A Brief History
On November 11, 1918, a full century ago, an armistice took effect ending the fighting of World War I. Later, a peace treaty would be signed officially ending the war, but neither the Armistice nor the Treaty of Versailles could end the suffering generated by World War I nor could they prevent the even bigger World War (II) that would follow. Today we take a look at the costs of The Great War 100 years after the fighting (supposedly) ended.
The first line on the account of the cost of World War I is one of the easier numbers to tally, though of course not exact. The Allied Powers lost over 5.5 million killed in combat, while the Central Powers lost over 4.3 million combat deaths. It is fairly easy to understand the loss of life to the individual soldier and his family, and with a little more thinking one can imagine the lost productivity and contribution to society those millions of lives may have made. The crushed dreams and lost spouses and fathers are harder to add in mere figures. As far as combat goes, almost as bad and in some cases possibly worse were the over 12.8 million Allied and nearly 8.4 million Central Powers wounded soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Many of those lives were shattered because of horrific wounds, amputations, blinding and remaining lives that required constant medical attention and lost productivity. Some wounds heal, while others do not. Even harder to quantify or qualify are the millions and millions of veterans and families of veterans that suffered mental and emotional wounds, some of which had far reaching but hard to identify ramifications. These wounded people comprised millions that needed special care the rest of their lives, also taking a toll on those in their families that had to performs such tasks.
Civilian deaths are likewise easy to cite, with about 4 million Allied civilian deaths and nearly that amount of Central Powers civilian deaths. The more difficult evaluations are those that result from malnutrition during the War and the lack of adequate agriculture and national poverty resulting from years of reduced food production and national debt. Civilian mental health certainly suffered because of the War but trying to put any sort of detailed analysis on those factors is a daunting, perhaps impossible task. The tremendous number of man-hours that went into war production and staffing the military combined with production geared toward items of destruction instead of useful and beneficial things for humankind is incalculable. Lost years of education and the erasing of so many brilliant minds certainly hurt the collective advance of knowledge and understanding by the human species. The fact that those military men lost in battle, accidents and disease because of the War were relatively healthy and fit individuals when they were called to serve meant that those weaker and more feeble minded persons unfit for military duty remained, resulting in a net decrease in the quality of the human gene pool. (We do not know if anyone has ever seriously addressed a study into this particular aspect of the mass carnage of World War I, but it sure would be interesting to see what scientists have to say about this possible effect on human evolution.) Losing the cream of a generation cannot possibly be a good thing, though exactly how bad the effect on mankind is difficult to quantify.
World War I is certainly not the only reason for the Russian Revolution that deposed the Czar and ended up with the creation of the Soviet Union, but World War I certainly contributed to the scenario that made the formation of the Soviet Union possible. The fact of the Soviet Union affected human politics and relations until its dissolution in 1991, but the aftereffects are still being felt. The rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen can directly be attributed to World War I and the harsh peace treaty that followed, along with the impoverishing of Germany and the hardships the German people experienced.
Which brings us to World War II. The Second World War is usually thought of as an extension of unfinished business of World War I, and the seeds of World War II were surely sown by The Great War. The second time around the world was really serious about killing people, with somewhere between 60 and 80 million deaths attributed to World War II, deaths that may be added to the cost of World War I in a manner of thinking. Among those dead in World War II were about 50 million civilians. The same sort of ramifications of all these deaths that apply to World War I also apply to World War II, and again, according to this line of logic can be added to the cost of World War I. The incredibly expensive Cold War that ensued after World War II can in a manner be attributed as resulting from World War I, both the Russian Revolution/advent of the Soviet Union and the aftermath of World War II.
Probably the biggest negative impact that World War I had on the human species came late in the war and lasted the next couple years, the so called Spanish Flu. With a world wracked by malnutrition and reduced heating fuel, as well as extremely unsanitary conditions on and around battlefields, it is not surprising a disease epidemic would result. In this case, the epidemic was a whopper, killing somewhere between 50 million and 100 million people from 1918 to 1920, many millions MORE than were killed in World War I from more direct means. The higher estimates make the Spanish Flu epidemic (pandemic more correctly) even deadlier to mankind than World War II, the deadliest war in human history. As many as 5% of the population of the world died of Spanish Flu during the epidemic. Some estimates rate the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920 as the deadliest human epidemic in history, eclipsing even the Black Death of 1347-1351 by numbers of humans killed. More than 5 times as many Americans died of the Spanish Flu than were killed in World War I. In fact, more Americans died in the Spanish Flu pandemic than in either World War II (407,000) or the American Civil War (about 205,000 combined combat deaths on both sides, though disease and other causes cost a total of over 700,000 American lives).
Another deadly cost of World War I that is often overlooked is the environmental damage caused by the use of toxic poison gas weapons and millions of unexploded mines and other ordnance left strewn about battlefields. Even today, farmers and construction workers sometimes unearth still deadly Mustard (Mustard gas remains toxic for many decades, even centuries, and does not break down like other poisons), arsenic and other chemicals and people are still killed and maimed by mines and artillery shells that blow up a century after being deployed. It is estimated that around Ypres, Belgium, that 260 civilians have been killed by World War I ordnance since the end of the war (the “Iron Harvest”) and another 535 civilians have been wounded or maimed in the same area. In 2013 alone, a staggering 160 metric tonnes (1000 kilograms per metric tonne) were recovered from the Ypres area. Multiply that by the thousands and thousands of other battlefields around the world and you get the stunning picture. With about a third of all artillery and mortar shells believed to have failed to explode when fired, the statistic that a tonne of explosive ordnance was fired for every square meter of the battlefields of the Western Front of World War I means one heck of a lot of unexploded ordnance, just waiting to take its deadly toll.
Obviously, the real cost of War is incalculable, but definitely worth the effort to at least derive some level of understanding. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of 2001-2018 (American involvement greatly reduced, but not yet over) over 1500 Americans have suffered amputations and over 7200 American military personnel have suffered serious brain injuries. Nearly 5000 US military personnel have died and another 32,000+ have been wounded. These losses have consequences that reach well beyond the obvious. When confronted by the enormous monetary cost of these wars ($2.4 trillion by 2017, but this does not take into account the interest payments because President George W. Bush and Congress chose to stage the wars unfunded and put the tab on the national credit card, meaning the real cost may be more than double the apparent cost) we may forget the human costs involved, not to mention the monetary costs induced by the national investment in caring for the dead and wounded.
World War I ended a century ago, but the impact of that Great War still affects us. We salute all those brave men and women that fought and/or worked under hellish conditions to wage that war for the noble causes they thought they represented. All World War I veterans have died as of 2012, the last being a former waitress in an officers’ mess named Florence Green, A British woman that died at the age of 110 years old. The last combat veteran of the Great War died in 2011, another British man who served in the Royal Navy (later also in the Australian Navy during World War II) named Claude Choules, also dead at the age of 110. Only those few people in excess of 100 years old can retain any first hand memory of World War I, and those people will soon be gone, leaving us to remember the real costs of World War I as best we can.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you previously studied World War I? Were you aware of the tremendous cost of the Spanish Flu? Did you have any relatives that fought in World War I? Have you ever spoken to any veteran of the Great War or any person with first hand memories of the Great War? Do you believe World War I directly led to World War II? (Why or why not?) Do you know any living combat veterans of any other war? If so, what do those people say about war? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Leonhard, Jörn, and Patrick Camillier. Pandora’s Box: A History of the First World War. Harvard University Press, 2018.
Powell, Jim. Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War II. Crown Forum, 2007.
Stokesbury, James. A Short History of World War I. HarperCollins e-books, 2009.
The featured image for this article, a photograph by Concord of the gravestone of Henry N. Gunther (the last casualty of World War I) in Baltimore, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.