By Patrick J. Kiger
via the history.com web site
The carnage of the war was so extreme that historians have had difficulty agreeing on exactly how many people lost their lives.
When European nations squared off against each other in the summer of 1914, it’s doubtful that anyone envisioned it would mushroom into a four-year-long conflict that would be vastly more lethal than any previous war on that continent, both for military personnel and civilians.
Major powers such as Britain, France, the U.S. and Germany kept detailed records of the war’s human cost. But the carnage of World War I was so extreme and pervasive, and involved soldiers and civilians from so many different nations, that historians have had a difficult time agreeing on exactly how many people lost their lives.
“It’s hard to say,” says Michael Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He notes that some estimates—but not others—have included deaths from the 1918 flu pandemic and the Armenian genocide committed by Turks of the Ottoman Empire, events which overlapped with the war and were intertwined with it.
Higher Toll Among Allied Forces
A 2011 report by the Robert Schuman European Centre pulled from government records and research by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimated that slightly more than 9.7 million military personnel from more than two dozen nations lost their lives, plus more than 6.8 million civilians who died from causes such as starvation and genocide. In all, about 16.5 million people died.
According to the report, the victors of the war suffered more military deaths than the losers. The Allied side, including Britain (885,138 deaths), France (1,397,800), Russia (1,811,000), Italy (651,000), Serbia (275,000) and the U.S. (116,708), in addition to a host of other nations—lost 5.4 million military personnel.
That’s considerably more than the approximately four million military members lost by the Central Powers, which included the German Empire (2,050,897), Austria-Hungary (1,100,000), the Ottoman Empire (2,150,000) and Bulgaria (87,500). Those totals include both combat-related deaths and fatalities from accidents, disease and the ordeal of being held as prisoners of war.
The actual death toll may have been even higher. As French anthropologist François Héran notes, France’s “implausibly precise” official death toll of 1,357,800, for example, probably was closer in reality to 1.5 million.
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