Military attachés and war correspondents in the First World War were historians creating first-hand accounts of a multi-national, multi-continent, multi-ocean military conflict. In this multi-year series of military engagements across a worldwide landscape of theaters of battle, the military taxonomy of war became increasingly complex.
The First World War was the first modern mediated war in the sense that warfare becomes conflicts and controversies between parties who exchange information and arguments indirectly by the mass media. The discourse in mediated conflicts is influenced by its public character. By forwarding information and arguments to the media, conflict parties attempt to gain support from their constituencies and persuade their opponents.
Pie chart showing deaths by alliance and military/civilian. Most of the civilian deaths were due to war related famine.
The multi-national military attachés and observers who took part in the First World War were expressly engaged in collecting data and analyzing the interplay between tactics, strategy, and technical advances in weapons and machines of modern warfare. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz stressed the significance of grasping the fundamentals of any situation in the "blink of an eye" (coup d'œil). In a military context, the astute tactician can immediately grasp a range of implications and can begin to anticipate plausible and appropriate courses of action, but World War I resisted the conventional pre-war taxonomies and paradigms.
Military and civilian observers from every major power closely followed the course of the war. Most were able to report on events from a perspective somewhat like what is now termed "embedded" positions within the land and naval forces of both sides. These military attachés, naval attachés and other observers prepared voluminous first-hand accounts of the war and analytical papers. In-depth observer narratives of the war and more narrowly-focused professional journal articles were written soon after the war; and these post-war reports conclusively illustrated the battlefield destructiveness of this conflict.
The functions of a military attaché are illustrated by the American military attachés in Japan during the war years. A series of military officers had been assigned to the American diplomatic mission in Tokyo since 1901 when the US and Japan were co-operating closely in response to the Boxer Rebellion in China. The military attaché advised the United States Ambassador to Japan on military matters, acted as a liaison between US Army and the Imperial General Headquarters, and gathered and disseminated intelligence. The military attaché's office in Tokyo usually had two assistants and a number of "language officers" who were assigned specifically to learn Japanese whilst attached to Japanese Imperial Army regiments as observers. These "language officers" translated training and technical manuals and reported on conditions in Japanese military units.
Selected military attachés serving with Entente powers
Press coverage of the war was affected by restrictions on the movement of non-combatant observers and strict censorship. This raises the question of the role the media plays in selecting news about such conflicts. Events which support the position of either one of the protagonists in a conflict are understood as instrumental factors in the modern mediated conflict; and the publication of information on these events is construed as one of the major goals of the conflicting parties and one important activity of journalists.