The trauma of the First World War was unprecedented. The scale of it alone was staggering: for almost four and a half years, most of Europe was locked in combat. Despite all efforts, technological and tactical alike, to achieve a decisive breakthrough, only rarely was anything like it accomplished. Far more often, enormous battles resulted in casualties numbering in the tens of thousands for the net gain of a stretch of land measurable at most within a few miles.
Published figures for the casualties of the Great War are estimates only, and the reliability of such figures varies from country to country. Still, most estimates suggest that deaths alone number somewhere between eight and nine million. Additionally, some 20 million were wounded. By the population standards of the day, it was as if Europe had lost an entire country: for the purposes of contrast, Italy began the war with about 35 million people altogether.
It is easy to lose a sense of perspective when contemplating raw numbers. Numerous encyclopedic sources provide tables to account for casualties of all belligerent nations. It is more important to try to extract some understanding of what the numbers mean. For example, at first glance it is apparent that the Great Powers fared the worst in raw numbers, from Germany at the greatest total losses, through Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, the United Kingdom, and then Italy. The losses of smaller countries, however, could be astonishingly high in relative terms; for example, Rumania’s losses were only barely exceeded by Turkey, while Turkey’s overall population was almost three times as large. (For this purpose, the civilian deaths in the Armenian population of Turkey are not considered.)
A more careful analysis of the figures suggests that, with a few exceptions (such as the Americans), the prospects of any individual soldier were bleak. A soldier fighting in Rumania, for example, had a 25% chance of being killed. Ironically, the Western Front killed more in total numbers, but an individual’s chances were surprisingly better: a British soldier stationed in Belgium was only half as likely to die there as the aforementioned soldier in Rumania. Better organization and logistics, as well as stronger defensive positions resulting from more stable front lines probably do much to account for this disparity. Still, if one adds the probabilities of being killed, wounded or captured, one finds that any given soldier was 50% likely to suffer one of those fates.
Of course, during the First World War, men were not killed or maimed one by one, or in small clusters. Modern communications made it possible to coordinate multiple armies with at least some measure of success; the extended battle lines made it necessary to do so. Tactical doctrines called for mighty blows to smash the enemy’s lines, and with both armor and air support in primitive stages of their development, this placed the burden on infantry alone. The early phases of the war had shown, at least, that the cavalry could not be expected to carry the day. In the absence of better alternatives, infantry support was provided by ever larger barrages of artillery.
On the human level, the artillery was very effective. It is estimated that 67% of casualties in the First World War were caused by artillery, and possibly as high as 75%. In part this was due to new technological discoveries, but much of it is a result of the tactical realities of the war. The machine gun was so lethal that extensive trench defenses were dug to protect defenders. When defenders were so dug in, direct fire was of little effect, and so an attacker relied far more heavily on artillery in preparation for an attack. Strategically, however, these efforts were much less useful. The complex trenches of the Western Front, in particular, offered strong protection for a large portion of the defending army when the barrage began; when it ended, the defenders knew that the enemy was approaching, and hastened to defend. It was then that the machine gun was able to do its part in blunting a massed attack, if not staving it off entirely. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone, Allied forces lost about 60,000, mostly felled by machine guns.
For those who survived, the wounds they suffered could be grievous. The bullet can be devastating enough. One man might suffer a through-and-through wound in the calf, and suffer no long-term debility, while another man could lose a leg. The effects of artillery, however, were far worse. Survivors might lose limbs, but they might instead (or also) lose much of their faces. Early forms of plastic surgery might be used in some cases, while others had to make do with cleverly-made masks.
A new category of weapon entered the arsenals of the First World War: poison gas. It never accounted for a large proportion of casualties, in part because they were deployed too quickly to make a large impression before both sides developed countermeasures. Among the survivors, recovery could be complete, or there could be lasting internal damage, particularly in the lung tissue. Disease, among the oldest threats in war, proved far more devastating, especially on the Eastern Front and in non-European theatres of war. In fact, the greatest achievement of Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s guerilla campaign in East Africa lay in the numbers of British troops who needed to be there in response to his efforts; among those British troops, disease caused more than 30 times the effective losses that battlefield wounds caused.
One should not leave the subject of disease without first considering the Influenza Pandemic, but at the same time, this was only tangential to the subject of World War One casualties. The movement of troops in the war did much to aid in the rapid transmission of disease, which was estimated to have killed about as many people as the war did. At the same time, it was not caused, or unleashed, by the war, and it was indiscriminate in its effect. Thus, its effects should remain separate from the toll of losses due directly to the war.
Medical science discovered a new category of casualty in this war and its aftermath, one that struck the mind instead of the body. It was known as “shell shock” in English; today we refer to it as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The phenomenon is probably as old as war itself, but it was only in the 20th Century that it was recognized as a form of illness. The subjective component to psychological damage makes generalizations difficult, but it is safe to observe that the intensity and long-term duration of the stresses of trench warfare helped to create many cases that were so severe that the soldier never managed to integrate himself back into his community.
Civilians have always been casualties in wars, sometimes unintended, sometimes by design. This was true in World War One as well, from nearly 1400 Britons killed in German air raids to the Armenians who died in Turkey in enormous numbers. Some countries, such as Russia, Rumania and Serbia, are believed to have suffered significantly more civilian casualties than military ones. In these cases, disease seems to be a leading cause, but reliable figures are lacking.
Finally, one more category of casualty must be considered: a societal category. Throughout Europe, the First World War marked the death of the 19th Century order. In most cases, this change was a direct and proximate result of the Great War. Sometimes it marked the end of a government, as it did in Germany and Russia; in other cases, it marked the end of the country itself, as in the case of Austria-Hungary. Change was more subtle, but still palpable, among the winners as well as the losers. In Britain, for example, aristocratic families suffered a greater proportional loss in the beginning of the war than common families, mainly because the officer corps was overwhelmingly aristocratic in origin, until raw battle losses required a more “democratized” body of officers. In the long run, this did much to reduce the influence of the aristocracy in Britain simply by shrinking its numbers.
In short, World War One was destructive in ways that were unimaginable in the spring of 1914. The human toll was far beyond anything that had come before it, and in some respects, Europe has never fully healed.
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