Great War Death Toll Underestimated By 1 Million?

The statistics for the Allied Powers of the Great War, now often called World War I, from 1914-1918, are staggering:

Military dead: 5,525,000
Military wounded: 12,831,500
Military missing: 4,121,000
Total: 22,477,500 KIA, WIA or MIA

Canada’s share was overwhelming: military dead (64,976) as a percentage of Canada’s 1914 population of 7.2 million was 1%, with and additional 2% of the population returning as wounded (149,732). [Newfoundland, a separate colony, had similar figures — .7% deaths, 1.1% wounded.]

The 100th anniversary of the war has led to quite a flurry of research of its various aspects. A new collection of essays, The Cambridge History of The First World War, is a 3 volume massive work of 2,352 pages, covering the Global War (v. 1), The State (v.2) and Civil Society (v.3).

It has broken some new ground in looking at the toll in human lives lost. Antoine Prost, emertius Professor of History at the  University of Paris, writes in his essay The Dead, in v. 3 (Civil Society), argues that a combination of errors, confusion, and an inclination to publish low figures, led to an underestimation of the death toll. It could be off by anywhere from 1/2 to 1 million. In analyzing casualty lists of the warring parties, Prof. Prost noted that there is considerable confusion “concerning places whose borders had shifted; there is inconsistency in recording the deaths of soldiers from sickness, and prisoners of war who died in captivity; and there is uncertainty surrounding the number of soldiers reported missing.”

It is not surprising that — regarding the mental health of those soldiers not returning with physical wounds — the numbers for those psychologically damaged by the experiencbc8e88f-c11d-422b-b035-baf6eae78fbeces of the Great War is likely also considerably underestimated. For a physician to diagnose a returning soldier as suffering from “shell-shock” was to make it less likely that he would receive a pension.

This might well have been the situation of my grandfather’s brother, Ernest McEwan, a Great War soldier, who in 1935 died from an “overdose of aspirin” following a cancer operation. He not only endured the incredible stress of the War on the ground, but after the War was a guard on the trains that took Chinese men of the Chinese Labour Corps, drafted to fight in the War, from Halifax, Nova Scotia to ships in Vancouver, British Columbia as part of a “forced deportation” back to China and Hong Kong. (The British did not want the Chinese labourers to settle in United Kingdom or any of the Colonies.)

As background on the Great War, the 3-volume work is a fascinating resource, but the price is also amazing: The 3 volumes purchased together are $380 (Amazon $361);  individual volumes are $150 each (Amazon about $130). You can preview the Table of Contents for volume 3 here.

To consult it, it’s probably easiest to find it at a good University library. Search worldcat to find a copy near you.


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