Strange meeting

A solitary poppy left at Gibraltar's memorial to The Great War (Line Wall Road), by a visitor from Seaham, County Durham

I thought I would go for a different pitch for my Armistice Day/Remembrance Day post this year.

Sort of mid-way between the ‘Gosh we owe these people so much – they are all super heroes’ and the ‘I really don’t agree with any of this and wars are just a damn nuisance invented by politicians’ stance.

Mainly because of my ignorance, I thought I would check out the casualty lists for the world wars by nation.

But before I start on my exciting statistical analysis – I’ll add the personal stuff.

Like anyone of my generation, my great-uncles were in WW1 and my uncles were in WW2.  And similarly, there is always at least one family death.

So because I don’t have accurate details for WW1, lets go to WW2.  On my father’s side, he and his brother went to sea.  My dad was in the RN and Uncle Harry joined the Merch.  I think Uncle H got the raw end of the deal, as he seemed to spend half his time swimming around being rescued when his ships were torpedoed. Just as well the family were swimmers.  My dad had a nice time in the Mediterreanean – including Gibraltar.

On my mother’s side, one uncle was in the air force as a pilot, and the other was in the army.  The older one was killed not long before peace was declared, shot down over Holland.  Uncle Arthur was in the army in India, no idea what he was doing, but I do have a nicely carved box from his days over there.

Her youngest brother went into the RAF after the war and made it his career, coming out as a Wing Commander.  Not too bad for a lad from a council estate. Well done Uncle Bill.

And therein lies the difference of a few years.  He volunteered.  My father was conscripted, or whatever it was called in WW2 – called up I suppose.  Would he have gone otherwise?  Of course, not, and he said so too.  He wanted to stay at home working in the power station as a trainee engineer – essential services – but seems the manager’s son had to go to war, so he refused to sign exemption papers for my father.  Well, that’s the story I was told.  So he ended up in the engine room of destroyers as Chief Petty Officer at 21, or so.

Onto deaths from wars.

I’ve done a real wiki thing here because it’s going to be broad brush anyway.  The Great War aka WW1 resulted in around ten mill military deaths and seven mill civilian ones.

Memorial to those who served in the Great War patrolling the Straits of Gibraltar

Now, remember how WW1 started? Yes, that’s right, it was the whole Austrian-Hungarian empire thing.  So not surprisingly, there were nearly three mill deaths in the Ottoman Empire, nearly two and a half from Germany, and just over one and a half for Austria-Hungary.  Plus a couple of hundred thousand in Bulgaria.

In percentage terms, the Ottoman Empire wins the prize with nearly 14%, the other three come in between three and four per cent of the population.  Cos that’s important.  You need to decide whether you are looking at total numbers of people killed or the percentage of the population killed – big difference.

And – those figures are for total deaths, because even back in 1914-1918 we had collateral damage (aka killing civilians), and disease and famine.  For military deaths alone – Germany wins outright, (if not the war) with more than two million killed.

WW1 war memorial

Onto the so-called Allied Powers – biggest number of deaths without a doubt – Russia.  Nearly two million military, and one and a half mill civilians.  Followed by France, Italy, and the British Empire.

But if you look at percentages, the figures are totally different.

Quick check out of history here in case you don’t remember your lessons from the past. Serbia was a key player in all this which is probably why in percentage stakes, it wins hands down with a huge 16% of the population killed. Small population, but so many of them dead.  And similarly Romania, small population compared with Britain and France, but a disporportionate number of deaths.

And similar to absolute numbers of deaths, the percentage figures show Serbia and Romania, were followed by France, Greece, Italy and the British Empire.  Do look at the figures  for WW1 – they are interesting.

Moving swiftly on a few years to WW2, which records somewhere between 50 and 70 million people killed. Just wow!

We all learn our history from our own perspective.  So naturally I learned about how Britain suffered in WW2.  Um.  Not really when you look at the figures.  Not even half a million deaths and less than one per cent of the population.  Nowhere near WW1.

But look at Russia. Took the fall in WW1, and again in WW2 with a huge twenty three and a half million people killed, nearly 14 per cent of the population.   Russia, without a doubt has had a crap deal in world wars.

Next surprises, China was the one with the second most deaths in WW2.  China????  Somewhere between ten and twenty mill, of which three to four were military.  Small in population terms but mega in deaths.

Other surprising ones were Dutch East Indies, three to four million deaths, French IndoChina, one to one and a half million deaths, British India – one and a half to two and a half, Japan – two and a half to three mill, Poland – nearly six million people killed, and finally Germany, six to eight mill.

In terms of military, the only ones in the millions were Russia, Germany, China, and Japan (in that order).

But, and here we have a big but – let’s look at other WW2 deaths.  Holocaust deaths.  Approximately six mill Jewish people killed, plus Roma (gypsies), people with handicaps, prisoners of war – millions of Russians, millions of Polish people, homosexuals, Serbians, and erm, Roman Catholic clergy, Jehovah’s and Freemasons.   The list is never ending!!

I haven’t even mentioned the Japanese war crimes.  In fact, the so-called Great War, to end all wars, came nowhere near the atrocities committed in the second world war.

Check it out here, if you are interested.

So, here I am, realising that actually the UK and most other western countries weren’t the biggest sufferers in WW2.  I did look up a few later wars, you know, Korea, Vietnam, but seemed like the figures were pretty low.  Not in the 20 million dead rate anyway.

And then I found this interesting site because it seems Americans go big on ‘Veterans Day’, and I wondered why.

Here is a quote from the intro –

The United States of America has a somewhat unique relationship with war. While America is considered to be the most militarily powerful country in the world today, Americans as a whole have never experienced war in the way that many other countries of the world have. There is a huge disparity between the American experience of war and the global experience. This may have an impact on American attitudes towards war. Presented below are various statistics on causalities of war. The information is useful for reference material, but it is also useful for gaining an understanding of the human cost of war, and the cost of war for Americans compared to the rest of the world, which may be helpful in understanding cultural attitudes about war.

The total number of Americans killed in action from all major wars combined, the ten listed below, is 2,757,196, which, while a disheartening number, is about the same as the number of Vietnamese that died in the Vietnam War alone.

Interestingly, of the ten wars listed – the second biggest total number of deaths (after those in WW2) was actually the Civil War, where nearly 200,000 Americans were killed.

Do look at the pie charts on the site linked above, they pretty much summarise the earlier stats I quoted, although slightly different figures.  The effect is the same however, and all the more startling in graphical representation.

I don’t know what you all learned at school, but I sure as hell didn’t learn any of that.

And, back to WW1, one of my favourite poets.  Not Dulce et Decorum Est, which is what I normally post but a different one.  Still by Wilfred Owen though, who died a week before the Armistice was declared. A British First World War poet, if you haven’t heard of him.

Strange meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, –
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…’

Armistice Day/Remembrance Day is not a day to be sentimental.  It is a day to pay respects to those who died in whatever wars in the past. Nor is it a justification to engage in future wars, for whatever reason.  These days wars are rarely conducted in defence of one’s own country – but rather because of politics, foreign policy, money – and power. Perhaps there is nothing new there either.

Read the words of Wilfred Owen, read about the wars of the 20th century –  and then – if you can – justify extra war, but don’t glorify it.   Because I can’t. Dulce et decorum est it will never be.

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a ...
A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a trench

8 comments on “Strange meeting

  1. That Is the big difference between the States and Europe/Asia. Absolutely no boots on the ground here. We can’t even comprehend what it would be like except impressions gained from media. I also was struck during the commemorations of WWI in Britain last year, i.e. that incredible poppy display from the Tower, how very few Americans were even dimly aware. WWI is not “our” war the way WWII seems to be. I have to read the poem a few more times before commenting. Wilfred Owen deserves more than a cursory read, I’m sure you’ll agree. BTW, have you read “A Month in the Country?” God, I love that book.


    • You’ve nailed it, and that was what I was trying to get across. Biggest war deaths in America? At home. Invasions … Tally of deaths of invaded counties? …

      Although I was a generation divorced from it, growing up with war stories left its mark in my youth. Fear of invasion is very different to aggression.

      No. I’ll add to the TBR pile. It’s ages since I’ve read a book that wasn’t for reviewing or editing, or a mindless one for a chill-out. Can’t see it happening any time soon either.


  2. A very informing post, stats, and perspective Roughseas. I do enjoy getting little prisms that redefine my old views. Thank you for this. Thank you for the history, your research, and more so the Wildred Own poem. Wow.


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