WWI Deaths and Casualties

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

World War I was one of the most horrendous conflicts known to humanity. However, it wasn't just the body count that made the conflict so frightening. For the first time in history, battle deaths were the majority of losses.

A War to End All Wars

World War I was the worst war that Europeans had known until that point. Colorful armies marched off to battle in 1914, expecting a six-week affair that would have them all home by winter. More than four years later, the countryside was scarred by trenches and filled with cemeteries dedicated to honoring the more than 11 million soldiers and 7 million civilians. An entire generation of European youth had been lost to the struggle. So how did the casualty count get so high? In this lesson, we'll take a look at the causes for the carnage.

New Ways to Suffer

As is commonly noted, the armies that left their camps in 1914 for the war were trained largely to fight in the tight sort of formations of earlier engagements. With the exception of the British, whose army had received plenty of trials by fire at the hands of its colonial enemies, the other armies of Europe were relatively similar to the armies of Napoleon. This meant their tactics were to line up and batter away at your opponent with everything they had.

World War I made that impossible. The first units that tried the old strategies were cut down with machine gun fire. Heavy artillery, with shells weighing hundreds of pounds, made even trenches unsafe. Meanwhile, the specter of poison gas threatened to turn even a quiet day in the trenches into a nightmare.

The Trenches were horrible environments
Trench Warfare

Good News about Disease, but Bad News on Determination

There was a silver lining, however. World War I represented one of the first times when more deaths were caused by engagements with the enemy than from disease. For hundreds of years, disease was a quick killer, especially among the wounded. However, World War I offered a chance for modern medicine to fight back against this menace.

That was of little consolation to the people in the trenches. Instead, the soldiers found that their countries pushed harder and harder for victory. More and more, men deemed previously unfit for battle were thrown into the conflict. All of that unleashed determination meant more death and destruction.

Casualties by Country

But still, how destructive can one war be? To fully understand what happened as a result of World War I, we should look at the approximate casualties experienced by a few countries. Here are some examples:

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