18 Ways World War I Directly Shaped the Way We Live Now 

Kellen Perry
Updated February 24, 2020 34.3k views 18 items


Also known as the Great War, World War I was a horrific world conflict that lasted for roughly four years (1914-1918). You know a bit about WWI from history class: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, "the War to End All Wars," Allied powers vs. Central powers, trench warfare, Europe forever changed, millions upon millions of lives lost. But do you really know how World War I changed the world?

The impacts of World War I on the world are far-reaching and immeasurable. This list merely covers some of the most significant and obvious ways that it changed the world. First and foremost, it changed warfare forever, and along the way, ushered in countless technological advances we still use today. It was an event that straddled times of great advancement, something that was documented both with modern film photography and traditional paintings. Some of these things - like more effective sanitary napkins - were destined to be developed anyway, but one of the ways WWI changed the world was by greatly hastening these developments: Necessity is, as they say, the mother of invention. Read on to learn how World War 1 shaped the modern world.


It Forever Changed How Wars Were Fought
It Forever Changed How W... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 18 Ways World War I Directly Shaped the Way We Live Now
Photo:  John Warwick Brooke/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

It was in WWI that "technology became an essential element in the art of war," to quote Guillermo Altares of El País. Submarines, aerial bombardment, armored tanks, toxic gas attacks, barbed wire - all were either invented or revolutionized during the Great War.

It was also the first time technology was such an overwhelmingly destructive force, with poison gas alone capable of wiping out thousands at a time. The Germans even had so-called "blue cross" shells containing diphenylchlorarsine, which made victims sneeze violently. They called these shells "mask breakers."

WWI Forever Changed The Public's Attitude Toward War
WWI Forever Changed The ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 18 Ways World War I Directly Shaped the Way We Live Now
Photo:  Otis Historical Archives Nat'l Museum of Health & Medicine/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-2.0

Historian Jay Winter argues that WWI "discredited the concept of glory" and exposed the idea that it was noble to perish for one's country as an "old lie." Winter claims that the "propaganda" literature and painting of war was "cleaned away" by artists and poets following WWI because "millions of men slaughtered deserved more than elevated prose; they deserved the unadulterated truth."

This truth came to light in the "nonsense verse of the Dada movement and in the nightmare paintings of the surrealists," who "denounced the obscenities" of armed conflict. Winter also notes that soldiers writing popular memoirs helped expose the realities of WWI to millions back at home.

Code-Breaking During WWI Led To The Development Of Modern Intelligence Agencies
Code-Breaking During WWI... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 18 Ways World War I Directly Shaped the Way We Live Now
Photo:  National Archives/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The British developed a knack for code-breaking during WWI, particularly with encrypted German radio transmissions. These advancements later led to now-famous intelligence-gathering operations such as MI-8, GCHQ, and the NSA in the US.

The most famous bit of code-breaking during WWI was the so-called Zimmermann telegram: German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann received an encrypted telegram describing plans to attack US shipping lanes to the UK. The telegram also mentioned Germany's desire to ally with Mexico and have the Mexican army attack US territory. This decoded telegram led the US to declare war on Germany in April 1917. 

Scientists Started To Better Understand PTSD
Scientists Started To Be... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 18 Ways World War I Directly Shaped the Way We Live Now
Photo:  Royal Engineers No 1 Printing Company/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) wasn't formally recognized until 1980, but during and after WWI, doctors began to understand and diagnose the psychological impacts of conflict in a new way, which laid the groundwork for our modern understanding. During WWI, some medics thought the physical impact of explosions caused the "war neurosis" so many soldiers were experiencing (also known as shell shock).

We now better understand - thanks largely to the efforts of doctors and scientists during WWI - that the emotional stressors of war are to blame for the symptoms shown by thousands of soldiers coming home from the battlefield. Because so many WWI-era soldiers (80,000 British soldiers, by one estimate) were experiencing these symptoms in the safe confines of their homes, scientists and doctors began looking for answers.