Brett Holman notes a new contender in the “really First World War” sweepstakes — the Seven Years War and Napoleonic Wars being leading early contenders — namely The Russo-Japanese War. John Steinberg, editor of the two-volume The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective: World War Zero offers ten points of comparison that he seems to consder hallmarks of a world war:
1. Like World War I, the origins of the Russo-Japanese War were rooted in imperialistic competition between world powers
2. As in August 1914, when the Russo-Japanese conflict began, it was fought in a neutral country(s) (China and Korea)
3. In the midst of the conflict and in the area where combat occurred, governmental structures broke down and the emergency was greeted with a response by non-governmental agencies such as the Red Cross
4. The conflict was marked by the use of sophisticated, complicated, and (above all else) lethal industrial weapons such as machine guns, rapid fire infantry assault weapons, rapid fire artillery, mines, and torpedoes. These were accompanied by the logistical infrastructure needed to keep ammunition and other essential supplies flowing to modern fielded armies
5. The natural product of the War’s deadly battlefields — mass casualties — required levels of aid which no medical corps of the period had the ability to help. The sheer numbers of men in need of aid overwhelmed these units.
6. The duration of battles at the beginning of the War lasted two or three days (The Yalu and Nanshan) and were contained to relatively small areas. By the end of the war the battles of Liaoyang and Mukden lasted weeks and featured battlefields that extended for kilometers. [NB: In terms of duration and brutality, the six to seven-month siege of Port Arthur foreshadowed what later happened at Verdun in 1916.]
7. The cost of fighting such a technologically demanding war required the formation of international syndicates of bankers simply to derive the credit needed for both the Japanese and Russians to keep purchasing and producing weapons and munitions.
8. Like WWI, the Russo-Japanese War was widely reported on and represented in all forms of visual presentations, from photographs to wood block prints.
9. Like Versailles, the Treaty of Portsmouth occurred only after one belligerent (Japan) ran out of men, materials and credit, and the Russians found themselves in the midst of a Revolution. Perhaps more to the point, the treaty itself resolved little beyond ending hostilities and, worse, created circumstances that fueled grievances that culminated in future conflict.
10. When the war concluded and the peace was signed the strengthening of the pan-Asian movement continued to fuel animosities that further destabilized the world.
My immediate reaction, like Brett, is that this is list of similarities, which is interesting, but that they are aspects of modern warfare rather than a description of the kind of global cataclysmic or transformative event that would justify the “world war” moniker. You could say that it was a sort of regional prototype for the war, but you could say that about just about any conflict after the Franco-Prussian war, including the Spanish-American war (which probably ought to go on the “World War Wannabee” list, as a bi-oceanic, imperial conflict); one of Steinberg’s co-bloggers notes that the Russo-Turkish war fits all those criteria, but that still doesn’t qualify it as a “World War,” just a nasty imperialistic conflict.
Most of these points are weak comparisons, I think, but arguable: the idea (point 2) that the natural battleground for a World War is neutral nations’ territories, for example, ignores the difference between truly “neutral” and “in the sphere of influence”/colony which really defines the initial (and for the R-J war, only) battlegrounds of imperialist wars. The last point perplexes me thoroughly: while there certainly is an upsurge in anti-Japanese (and generally anti-Imperial) nationalism in China and Korea after the R-J War, to describe this as “pan-Asian sentiment” seems wrong. If he’s arguing that Japan’s success leads to an upsurge of pan-Asianism in Japan, that’s more reasonable, but to describe it as a “movement” and to place the blame for Asia’s early 20th century destabilization on that rather than continued imperialistic pressures (for which pan-Asianism was a fig leaf of rationalization, nothing more) is overblown.