germain. Voice-over for the video was provided by Jovana Kuzmanovic.

From Zeppelins to Big Bertha and “spy mania”, according to Éric Germain Éric Germain, historian Mr Germain is a historian and specialist in the anthropology of religion. Since 2009 he has been reflecting on the ethics of newly emerging weapons technology. , far from having made its appearance with modern drones, “remote warfare” already existed during the First World War. Since then, we have witnessed the gradual erosion of the distinction between “the front” and “the rear”. This distinction was completely abolished during the Second World War through the “total war” strategy, of which the aerial bombardment of towns and cities was undoubtedly the most emblematic feature. Though already illegal at the time, attacks on civilians have nonetheless been perceived as justified in order to bring the enemy to his knees.

In industrial war, so prodigal in terms of equipment and human lives, soldiers become cannon fodder in the strict sense. Nevertheless, combatants do not stop being legitimate targets until they are hors de combat, and that has remained so to this day. The principle of distinction requires parties to a conflict to distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives. It is widely believed that the First World War took place between combatants on the front line and had little effect on civilians, but recent studies, such as that of Annette Becker Annette Becker, University of Paris Ouest Nanterre Ms Becker is Professor of Modern History at the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre and senior fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France. She is member of the Editorial Board of the International Review of the Red Cross. She divides her work between the two world wars, and is especially interested in the plight of occupied, deported, and murdered civilians, in the concept of genocide, and in the memory of conflicts. , remind us that civilians were not spared in the first war that was not only worldwide but also total.


The First World War resulted in millions of prisoners of war, together with destructive new weapons and methods of fighting. Historian and former ICRC head of policy and law François Bugnion tells the story of how the ICRC and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies brought a little humanity to the hell of the Great War.

For the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the First World War was a crucial moment. That was when the organization began sending large numbers of delegates to the field. By undertaking a vast operation to help prisoners of war, the ICRC became an “operational organization”. Hence, it needed to reconcile this new need to negotiate with belligerents for access to victims with its duty to independently promote and defend the law in its dealings with them. This evolution is analyzed by Lindsey Cameron Lindsey Cameron, ICRC Ms Cameron is Legal Adviser in the Commentaries Update Unit in the Legal Division of the ICRC. in her examination on ICRC’s responses to violations of the law, ways in which the ICRC handled instances of oversight of the respect of IHL, accusations of violations of the law and how it engaged in legal dialogue with States on their interpretation of the law.


The panel discussion commemorated the end of the Shoah, reflected on the ICRC's failure to react vigorously to the persecution of victims of the Third Reich, and shared lessons learned by the ICRC and the international community in terms of the development of legal and political tools to prevent and respond to large-scale killings. It provided a forward-looking perspective on the international community's efforts to protect civilians and prevent atrocities in the future.

The new tension between these differing objectives soon led to a series of dilemmas from a humanitarian perspective. Drawing on the lessons of its tragic inability to confront the Holocaust, the ICRC gradually developed an ever broader and more pragmatic definition of the concept of “victims” and their needs, as well as the humanitarian principles and professional standards that would influence the budding humanitarian movement as a whole. Daniel Palmieri Daniel Palmieri, ICRC Daniel Palmieri is the historical research officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross. He is the author of numerous works on ICRC history and on the history of war. offers an analysis of development of ICRC’s perception of war and explanation of how the organization lost some of its founding fathers’ “illusions” as a result of the evolution of conflicts during its first century of existence.