World War I death count 'too low by one million,' French historian says

The number of soldiers killed in World War I has been vastly underestimated, says French historian Antoine Prost. He tells FRANCE 24 how some nations failed to count all their dead and how governments differed over the burial of lost soldiers.

For years, historians of the Great War have settled for the figure of nine million soldiers killed during the bloody conflict that ushered in the so-called "Age of Extremes".

But that consensus has been challenged by an article published this week in the final volume of the "Complete Cambridge History of the First World War", part of a flurry of new studies to mark one hundred years since the war’s outbreak.

Its author, French historian Antoine Prost, says the number of soldiers killed is closer to ten million.

"Official statistics fail to take into account the soldiers who died as a result of illness or while being detained in prisoner-of-war camps,” Prost told FRANCE 24. “The armies often rushed to give their figures, seeking to play down their losses.”

Statistical omissions

Prost is Professor Emeritus at Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris. For his article, entitled “The Dead”, he combed through a century of statistics published by the warring nations.

In the case of France, Prost noticed that the military had only counted those who died while serving in the army, thereby excluding veterans who had returned to civilian life after the war.

“Current records claim around 1,325,000 died at the front or as a result of their injuries, but this does not include those – around 70,000 – who died of war-related illnesses upon returning home,” says Prost.

The French historian says the gap is even larger in Russia: “Soviet statistics omit the prisoners of war who died in German camps. We’re talking about some 200,000 people.”

As for Germany, its military leaders stopped counting casualties in late July 1918, more than four months before the armistice that brought an end to the war. “Figures for August, September, October and the start of November were added subsequently, but in a haphazard way,” says Prost.

Bucking the trend, one country actually magnified its losses. “US losses are generally estimated at between 110,000 and 120,000, but I discovered that 35,000 of them had died of the Spanish influenza before even crossing the Atlantic to join the war,” he says. "The Americans were keen to maximize their losses in order to establish themselves as a major military power.”

‘Some corner of a foreign field’

“The Dead” also examines the different armies’ burial practices, highlighting striking differences between the British army’s approach and that of its French ally.

In 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission, today known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, was tasked with building military cemeteries along the frontline – an institutional version of what the English wartime poet Rupert Brooke had described as “some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”.

“All those who fell for the British Empire, whether English, Scottish, Canadian or Australian, are buried on the Continent,” says Prost. “Had the British allowed bodies to be repatriated, only the richest families would have been able to – so they opted for a more democratic principle.”

France proved less organized. By the time the government set up a national commission to deal with the issue, in November 1918, many families had already travelled to the front to look for their lost ones.

“This was illegal, but if the families had enough money they could bribe undertakers to take the bodies back home,” says Prost.

The government eventually bowed to pressure from the public. More than 240,000 bodies were identified and sent back home, while the rest were buried in military cemeteries.

But, to this day, the French “corner of a [French] field” is a poor match for the 832 British military cemeteries and their 1,000 dedicated gardeners.

“The United Kingdom showed greater respect for its fallen soldiers, in part because the British army was initially a professional one,” says Prost. “Until 1916, the [British] soldiers who fought and died in northern France were volunteers – and, as such, were treated with higher regard than their French counterparts, who had little choice but to fight.”