Reflections on the Western Front (Part 2)–by the numbers

3 Jul

In Europe this month, there are numerous commemorations of the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Meanwhile, I’m distressed that so little attention has been paid in the U.S. to the centennial of World War I. The importance of that war in setting the stage for the 20th Century is hard to overestimate–the rise of Hitler’s Germany, the reluctance of the other powers to check him, etc. (Of course, events like the Congress of Vienna 100 years earlier can be seen as setting the stage for WW I. Such is history.) But for Americans, reflecting on WWI seems to be of little consequence. Perhaps the numbers can help tell the story why.

Consider the following table. Note that Civil War dead (750,000 or so) account for more than half of the 1.35 million military dead from ALL U.S. wars right up to the present, combined. So we can see why the Civil War is such a popular topic of interest in the U.S., even today. World War I, by contrast, represents less than 10% of those losses.

War Nation Military deaths Population Mil. deaths as % of population
American Revolution U.S. 25,000 3,900,000 0.64%
Civil War U.S.: Union and Confederate 750,000 31,400,000 2.39%
World War I U.S. 116,500 92,200,000 0.13%
World War II U.S. 405,400 142,100,000 0.29%
Viet Nam U.S. 58,200 213,300,000 0.03%
World War I U.K. and colonies 830,000 45,400,000 1.83%
World War I France 1,800,000 39,600,000 4.55%
World War I Germany 2,000,000 64,900,000 3.08%
World War I Russia 2,000,000 175,000,000 1.14%
World War I Austria-Hungary 1,350,000 51,400,000 2.63%
World War I Canada 60,000 7,200,000 0.83%
World War I Australia 60,000 5,000,000 1.20%
World War I New Zealand 17,500 1,100,000 1.59%

(Data from Wikipedia (U.S. casualties in all wars and other countries’ in WW I) and U.S. Census.  (census). Compare Wikipedia data on WW II casualties from all countries.)

From these numbers, it’s pretty easy to see why the Civil War looms large in the American consciousness, and even why World War II is so much more important than World War I for most Americans. (World War II is probably the moment when it became clear that the U.S. was a super-power, too.) In a way different than these other wars, WW I was not America’s war. We spent most of 1914-1918 avoiding getting into the war. The U.S. did not declare war against Germany until April 2017. By the time a million Americans were present in Europe, in 1918, more than 1.5 million Frenchmen had already died defending their country.

When folks characterize the French as being prone to surrender, I’m wondering what they are talking about. By the time WW I was over, the French had sacrificed the lives of more than 4.5% of their population (that does not even include war wounded)–a whole generation of young men wiped out. The same generation of the U.K. and its possessions was also decimated. It’s not hard to see why popular opinion (and thus politicians) in Europe did not support taking more aggressive action against Hitler as Germany positioned itself for the next world conflict.

It’s also easy to see why World War I still echoes so loudly along the Western Front today, and perhaps why we can barely hear those echoes here.

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