We can define a total war as a war that involved everyone (or practically everyone) in a country. In other words, it is not just a war that is fought by soldiers and that only affects them. Instead, it is a war that impacts everyone in the belligerent countries. Let us examine three ways in which WWI can be characterized as a total war.
First, the war involved civilians in many ways. In this war, women were pulled in to factories to work in place of men who had gone off to fight. In this war, civilians working on merchant ships were liable to being injured or killed when their ships were attacked by submarines. In this war, cities were attacked using aircraft or artillery. These attacks were meant to terrorize the populations and destroy the countries’ will to fight.
Second, the war involved increased government control of the various countries involved. Countries in a total war need almost all of their citizens to back the war effort so that they can produce enough weapons to fight the war and so they can have armed forces that are large and motivated. In WWI, governments made intensive use of propaganda to get the populace behind the war. Governments also took more control over their countries’ economies, making sure that the economies were dedicated to the war effort, not to making products for civilian use.
Finally, the various countries’ war aims were not limited. This was not a war that was meant to gain a bit of territory or to prevent a country from acting in a certain way. Instead, each side was essentially trying to destroy the other. Therefore, the war did not come to any negotiated end. Instead, the sides fought until one side had to, in essence, surrender unconditionally.
All of these factors contribute to WWI being seen as a total war.
As a total war is defined as a war in which every available resource of a nation is dedicated to the war effort, World War I was clearly a total war. Military resources, war of attrition, and non-negotiable end to the war are three excellent characteristics of this war that further support this argument.
Every available military resource was dedicated to the war effort. When you examine the various nations involved, a plethora of resources were utilized in this war. The first major military use of submarines, tanks, planes, and chemical warfare were introduced during this war.
Coupled with the extensive use of military resources, trench warfare led to a war of attrition. The resulting high death toll of this trench warfare required significant portions of the male population to participate as soldiers, thus also requiring the female population to contribute to the war effort in the medical field, promoting war propaganda, or working in factories. A significant portion of the population was heavily involve in the war effort.
The fact that Great Britain, France, and the United States forced extensive punitive damages upon Germany in the Treaty of Versailles can also be viewed as an argument for total war. The punishments inflicted upon Germany and the unwillingness of the "Big Three" to negotiate on any of the terms, forced Germany to dedicate much of its economic resources to repaying the debts it incurred as a result of this treaty.