We’ve all heard the numbers: hundreds of thousands of casualties for every major battle, over a million on the Somme alone, and close to 10 million servicemen killed overall. Put simply, the First World War was a savage, imposing statistical juggernaut.
But the figures can be easily misunderstood, as Gordon Corrigan points out in ‘Mud, Blood and Poppycock’:
“Everyone knows – because it is endlessly repeated in newspapers, books and on radio and television – that if the British dead of the First World War were to be instantly resurrected and then formed up and marched past the Cenotaph, the column would take four and half days to pass.”
He wastes no time in correcting this misapprehension:
“Actually it wouldn’t. The British lost 704,208 dead in the Great War, and if they were to form up in three ranks and march at the standard British army speed of 120 thirty-inch paces to the minute, they would pass in one day, fifteen hours and seven minutes. It is still an impressive statistic but utterly meaningless. It is about as useful as saying that if all the paper clips used in the City of London in a year were laid end to end they would reach to the moon, or to New York, or halfway round the world. The figure is quoted, usually around 11 November each year, to illustrate the scale of British casualties in the war of 1914-18.”
Just as revisionist historians have challenged the notion of valiant British soldier lions being led to slaughter by incompetent generals, so too has the image of the war as one long stay in hell also been questioned.
Corrigan relates an episode from one of his A-level classes as a young man in which his headmaster, Wilf, a First World War veteran, gave a taste of his experience in the form of a maths problem:
“’A brigade consists of a headquarters and four battalions, each of 1,000 men. It has a cyclist company and a company of the Army Service Corps attached. It has an escort of two troops of cavalry. The infantry marches at two miles per hour. The brigade sets off from Cassel at 0900 hours. At what time does the last man reach Poperinge?’”
Corrigan’s interest had been piqued:
“This was much more fun than proving that e=mc2, but whatever answer we came up with was always wrong. As Wilf wryly pointed out, the brigade was held up for four hours in Steenvorde because the gendarmes considered that the commander lacked the necessary travel pass. Wilf had enjoyed his war.”
The BBC’s Dan Snow, in an online piece entitled ‘How did so many soldiers survive the trenches?’, has likewise used statistics to point out that the war was not necessarily as darkly pessimistic as we might think.
British soldiers, he says, actually had a 90 percent survival rate, far higher than in Britain’s previous continental engagement, the Crimean War.
Furthermore, because of a complex system of unit rotations, each soldier spent an average of only 15 percent of his time in the firing line, 10 percent in support trenches, a further 30 percent in reserve trenches further back and almost half his time, 45 percent, out of the trenches entirely.
It’s also worth pointing out that one common error people make is mistaking ‘casualty’ for ‘dead’, when it is, in fact, a combination of all those killed, wounded, missing or made prisoners of war.
Thus, although Britain’s Great War casualties certainly numbered in the millions, it’s dead most definitely did not, hovering instead, according to many sources, at around 700,000.
But does stepping this far back really clarify things? Or is it possible that the war, although not universally awful, was still far worse than this ‘soberer view’ of the numbers suggests?
To find out, and to really step into the shoes of an imaginary Tommy and assess his odds of death or wounding, the Forces Network contacted First World War expert Dr. Stephen Bull. He agreed wholeheartedly that there is far too much guesswork in this area and, happily, ended up recommending a source already consulted: ‘Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914 – 1920’, an enormous tome filled with all manner of tables and statistics compiled by the War Office a few years after the conflict.
Dr. Bull also recommended the 1931 volume ‘Casualties and Medical Statistics’, the final instalment of the ‘Medical History of the Great War’, which the Forces Network was not able to get hold of but which was consulted by the Virtual Centre for Knowledge on Europe in its work on this topic, outlined below.
Of course, even with such authoritative sources, the hunt for a correct figure and an answer to our basic question “What really were poor Tommy’s odds of death?” is far from straightforward.
To begin with, even Corrigan himself lists two different conservative figures for the total British dead - 704,208 on the first page of his book, and then 702,410 on page 55.
Using the latter figure, he points out that this was 8.4 percent of the 8,375,000 men mobilised (one in 12) during the war and 1.53 percent of the British population, which is listed as having been 45,750,000 in 1914. This is significant, of course, but compares favourably to the losses endured by the Germans and French, whose pre-war populations were reduced by 3.23 and 3.7 percent respectively, according to Corrigan’s figures.
(The 8,375,000 men mobilised made up 73 percent of the 11,437,500 adult-male, fighting-age population. Corrigan points out that more tnan two million men were eventually ‘starred’ and put into ‘reserve occupations’ like the railways, coal mines and agriculture by the end of the war. And some men, of course, would have been deemed medically unfit for military service).
Starting out with the figure of 702,410 as a benchmark, the Forces Network checked this against the numbers listed in Statistics of the Military Effort.
The figure does indeed appear, at the start of Part IV, on casualties, as the number of dead suffered by the British Isles (as opposed to 908,371 deaths borne by the British Empire at large.)
But a look deeper into the book, and some fact checking with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, reveals that Corrigan’s figure is incomplete – because it is only the number of dead sustained by British men who served within the British Army, albeit inclusive of the Royal Naval Division (sailors who were refashioned as soldiers.)
Admittedly, this is what’s needed for judging Tommy’s odds of death, but outside of the direct experience of the British soldier, the figure doesn’t help us to truly understand the impact of the war on the home front. Just how many of Tommy and his compatriots in the other services did not come back alive?
For the Royal Navy, Statistics of the Military Effort does also list its casualty rates on page 339: 32,208 killed, consisting of 2,342 officers and 29,866 other ranks.
The page also contains a yearly number ‘borne’ (as in, men taken out to sea) and gives their odds of becoming a casualty each year (i.e. being killed or wounded), which averages 2.51 percent annually. (2.97 percent in 1914; 2.2 percent in 1915; 3.81 in 1916 – the Battle of Jutland the likely cause of that spike; 2.18 percent in 1917 and 1.75 in 1918).
From this it is possible to work out what the odds of a sailor becoming a casualty over the entire course of the war would have been. It is not, though, simply a matter of adding all these figures together, as this simpler example illustrates:
If a Tommy on the Western Front faced a 10 percent chance of becoming a casualty each year, and he served for three years, his chances of being killed, wounded or captured would not be 30 percent. The reason for this is that if he survived unscathed the first year, his original cohort would be 10 percent smaller. Thus, once the 10 percent who had become casualties in the first year had been replaced and everybody again faced a 10 percent chance the second year, then that would be 10 percent of the remaining 90 percent who survived the first year. So after three years, Tommy would have a 10 + 9 + 8.1 percent chance of becoming a casualty, which is 27.1 percent.
Likewise, going through the same process with the Navy figures results in a 12.27 percent chance of becoming a casualty for a sailor who served all four-and-a-half years of the Great War.
Of course, not everyone would have served the whole war, not everyone in the Navy would have been borne out to sea each year, and not all casualties at sea resulted in death (although the majority actually did.)
This might be why Michael Clodfelter’s ‘Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopaedia of Casualty and Other Figures’ puts the Navy death rate at around 5.5 percent of the 647,237 who served in the Royal Navy during the whole war (as compared to 5,215,162 he lists as serving in the British Army and 291,175 in the RAF.)
Statistics of the Military Effort also points out in one of its footnotes that the Navy death figures do not include those of the Merchant Marine, who certainly aided the war effort, even if they weren’t fighting directly. This figure is 14,661.
With regards to the RAF, this was formed when the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) and the RFC (Royal Flying Corps, part of the Army) were amalgamated in April, 1918. The Naval death figure – 32,208 – is inclusive of the RNAS, as well as the Royal Marines. However, the Army figure given above is not inclusive of the RFC (a point also made by the Virtual Centre for Knowledge on Europe in their endnotes.)
To track down this, as well as the death rates for the successor service, the RAF, the Forces Network consulted Chris Hobson’s book 'Airmen Died in the Great War 1914-1918'. The death rates for these two services come to 4,053 and 4,364.
In all then, Britain’s military, and military-related, deaths in the First World War weren’t 702,410, they were 702,410 + 32,208 + 14,661 + 4,053 + 4,364, for a grand total of 757,696.
But even this might be too conservative a figure because there were multiple civilian deaths throughout the war, due to Zeppelin and Gotha bomber raids, starvation from food shortages and disease. Corrigan makes a point of saying that the influenza virus that struck at the end of the war tended to hit, counterintuitively, the young and healthy. And since conditions in and around the trenches facilitated contagion, many who caught it would have been young men, the same demographic we are examining.
In its 2007-2008 annual report ‘World War I casualties’, the Virtual Centre for Knowledge on Europe estimated that the British Isles actually suffered 994,138 deaths, including 109,000 civilian deaths.
The Virtual Centre also consulted Statistics of the Military Effort and, as mentioned, The Medical History of the Great War, as well as liaising with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). They have since come up with this larger number that they believe is a more accurate accounting of all deaths attributable to the Great War.
What this amounts to is 2.19 percent of the population. As the revisionists have pointed out, this is no ‘lost generation’, but the impact becomes clearer when the figure is put into perspective.
Bear in mind that, as noted, the vast majority of these deaths were males, so they would have actually been 4.38 percent of that half of the population.
Additionally, the 1911 Census reveals that the population of the time was bottom heavy, meaning that approximately 40 percent were under the age of 20, and therefore mostly too young to fight. Also, 10 more percent were over the age of 55, and thus too old to fight.
That left 50 percent of roughly fighting age, so in fact 8.76 percent of males in this age bracket were killed, and this doesn’t even take into account the fact that much of this toll would have fallen on the younger end of this group. That’s because those between 19 and 41 did the bulk of the fighting and dying, as conscription went up to this age when it was introduced in 1916 (it went up to 51 right at the end of the war).
Essentially then, around 10 percent of young men must have been killed. To be sure, this is a smaller portion of those who were killed than in the Crimean War, as Dan Snow has pointed out. Clodfelter puts the figure at 22,182 British dead out of 97,846 engaged in the conflict, giving a 23 percent death rate.
Today’s British Army, including both regular and reservists, is a little over 100,000 strong, and if 23,000 of them were killed in a conflict, the nation would be rocked by this loss. In 1851, a few years before the outbreak of the Crimean War, the population of Britain was also only 27 million, as opposed to 65 million today.
But there’s still something very different about 23 percent of a relatively small army not coming home to 10 percent of an entire nation’s young men not coming home.
The impact of the Great War also didn’t end with the deaths it caused. Many multitudes more were wounded.
Using the same source material – Statistics of the Military Effort and Chris Hobsons’ book – the Forces Network has estimated that the wounded figure for Britain would have been 1,685,257.
That breaks down as 1,662,625 for the Army, 5,135 for the Royal Navy, 16 percent of the total dead; if we assume the same ratio for the Mercantile Marine then the figure is 2,346. Page 507 of Statistics of the Military Effort gives RFC and RAF casualties in France only from mid 1916 to the end of 1918 – these come to 1,591 killed and 2,887 wounded.
Given Chris Hobson’s subsequent figures, these air service stats in Statistics of the Military Effort seem a little low, but for the sake of argument, and since the air service stats in this case are marginal in comparison to the others, it seems reasonable to go with them for this exercise.
Since the wounded figure for the air services, 2,877, is 180 percent of the death toll figure, 1,591, it makes sense to multiply the total RAF (4364) and RFC (4053) death rates for the war, 8,417, by 1.8, which gives an approximation of 15,151 injured. Taken together, these all add up to 1,685,257.
This, however, represents not the actual number of wounded men but the number of wounds, the difference lying in the fact that a man could be wounded more than once.
It is not possible to know for sure from the sources used exactly how many individual men were wounded, but it can be fairly well guessed at.
This is because page 245 of Statistics of the Military Effort has a table with information taken in late October 1917. It shows the total number of men up to that point who had been unlucky enough (or, perhaps lucky, depending on whether they wanted to get out of the line) to be wounded two or three times. The total?
In addition to this, the Casualties section of Statistics of the Military Effort also shows that by October 22, 1917, officers in the Army had received 32,402 wounds and men 741,118. (This time, for some reason, the Royal Naval Division is not counted but approximate figures were filled in later – 199 wounds to officers and 4,838 to men).
The Royal Flying Corps is confusing – it’s part in the Army is included in some tables, though, as noted, the death figures are not part of the overall accounting. In any case, 1.8 x the 1914, 1915, 1916 and 1917 dead listed by Hobson up to October (2661), 4,790, isn’t statically significant in this case so it has been left out.
So adding together 32,402 (Army officers), 741,118 (regular soldiers), 199 (Royal Naval Division officers) and 4,838 (Royal Naval Division men) comes to a total of 778,557 wounds sustained by the Army up until late 1917.
Immediately, it’s easy to see that 83,203 is roughly 10 percent of this total (10.69 to be precise). This means that 1 in every 10 ‘wounded men’ in many stats probably didn’t exist, the wounds going instead to men who had already been wounded once or twice.
Multiplying the original wounded figure of 1,685,257 by .9 gives 1,516,731 British men wounded, 3.31 percent of the population, if one uses Corrigan’s figure of 45,750,000 in 1914. (For their part, the Virtual Centre had a figure of 1,663,435 wounded British men).
Theipval Memorial near the Somme (image: Paul Arps)
That means that, in addition to the 8.76 percent of those aged roughly 20 to 55 who were killed in the war, 13.24 percent would have been wounded, a grand total of 22 percent of the fighting-age male population.
(This may be a little high, to be sure, since some of those wounded would have gone back and been killed, which means they would have been counted twice here. Although it is a little difficult to estimate what proportion of those deaths might have happened before a given wounded man went back into the line, and thus what chance he had of being killed subsequently. In any case, the figure still works as an approximation).
Fortunately, the vast majority of the wounds sustained were recovered from, at least physically. But a certain subset were not.
Hospital figures listed in Statistics of the Military Effort show that there were around 40,000 amputees, that St. Dunstan’s Hospital took in roughly 2,000 blind patients, and 30,000 who had lost one eye and, according to the book ‘Faces From the Front’, which charts the efforts of surgeons to do reconstructive surgery on soldiers the French called ‘the men with broken faces’, 5,000 men were treated for facial wounds. (This last group again might overlap slightly with those who lost one or both eyes).
That means a total of roughly 77,000 men were left permanently disfigured by the war – about 5 percent of the total wounded, or another .67 percent of the fighting-age (20 -55) population, making 9.43 percent when added to the dead.
As for psychological wounds, it can be safely assumed that the 1,736 patients treated at Craighlockhart - and, according to the National Center for Biological Information, the 735 unable to return to duty – are a drop in the bucket of all those suffering from shell shock, or PTSD.
The documentary series ‘The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century’ features footage of men with all manner of strange maladies, such as a one who compulsively cowered under a bed at the mere utterance of the word ‘bomb’; another man with a strange facial tic caused by his having bayoneted an enemy soldier in face; and a former serviceman continuously shaking from head to toe, utterly unable to walk without a cane.
Pat Barker, whose novels ‘Regeneration’, ‘The Eye in the Door’ and ‘The Ghost Road’ deal with the meeting at Craiglockhart and subsequent friendship between the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, theorises on the cause of shell shock, or neurasthenia, through the lead character, Dr. William Rivers.
The breakdown in nerves occurs, Rivers postulates, because of the ongoing, extreme stress of being stuck in a trench whilst being bombarded continuously by artillery. This is meant to have been a uniquely stressful experience, and may explain the kind of mental illness alluded to in Sassoon’s poem ‘Repression of War Experience’:
“No, no, not that,—it's bad to think of war,
"When thoughts you've gagged all day come back to scare you;
"And it's been proved that soldiers don't go mad
"Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
"That drive them out to jabber among the trees.”
Niall Ferguson points out in ‘The Pity of War’ that even soldiers like the ‘almost psychopathically brave’ German Stormtroop officer Ernst Junger could be driven mad by the horror of an artillery bombardment.
Junger likened the experience of being caught in the open when the shells started raining down to being tied to a post whilst a madman swung a sledgehammer in his direction, never knowing if it was going it hit his head or the post.
As for being literally tied to a post, the 306 British men executed during the war are naturally included in the fatalities but what hasn’t been covered yet are other forms of discipline.
Starting on page 643 of Statistics of the Military Effort, it shows that, between 1914 and 1920 there were 304,262 courts-martial proceedings involving officers and soldiers, of which 141,115 took place on the home front and 163,147 abroad.
On average, 78 percent of the officers were convicted and 85 percent of the soldiers were. This may have been because of some underlying classism, or possibly also because the social configurations of the time meant that those who became officers were fortunate enough to come from backgrounds that inculcated more internalised (i.e. ‘middle’ class) discipline, perhaps making it at least seem less necessary to go through with punishments. An upbringing of that nature may well have exposed a young man, even indirectly, to the upper echelon of the Army, making it seem more familiar and intuitive when he entered it formerly.
Also, when punishments were meted out, they were often different in nature. Field punishment number 1 and 2 (tying or shackling a man to a fixed object, or forcing him to perform duties whilst restrained, i.e. perhaps marching in leg irons) were never carried out on officers. Instead, they tended to be cashiered or dismissed, or reprimanded in some way.
For the men, there were 78,758 cases of field punishment, which, divided amongst the more than 5 million men who served in the Army (it was largely an Army procedure). That meant that a battalion of 1,000 men might have 15 who experienced field punishment during the course of the war.
Some sources talk about this being fairly widely (and unfairly) used, though it seems at least equally likely that, like the wounded, this might well have been applied several times to the same individual, or individuals – the ‘usual suspects’, as it were. Two drunken idiots kicking off every six months or so and picking a fight with their sergeants, for example, might well account for the entirety of its use within a given battalion over the whole course of the war.
Away from the battlefield, many others were imprisoned or detained, often for relatively short periods of two years or less, but some received penal servitude, 142 men for life and 7,231 for three years or more.
So taking courts-martial as a whole, the 304,262 people subjected to the stress of going through one, even if they were acquitted, came to 3.6 percent of the more than 8 million men mobilised, .67 percent of the population and 2.68 percent of fighting-age males, taking the total of dead, permanently wounded, and those possibly bearing grudges as a result of military discipline to 12.1 percent of fighting age men.
Also, although a relatively small number of executions were carried out, and a mere three of them on officers (1 for murder, and 2 for desertion), the mere threat of a court-martial resulting in death must have weighed on the minds of many. After all, as well as the 306 executed by firing squad, around 2,700 more men were sentenced to death but had their sentences commuted to lesser punishments.
Even officers were not immune, as illustrated by a section in the book ‘A Subaltern’s War’, published variously as either Charles Edmund Carrington or Charles Edmonds (a pseudonym).
At one point during the Battle of Passchendaele, Carrington was separated from his men and struggled to get back. When he did so, he says he had half expected to be court-martialled, though instead received a medal for his efforts.
It’s easy to see why the monochromatic battlefield of Ypres was easy for Carrington to get lost in, and it’s worth remembering that, whilst Passchendaele represented the very worst of the hellish weather on the Western Front, the conditions were often extraordinarily unpleasant at other times too.
Dan Snow may be right about troops spending a limited time in the firing line, and they spent even less time actively engaged in battle, but that didn’t mean life was easy. Even in quiet sectors, or when out of the line, the conditions were often appalling, as these sections of John Ellis’ ‘Eye Deep in Hell’ make clear:
“The company would take up its new position after at least one night in billets, which they had reached, as like as not, by a route march… These in themselves were gruelling experiences, the troops often covering fifteen or twenty miles.”
In addition, with each man weighing on average 132 lbs, he was often required to haul between 60 and 77 lbs of uniform and kit:
“Only ten minutes rest was allowed every hour, and in summer the exertion often proved too much. A Coldstream Guards’ officer, Lieutenant St. Leger, described one such march in which many men fell out, fainted or had fits. Once his battalion reached billets it was decreed that everyone who had fallen out had to do a further five hours marching in full kit; those who had not actually been unconscious at the time also had to suffer eight days CB (confined to barracks).”
The other extreme was also a huge problem:
“The trenches were invariably ankle-deep in mud, and often the level grew much higher. It was common for the water to be at least a foot deep and hardly rare for it to reach a man’s thighs. There were actually occasions when men had to stand for days on end up to their waists, or even their armpits, in freezing water. Usually, of course, the water mixed with earth in the trenches and turned to thick mud, making each step and effort. The shortest journey became a major enterprise. An officer of the 19th London Regiment… told how it once took him three hours to make his way up a communication trench 400 yards long.”
France and Flanders didn’t only have some of the most trying weather conditions, they were also the most dangerous place for a British soldier to be.
Roughly 50 percent of the British war effort was focused on the Western Front, and men there suffered a disproportionately high number of casualties – 12 percent of those sent were killed and 37.56 percent wounded, for a total of almost 56% battle casualties, when the odds of going missing or becoming a POW are accounted for.
In fact, the risk was higher within specific parts of the Army, most notably the PBI, Poor Bloody Infantry.
As Corrigan points out, the British soldier in the First World War was at the tip of a very long spear. This means, in effect, that he was not only at the front of a vast trench system through which he was rotated constantly, limiting his time in the line, but also that he was supported by an ever-increasing bureaucracy and an array of specialists.
What Statistics of the Military Effort reveals is that, as the war went on, the share of it being fought by the infantry, and other combat arms, decreased considerably.
On page 76, it shows that in September 1916, the infantry were 42.9 percent of the British Army, and 58 percent of the combat arms, the others being cavalry, artillery, engineers and the Royal Flying Corps. Non-combat arms made up 25.5 percent of the Army and consisted of units like the Army Service Corps, the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Pay Corps, which, believe it or not, expanded exponentially over the course of the war (illustrated on page 225) – a move necessitated presumably by the fact that the British Expeditionary Force also increased hugely from its relatively small size in 1914.
By June 1918, the Machine-Gun and Tank Corps had both been added to the mix but the combat arms had decreased in proportion from around 75 percent of the Army to about 65 percent. The infantry by now were only 32.88 percent (51 percent of the combat arms).
One should not diminish in any way the contribution to the war effort of the BEF’s non-combat arms (not to be confused with the Non-Combatant Corps, which was made up of conscientious objectors). Men in these units likewise operated under the most trying conditions, risked life and limb, and the war would almost certainly not have been won without their efforts.
But the fact is that, to answer one of the central questions of this article – what the odds of a combat soldier dying in the First World War really were – one must discriminate between combat and non-combat units. Because what Statistics of the Military Effort also shows is that the vast majority of the deaths sustained, around 95 percent, went to combat arms.
Furthermore, 85 percent of casualties in general were borne by the infantry. Yet, as noted, they only made up between 43 and 32 percent of the Army in 1916 and 17, respectively.
Those serving on the Western Front would have been even harder hit, given the disproportionate rate of death, wounds and chances of becoming a POW there (55 percent of those there became casualties).
So to work out the odds of our Tommy coming to harm if he’d been in France or Belgium during the war, we must add 42.9 to 32.88 and divide by two to give a rough estimate of the average proportion of the Army taken up by the infantry over the war.
That averages out to 37.89 percent of the entire British Army, amongst which 85 percent of the casualties must be allocated. 85 divided by 37.89 is 2.24, or roughly two-and-a-quarter times the normal chance of becoming a casualty overall. As stated, that was 55 percent for everybody on the western front, so 2.24 times 55 gives a 123.2 percent chance of becoming a casualty.
This might seem unbelievable, but it is in fact comparable to Crimea. Whereas 23 percent of British soldiers died there, well over 100 percent of them became casualties of illness, the primary cause of death. That meant that a number of men fell seriously ill more than once.
What this figure implies is that the British infantrymen on the Western Front, assuming they served for any significant amount of time, were pretty much guaranteed to become a casualty in some form. (The Lancaster University maths department has advised that, of course, no single man ever had a 100 percent chance of becoming a casualty. Multiplication can be used instead of addition to arrive at the odds of a single man being killed, wounded or going missing. This can bring the figure very close to, but never actually reaches, 100 percent because, naturally, some lucky few men got through with no injuries at all whilst others sustained multiple wounds. Irish Guards officer Alexander Turner, whom the Forces Network contacted in the course of researching this article, noted indeed that one individual who served in his battalion during the war, Neville Marshall VC, was wounded an incredible nine times).
Statistics of the Military Effort shows that, of all casualties sustained by the infantry, 19.96 percent were as fatalities, 64.23 percent were as wounds and 14.81 percent were in the form of missing soldiers or those who became POWs. In ‘Kaiserschlacht 1918: The Final German Offensive’, Randal Gray says that the British suffered 177,739 casualties between March 21 and April 5 as part of the German spring offensive. 72,000 of these were in the form of prisoners taken by the enemy.
For the remainder who lived, it seems very likely that almost all of them would have sustained some kind of wound during their time in France and Belgium, and some more than one.
And finally, because we know that about 20 percent of the infantry’s losses were in the form of dead, that means that our Tommy on the Western Front would have had a 24.64 percent chance of being killed (his 123.2 percent chance of becoming a casualty multiplied by .2).
The odds were apparently slightly worse for Scottish soldiers. Clodfelter says that 26.4 percent of them were killed, and 20 percent of Oxford students who served were.
But even this isn’t the worst it got. Airmen, of course, sometimes had stunningly short life expectancies, depending on whether or not they went through a particularly perilous period. In ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’, Joshua Levine tells us that at one point new pilots might only be expected to last 11 days.
As for soldiers, it must be borne in mind that that 12 percent death rate for those on the western front wasn’t only an average of all arms, but also of all times – those who were there from the beginning would have had a higher chance of death (or injury) than men who joined up, or were conscripted, later.
The character of a given unit was also a factor in the exposure of its members to risk. Tony Ashworth’s detailed account of the development of truces in ‘Trench Warfare 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live System’ divides battalions into three broad categories: Unreliable units whose members were more likely to fraternise with the enemy or, later on, to engage in only predictable, deliberately inaccurate perfunctory fire; ‘elite’ units that could be counted upon to aggress the enemy all or most of the time; and the remaining battalions that fells somewhere between these two extremes.
In researching my great grandfather’s military service, I learnt that his unit, the 1 Grenadier Guards – which was about as elite a unit as one could be in at the time – sustained an incredible number of deaths and injuries.
Alan Ogden, the Regimental Archivist for the Grenadiers, informed me that my great grandfather's battalion had suffered 1,286 fatalities over the course of the war. Battalions were about 1,000 strong at the start of the war, meaning that new members were put in and cycled through the unit several times (4,434 men served within 1 Battalion over the whole course of the war).
This gives an overall death rate of 28 percent – it was 29 percent for 3 Battalion, 32 percent for 2 Battalion and 34 percent for 4 Battalion.
In fact, had my great grandfather not been transferred to the home front after becoming a casualty himself early on in the war, his odds of death would have been closer to that of those in 4 Battalion. The German sniper who shot him in the shoulder, and narrowly missed his heart, may well have done him a favour in the long run because M Gillott, editor of ‘Great War Diaries: 1st Bn Grenadier Guards War Diary 1914 – 1919’ tells us:
“Of the original thousand men (who served from the opening of the war), nearly 90% would become casualties during the war. A third (33 percent) would be killed. While recovered sick and wounded would be recycled through the Battalion, very few would served (sic) to the end of the war unscathed.”
There were also the invisible injuries that continued to impact men after their service, and thus British society in general. My great grandfather applied for, and got, a service pension with funds awarded on the basis that his war service had probably exacerbated, though not caused, his ‘pulmonary tuberculosis’ (which may well have been lung cancer – he did reputedly smoke, well, like a trooper.)
Niall Ferguson opens his book, ‘The Pity of War’, with a discussion that mentions his grandfather, who was also shot through the shoulder by a sniper, the bullet also narrowly missing his heart. As well as this, he was also gassed, something that impacted his lungs for years afterwards.
Gordon Corrigan attempts to quantify the extent to which these kinds of injuries might have impacted British society:
“One way in which non-fatal casualties might be quantified as to their effect on the nation and on the generation that fought the war is to examine the number of pensions paid after the war to men who were incapacitated by their wounds. While it might be argued that a man who had been a marathon runner before the war and now was minus a leg could become a lawyer instead, and thus still make a contribution it is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of men receiving a war disablement pension were to a greater or lesser extent incapable of performing as they might otherwise have done, and to have been affected by the war. Medical boards began to sit immediately after the war to decide who should qualify for a war disablement pension. The number awarded each year increased, as men came forward or as wounds initially thought to have been cured flared up again. In 1929 the number of men in receipt of pensions reached its peak, and then began to decline as men recovered entirely or began to die off through nat ural causes.”
“The British government made monetary awards, either as lump sums or an pensions, to 735,487 men. Many of these awards were for non-battle casualties, but if the man was serving at the time he contracted the disease or suffered the accident, it was considered to be attributable to war service… the total of those who died in the war plus those accepted as having been left physically or mentally disabled by it comes to 1,437,897.”
Corrigan also mentions that in the 1930s the British Legion helped organise pensions for an additional 100,000 men not initially thought to be eligible for them:
“Adding this to our figure of men killed or affected by the war, we arrive at a figure of three per cent of the total population, or nineteen per cent of the males of military age.”
In fact, if the total pensions figure of 835,487 is added to the higher death toll of the war presented in the Virtual Centre’s report, 994,138 deaths, the total figure comes to 1,829,625. That’s 4 percent of the total population (again, which is listed by Corrigan as being 45,750,000 in 1914), 8 percent of the males, 16 percent of adult males, and of course an even higher proportion of men of military age – 19 to 41, which Corrigan has factored in, hence his slightly higher figure of 19 percent.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider just how significant an impact almost 1 in 5 young males across an entire nation being killed or permanently impacted by a war really is. However, even this might underestimate the scale of damage because, as Len Deighton says on page 153 of ‘Blood, Tears and Folly’:
“Pensions for the widows and disabled were minuscule, and the cruelly contrived demands of postwar medical boards persuaded some veterans to give up their pensions rather than annoy their employers by frequent absences.”
We can therefore surmise that some who suffered the long-term effects of war wounds may have been dissuaded from even seeking pensions, given that they could have been aware of the ‘minuscule amount’ possibly being received by a family member, friend or neighbour.
Turning to the back of Deighton’s book reveals the source of his information on what he says were the paltry sums paid out. The attribution reads simply:
“My father was one of them.”
Thanks to the CWGC, Dr. Stephen Bull, the RAF Museum, the Lancaster University Maths Department and Alan Ogden, Regimental Archivist for the Grenadier Guards, for assistance with this article.
For more information, read Michael Clodfelter’s ‘Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopaedia of Casualty and Other Figures’ ‘Mud, Blood and Poppycock’ by Gordon Corrigan, ‘Kaiserschlacht 1918’ by Randal Gray and ‘British Tommy 1914-18’ by Martin Pegler, both from Osprey Publishing, ‘Blood Tears and Folly’ by Len Deighton, 'Trench Warfare 1914-18: The Live and Let Live System' by Tony Ashworth, 'On a Wing and a Prayer' by Joshua Levine, 'Eye Deep in Hell' by James Ellis and ‘World War I’ by Ken Hills for an illustrated depiction of the war that might be suitable for servicemembers with children.