Casualties in the Trenches

The precise number of people killed during the First World War is difficult to measure. Estimates vary from 8.5 to 12.0 million but with the collapse of government bureaucracies in Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey accurate measurement becomes impossible.

Another problem involves the way death was defined. Most governments only published figures for men who were killed during military action. Soldiers who died slowly from their wounds, gas poisoning or disease, did not always appear in the statistics published after the war.

Most soldiers were killed during major offensives. Over 21,300 were killed on the first day of the Somme and over 50 per sent of those who took part in the attack were wounded. Other major offences such as those at Loos and Passchendaele resulted in large numbers being killed.

Fortunino Matania, Death at a Field Hospital (1917)
Fortunino Matania, Death at a Field Hospital (1917)

Being in front-line trenches was also extremely dangerous. Almost every day some enemy artillery shells would fall on the trenches. One study suggested that one-third of all casualties on the Western Front were killed or wounded while in the trenches.

There is considerable dispute about the number of civilian deaths during the First World War. Bomb victims, merchant seamen and passengers on torpedoed ships were recorded. However, the number of civilians killed by disease or war deprivation are not usually included. For example, it is believed that about 500,000 German civilians died as a result of food shortages. Other countries that suffered high civilian deaths include Russia (2 million), Serbia (650,000) and Rumania (500,000). Considering the state of deprivation at the time, some commentators believe that the estimated 70 million people that died during the influenza pandemic should also be recorded as war deaths.

Primary Sources

(1) Stuart Cloete, A Victorian Son (1972)

As you lifted a body by its arms and legs, they detached themselves from the torso, and this was not the worst thing. Each body was covered inches deep with a black fur of flies, which flew up into your face, into your mouth, eyes and nostrils as you approached. The bodies crawled with maggots. The bodies had the consistency of Camembert cheese.

(2) Letter from Roland Leighton to Vera Brittain (August, 1915)

Among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country's Glory or another's Lust of Power. Let him who thinks that war is a glorious golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country. Let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shine bone and what might have been its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence.

(3) George Mallory, letter to his wife, Ruth Mallory (15th August, 1916)

I don't object to corpses so long as they are fresh - I soon found that I could reason thus with them. Between you and me is all the difference between life and death. But this is an accepted fact that men are killed and I have no more to learn about that from you, and the difference is no greater than that because your jaw hangs and your flesh changes colour or blood oozes from your wounds. With the wounded it is

different. It always distresses me to see them.

(4) Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964)

At the beginning of the First World War, popular opinion was that it would not last more than four months, that the science of modern warfare would take such a ghastly toll of human life that mankind would demand cessation of such barbarism. But we were mistaken. We were caught in an avalanche of mad destruction and brutal slaughter that went on for four years to the bewilderment of humanity. We had started a hemorrhage of world proportion, and we could not stop it.

Sir Philip Sassoon had been official secretary to Lloyd George during the war. He had a seat in Parliament representing Brighton and Hove, and asked if I would accompany him to a hospital in Brighton to visit the incurable spastic cases who had been wounded during the war. It was terribly sad to look into those young faces and to see the lost hope there. One man was so paralyzed that he painted with a brush in his mouth, the only part of his body he could use. Another had fists so clenched that he had to be given an anesthetic in order to cut his finger-nails to prevent them from growing into the palms of his hands. Some patients were in such a terrible state that I was not allowed to see them.

(5) A.A. Milne, It's Too Late Now: The Autobiography of a Writer (1939)

Ernest Pusch wore an under-garment of chain mail... such as had been worn in the Middle Ages to guard against unfriendly daggers, and was now sold to over-loving mothers as likely to turn a bayonet-thrust or keep off a stray fragment of shell; as I suppose, it might have done.... Anyway it didn't matter; for on the evening when we first came within reach of the battle-zone, just as he was settling down to his tea, a shell came over and blew him to pieces.

(6) Basil Rathbone, In and Out of Character (1956)

We retired late, full of good food and Scotch whiskey. We shared my bed and were soon sound asleep. It was still dark when I awakened from a nightmare. I had just seen John killed. I lit the candle beside my bed and held it to my brother's face - for some moments I could not persuade myself that he was not indeed dead. At last I heard his regular gentle breathing. I kissed him and blew out the candle and lay back on my pillow again. But further sleep was impossible. A tremulous premonition haunted me - a premonition which even the dawn failed to dispel. (John Rathbone was killed in the trenches a few days later.)

(7) William Orpen, letter to Grace Orpen (15th April 1917)

I cannot describe the impression I have formed from what I have already seen - that such a machine has been going on in over 2 years and growing bigger everyday is past comprehension, it makes one look on human beings as a different breed than one had ever imagined them before, the nobility and self sacrifice are beyond understanding. The whole thing is fine noble and bold.

Of course there is the other side, today when I had finished work, I went over some country that was really terrible, it was fought over last about 3 weeks ago, everything is left practically as it was, they have now started to bury the dead in some parts of it Germans and English mixed, this consists of throwing some mud over the bodies as they lie, they don't even worry to cover them altogether arms and feet showing in lots of cases.

The whole country is obliterated. In miles and miles nothing left at all except shell holes full of water you pick your way between them or jump at times, miles and miles of shell holes bodies rifles steel helmets gas helmets and all kinds of battered clothes, German and English, dud shells and wire, all and everything white with mud, and one feels the horrors the water in the shell holes is covering - and not a living soul anywhere near, a truly terrible peace in the new and terribly modern desert - it was a relief to get back to the road and people.

The roads behind the line are wonderful one moving mass of men, horses, mules, ammunition, guns food, fodder, pontoons and every imaginable kind of war material all struggling in one steady stream up these battered thoroughfares, all white with mud halting and struggling on again at regular intervals it is a wonderful sight full of grim determination.