The human cost of World War I

Pie graphs showing the breakdown of military deaths during World War I

World War I had a profound human cost, both on servicemen and civilians. Conservative estimates put war casualties at 12 million dead and 20 million severely wounded, though in reality both figures should probably be much higher. Taking into account deaths from combat, disease and missing soldiers, each of the major powers lost numbers in the millions. Germany and Russia lost by far the most personnel, though Russian record-keeping was so inept that its losses will never be accurately known, even to the nearest 100,000. Italy, which only entered the war in mid-1915 and was not significantly involved on the Western Front, lost an enormous number of men, particularly in 1917. The losses incurred by British dominions like Canada, Australia and New Zealand were smaller in total, but more profound when one takes into account their tiny populations.

This alarming death toll prompted a wave of grief and introspection across Europe, as governments sought to commemorate the dead and mothers, wives and families sought to mourn them. Years of sadness fell on European society after the armistice; as historian Jay Winter put it, the people of Europe imagined themselves “as survivors, perched on a mountain of corpses”. Governments sought to heal the wounds with tokens and shows of commemoration. Huge war memorials were commissioned in major cities to honour the dead; smaller memorials were erected in every town and village, bearing the names of those who had served and those who had not returned. In 1916 Allied governments also began to fund military cemeteries, where the bodies of the fallen could be laid to rest in foreign lands. Those mothers and wives who could afford it made pilgrimages across the continent to locate the graves of their loved ones. Many of them found nothing: their sons and husbands had simply vanished, buried in some anonymous patch of land or obliterated beyond identification by artillery or mines. The Douaumont Ossuary, a war memorial in northern France, contains the bones of 100,000 Allied men, most of whom were blown to smithereens and could not be identified.

world war I amputee
One of thousands of men left limbless after the war

Those who returned alive confronted their own challenges. Artillery, shrapnel, mines and mortars also left a generation permanently maimed and disfigured. The most common casualties were limbs: arms and legs shattered or mangled in battle were swiftly amputated in field hospitals. In Britain, a wave of 240,000 amputee soldiers forced new developments in the science of prosthetic limb-making. Before 1914 the production of artificial limbs was little more than a backyard industry; most were made-to-order by saddlers and leather-workers. But the government soon commissioned medical facilities and rehabilitation units where specialists developed, fitted and maintained prosthetic limbs. Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, London, was founded in 1915 as a military convalescence hospital and specialised in prosthetics and amputee rehabilitation; almost half of Britain’s limbless soldiers were treated there at some point. The United States was more advanced, having dealt with thousands of amputees during the Civil War (1861-65), as well as a spike in industrial accidents in the late 1800s. There were around 200 American companies producing prosthetic limbs; some of the larger manufacturers, like J. E. Hanger, were called on by London to provide equipment and technical support.

world war i shell shock
A device for delivering electrical shocks to traumatised war veterans

War wounds often extended beyond the merely physical. Some of the most enduring images of the Great War are of men suffering from ‘shell shock’ – or, as the medical experts preferred to call it, war neurosis. Shellshock was a form of nervous breakdown that severely affected one’s ability to move and function. In the worst cases of shell shock, men were turned into shaking, twitching, convulsing wrecks, unable to carry out basic movements like walking a straight line. It is difficult to say how many soldiers were shell-shocked; government pension claims put the figure at somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 but it was undoubtedly much higher. Early diagnoses and attitudes to shell shock were largely unsympathetic. It was put down to ‘weak nerves’: its victims had simply been unequipped for war and in the heat of combat, their minds had imploded. Fortunately, these attitudes changed over time, as doctors came to realise any soldier could suffer nervous breakdown in the right conditions. A range of treatments were used, though some were ineffective and others downright dangerous. One less successful method was the ‘Turvey treatment’, used before 1914 to ‘cure’ alcoholics and drug addicts. Other ‘treatments’ involved the use of electric shock therapy, physical discipline, depressive medication or forcing soldiers to confront their paranoias (such as locking claustrophobics in small rooms). Only a few hospitals and doctors practised psychotherapy and counselling, which was far more successful – but because it was much slower and more involved, it was only used on a select few.

“Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win… Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals – often of a greater scale and of longer duration. No truce or parley mitigated the strife of the armies. The wounded died between the lines; the dead mouldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate… Every effort was made to starve entire nations into submission, without regard to age or sex. Monuments and cities were smashed by artillery. Bombs were cast down from the air indiscriminately. Poison gas stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered in the dark recesses of the sea.”
Winston Churchill

The post-war years also produced a cultural backlash against war and the attitudes which had caused it. The best known of these was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (German, In Westen nichts Neues) which was published in Germany in 1928. Remarque was himself a conscript and a veteran of several Western Front battles until he was wounded and invalided out of action in mid-1918. All Quiet on the Western Front is told through the eyes of Paul Baumer, a young soldier who is cajoled into enlisting by the patriotic speeches of his schoolteacher. Thrust into battle with minimal training or preparation, Baumer finds himself overwhelmed by the violence of war and the random nature of death. Other anti-war tracts include Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), loosely based on the author’s experiences fighting with the Italians in 1917. Hemingway’s account of the war is bleak, confronting and pointless. The men fighting it do not wish to be there and do not believe in its causes, while the civilians displaced and affected by the war simply wish it to end. C. S. Forester’s The General (1936) contained a commentary on military leadership during World War I; his main character Curzon was an honest and loyal general but given to inflexibility, adherence to routine and lack of initiative. A less well-known book is The Good Soldier Svejk, an illustrated novel created by Czech socialist Jaroslav Hasek. It satirises and ridicules the war through the actions of its title character, an Austro-Hungarian soldier who manages to survive by virtue of his incompetence and his misunderstanding of orders, perhaps deliberately.

world war i all quiet
A scene from the iconic movie depiction of All Quiet on the Western Front

World War I was quickly explored in film too. French director Abel Gance began work on J’accuse in 1918, weeks before the war had even ended (in fact some of Gance’s ‘battle scenes’ contained authentic footage of Western Front charges). Gance’s message in J’accuse is anti-war and pacifist. In one memorable scene, a platoon of dead soldiers returns to life and marches back to their village, confronting survivors with questions about their patriotism and support for the war. Such was the impact of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front that an American film version – starring Lew Ayres as Paul Baumer – went into production barely a year after its publication. To this day it remains one of the most significant anti-war movies in history. In one memorable scene, Baumer is trapped in a shell crater overnight with a dying French soldier, where he is confronted by the reality that there is little difference between him and his ‘enemy’. A film version of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms was also hurriedly produced, just a year or two after the release of the book.

human losses world war one

1. The human impact of World War I was enormous. Estimates vary considerably but at least 12 million people were killed and 20 million were severely wounded.

2. The high death toll led to a deep and widespread public grief. Governments and community groups worked to commission war cemeteries, memorials and cenotaphs.

3. The frequent use of artillery and shrapnel left tens of thousands of men disabled or limbless. This led to new developments and rapid growth in prosthetic limbs and devices.

4. Thousands of former trench soldiers were affected by ‘shell shock’, a debilitating form of psychological trauma for which there were few effective treatments.

5. The war was also remembered and often criticised by literature and film, sometimes by men who had experienced it first-hand. One example is the 1930 classic All Quiet on the Western Front.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The human cost of World War I” at Alpha History,, 2017, accessed [date of last access].

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