Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Revising the Numbers

The French historian Antoine Prost has published an article (titled "The Dead") in the final volume of The Complete Cambridge History of World War I suggesting that the number of soldiers who died in the war has been underestimated by about a million. His examination of a century's worth of casualty figures produced by states that fought in the war led Prost to conclude that most undercounted their war dead. France, for example, failed to count about 70,000 veterans who died of war-related injuries or illnesses after leaving military service. Russia failed to count 200,000 soldiers who died in German prisoner-of-war camps. Germany ended formal counts of its war dead in July 1918, four months prior to the war's end. Omissions like these served the interests of most states with a desire to minimize the human costs of a war that seemed more and more pointless the longer it dragged on.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium
The United States, which entered the war only in 1917, offers a curious exception to the undercounting that occurred on almost all sides. According to Prost, American casualty figures were inflated through the inclusion of 35,000 soldiers who died of Spanish influenza before they had even started their journey to Europe's battlefields. Prost states that "the Americans were keen to maximise their losses in order to establish themselves as a major military power."

German cemetery at Langemarck, Belgium
In all, there were approximately ten million military casualties during World War I.

Prost is professor emeritus at Panthéon-Sorbonne University.