How Many People Died in the First World War?

Peter Curry

3 mins

17 Oct 2018

World War One was one of the bloodiest conflicts in mankind’s history, and saw over 16 million military deaths. When combined, the total number of civilian and military casualties (dead and wounded) is normally estimated at around 37 million people.

Out of combat deaths, two out of three soldiers died in battle, while others died due to infections or disease.

It is difficult to estimate the total number of deaths, as civilian mortality was not well documented. Consequently civilian deaths are “hazardous to estimate” according to Michael Clodfelter, who maintains that “the generally accepted figure of noncombatant deaths is 6.5 million.”

Even the estimates for the number of military deaths are somewhat erratic, and we will never know the true total for the amount of deaths during the war.

Around six million men were enlisted in Great Britain, and around 700,000 of those men were killed.

Cemetery of the war dead in Verdun. Credit: Commons.

Loss of life in Britain

While the great majority of casualties in World War One were from the working class, the social and political elite were hit disproportionately hard by the war. There is a persistent myth that while many more working class men perished, the British upper classes got off lightly in World War One.

In fact, the elite suffered as much as the working classes. The sons of the elite were often junior officers, whose role was to set an example to their men, and in doing so were often forced to put themselves in the greatest danger, for instance, leading charges into No Man’s Land.

The British Army lost 12% of its ordinary soldiers during the war, compared with 17% of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 of its former pupils, which was over 20% of those who served. UK Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, and future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two sons.

Anthony Eden, another future Prime Minister, lost two brothers, saw another badly wounded and an uncle taken prisoner.

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Over 1,000,000 Poles are believed to have died in the war in the armies of Russia, Austria and Germany. This represents one of the largest bodies of casualties among nations which at the time were not recognised as such.

Serbia was probably the worst hit country. Depending on the sources you accept, Serbia’s death rate during the war could have been as high as 27.78% of the population, or up to 1.25 million people.

A simple look at the numbers tends to blind us to the sheer scale of the loss of life. So many men died in the battlefields of World War One that the postwar media spoke of a ‘lost generation’ and showed an active concern for women who would apparently not be able to marry.

A German prisoner helps British wounded make their way to a dressing station near Bernafay Wood following fighting on Bazentin Ridge, 19 July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Credit: Ernest Brooks / Commons.

Particularly grievous to many countries during the war was outbreak of the Spanish flu. This began to cause widespread deaths in 1918, and lasted for several years after the war.

It is so named because censorship laws preventing reporting on the flu in most countries that were at war. Spain remained neutral and consequently had no ban on reporting the spread of the virus, making it seem as though it was particularly badly affected.

This was a particularly virulent strain of influenza which resulted in the deaths of between 50 and 100 million people, or around 5% of the world’s population at the time.

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Outside Europe

Millions more died across the globe in horrific circumstances. Around 1.5 million Armenians were systematically executed by the Ottoman government, in a genocide that the Turkish government still denies.

This was due to Ottoman suspicions that the Armenians would use the war to side with Russia and push for their own independence.

The eternal flame at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day 2014. Credit: Serouj Ourishian / Commons.

To secure their borders, Armenian men were placed in work camps, which became extermination centres. Armenian women, children and the elderly were all force-marched to Northern Syria, many of whom died en route.

Many European states failed to keep the same kind of detailed records for their colonies that were kept for troop mobilisation on the western front.

Food shortages in East Africa resulted from the war, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians with no precise figures known. One estimate suggests 100,000 died in Tanzania alone.

In Belgium’s Congolese colonies as many as 155,000 people may have died because of the war, due to fighting, disease or starvation.