There are no accurate records of casualty numbers available for the Great War. During the confusion of battle records were hard to keep and, if kept, sometimes lost. After the War those counties which had suffered defeat or were in a state of revolution had more pressing matters to deal with than the accurate collection of casualty statistics. Also, it was in the interests of some governments to manipulate the figures for political and military purposes.
I have looked in several sources to try to find agreement on the extent of casualties suffered, and the best I can find are given below.
|Number Mobilised||Killed*||Wounded||Prisoners & Missing||Total Casualties||Casualties as % of Total Mobilised|
* Includes died from all causes
The statistics for Great Britain include all those from her then Empire, Dominion, and Commonwealth countries.
I am indebted to Mr Bruce Caughill, who lives in Canada, for sending to me the figures below which give the casualties suffered by the servicemen of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. I understand that they are taken from a book written by Desmond Morton and J L Granastein entitled, "Canadians and the Great War, 1914 - 1919" and published by Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd. of 78 Sullivan Street, Toronto, Ontario M5T 1C1.
|OFFICERS||OTHER RANKS||TOTALS||Percentage of total mobilised|
|Killed in Action||1,777||33,148||34,925||5.6|
|Missing, presumed dead||157||4273||4430||0.7|
|Died of Wounds||602||11,658||12,260||2.0|
|Died at Sea||28||105||133||-|
|Died of injury/disease||425||7,371||7796||1.3|
|Wounded in Action||5,496||121,098||126,594||20.4|
|Total Wounded etc||7,136||165,814||172,950||27.9|
While such numbers are overwhelming, I feel their vast scale is such that they are not really comprehensible. Perhaps it is more easy to understand what these statistics mean by considering the fate of just one battalion on one single occasion.
In 1914, Newfoundland, on the eastern coast of North America, was one of Great Britain's oldest colonies. (In 1917, it became a self-governing colony, and only united with Canada in 1949.) Such was its loyalty to Britain that at the start of the War its governor decided to call for volunteers who would serve with the British Army. Within a very short time a thousand young men - teachers, lumberjacks, fishermen, office-workers, farm-hands - had enthusiastically enlisted. This was enough to form a battalion, named the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, which, in due course, sailed for England and thence the Western Front.
On 1st July 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, the battalion was to take part in the second wave of an attack west of the River Ancre towards Beaumont-Hamel. At about 9.15 a.m. the men from Newfoundland advanced over open ground towards the enemy. But their cause was hopeless for, once they left the relative safety of their reserve trenches, they were fired on by German machine-gunners who, untroubled by British artillery, were able to concentrate their fire exclusively on the Newfoundlanders as they picked their way through small gaps in mostly unbroken barbed wire.
The attacked lasted for no more than forty minutes and it is believed that 752 men took part in it. Of these at least 658 became casualties plus every one of the twenty-six officer who had left the trenches. This gave a casualty rate of 91% - the second highest suffered by any battalion on that day.
The tragedy was felt everywhere in the grief-stricken and close-knit communities back home. After the War, the Newfoundland Government bought the area over which its young men had tried so valiantly to advance, and created the Newfoundland Memorial Park. Today the Park is seen each year by many visitors who can now walk along the preserved remnants of trenches, cross the broken ground towards the infamous "Y" Ravine, and admire the statue of a caribou as it stands defiantly overlooking the old killing-ground whilst guarding the plaques on which are written the names of Newfoundland's missing soldiers.
After the War came to its bitter close, tens of thousands of dreadfully wounded men came home to endure a life of painful disability. Still very young, they should have been at the peak of their physical and mental abilities, but all that most of them could look forward to was a future supported by sympathetic families and parsimonious governments. The photograph below shows some uncomplaining British soldiers without legs who, well-groomed and tidily dressed in their hospital uniforms, have been posed so that they look like a band of comrades bravely enjoying a day out together. Amongst the others' wheelchairs, three have been carefully raised to their former statures.
On one or two faces there are even the hints of smiles.
Some, however, will never smile again:
Compounding the miseries produced by war itself, in 1918 and 1919 a virulent and deadly disease, "Spanish 'Flu", swept across the world. Its principal victims were children under fifteen years of age (25% of those who died), and young adults between fifteen years and thirty-five years of age (45% of those who died). Treatment was ineffectual: in Britain the death toll was perhaps over 229,000 people; in France, 160,000; and in Germany, 225,000. In Europe alone, up to ten million people succumbed to the illness, while in India the fatalities possibly totalled as many as sixteen million. In the United States those who died reached over 500,000. So bad was this pernicious epidemic that more died from it than in the War itself.
The 'flu's origins were unknown and it was regarded by many as a plague sent as divine retribution to punish Man for his creation of the horrors of the War.
For a generation and more populations went into mourning for there was hardly a family in any of the belligerent European nations that had not suffered the death or injury of at least a single loved-one. To give a focus to this sorrow, governments created national memorials. In London the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated in Westminster Abbey, and the Cenotaph constructed in Whitehall. At this latter monument each year, firstly on Remembrance Day -11th November - and then on Remembrance Sunday, the leaders of Church, State, and Armed Services led their more humble citizens in a religious ceremony to commemorate those who had fought, died, or who were wounded in the War.
As well as this, in the years succeeding 1918, a multitude of cities, towns, and villages erected their own memorials. Some were imposing in scale while others were more modest being, at times, little more than a plaque set into a wall. However, all were inspired by the heartfelt grief which shrouded the land. Today, a drive through almost any village in France or the United Kingdom will reveal, somewhere, a memorial raised to the memory of those who died in the Great war.
Memorial to forestry workers at the Balmoral Estate in Scotland
War Memorial in the village of Helpringham, in Lincolnshire
© Karl W. Murray, 1996
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