The Everlasting Conundrum Of The Casualties on the Western Front in the Great War.

The Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D) defines the word Casualty (in a military usage) as: Used of losses by death, desertion etc. [1498]. But in strictly military parlance a casualty can be described as a serviceman who is 'not on parade', or on authorised leave of absence (attending to essential duties, at a course, or on leave). So, the 'etc.' above would include:

  • Sick and Wounded.
  • Missing (which itself would include the unidentifiable dead)
  • Prisoners of War (POW).
  • Absent Without Leave (AWOL was an Americanism, not used by the British in the Great War).
  • Deserters (unauthorised absence from his post for 21 days, but less if clear intent was evident).

Theoretically, it should have been quite easy for the British War Office or, indeed, for any of the combattant nations to quantify the total number of Killed/Missing they suffered in the Great War. Every soldier when he was inducted into the army filled out a registration form, and when he was demobilised another form was compiled. (Examples of completed forms can be seen in the surviving Army Service Records of the British soldiers of the Great War - the so-called 'Burnt Records' - that are available on microfiche at the National Archives, Kew, London). Patently, the difference between these two numbers is the number of soldiers missing or dead: we assume here that the POW's have already been repatriated when the final casualty figure is calculated.

The calculation of the number of wounded would, in principle, also have been quite straightforward since almost all of the wounded would have been counted at some point in the medical treatment system and, presumably, the theatre of war of wounding (e.g. Western Front, Palestine Front) recorded. It is recognised that the same soldier may have had multiple wounds and/or was wounded on separate occasions: all of which were recorded in the wounded figures. Also many light wounds were treated in the field and went unrecorded. To add to the inconsistency, the Germans classified their wounded rather differently and did not record 'light wounds' at all.

That only leaves the deserters who were still at large and unaccounted for, when demobilisation, or remustering to post-war duties, was completed in 1919/20. In any event, the British deserters were a relatively small number - the total number of Field Courts Marshals during the Great War was only 7,361 - and did not significantly distort the final figures.

The Western Front records
Using the same rationale it should have also been quite simple to sort out from the regimental and medical records all of the casualties that occurred on the Western Front.

But, of course, was not so simple or straightforward. Some soldiers served in theatres of war other than the Western Front and others served in more than one theatre of war; as did whole battalions and regiments. So the records would have to have been sorted out to separate the men who had served on the Western Front at some time from those who had not.

Tracing the dead and missing was even more difficult. Medical and regimental records were frequently lost or destroyed, as a result of enemy action. The chaos that ensued when the British Army was overrun in the 1918 German Offensive in Northern France can only be imagined. The details of the wounded, dead and missing must have been lost by many units as they were captured or retreated. In the case of the casualties that occurred during the First Somme, the British Official History admits, 'The clerk-power to investigate the exact losses was not available'.

Even the usually reliable, and essential, Regimental War Diaries - a record of events, usually written up every day within a specific regiment or battalion - can vary enormously in their coverage.

If one goes to the National Archives at Kew, one can examine many of these war diaries that have survived the vicissitudes of both the Great War and the years since. In some of them one sees that in the period that the unit was in the Front Line during, say, The First Battle of the Somme, or The Third Battle of Ypres there was a progressive deterioration in the standard of the compilation of the diary.

The first day's record was usually written out by the Adjutant of the battalion, in copperplate hand writing, or typed up by a battalion clerk, in well-regulated military style.

As the battle went on, successive compilers of the diary became a depressing series of casualties themselves - often duly noted in the diary - the conditions under which the diaries were written became more stressful and a deterioration in the record began.

Frequently, the War Diary entries ended up being rapidly scribbled in indelible pencil on a tatty piece of paper torn from a note pad or exercise book. Sometimes, the record ceases completely for a period, and all trace of the daily goings on in the regiment is lost, including details of the casualties.

At some point, when things quietened down, battalion and regimental roll calls and head counts were made, to determine the actual numbers of survivors and casualties. But the recall of the reliable classification of the casualties that had occurred in the chaos of war was more difficult. It should also be remembered that the 'normal' casualty rate in one of the larger Western Front Battles was 30% of the strength of the participating battalions, so each battalion would see a constant flow of drafts of new replacements. It was not unusual for single draft on the Western Front to number 500 men and officers - more than half the nominal strength of the recipient battalion.

Many of these drafts were sent to the Front directly from the military depots in the United Kingdom or France, and most of them were quite new to the Western Front. Depleted battalions were merged to form a single up-to-strength battalion; the weaker of the two being disbanded.

It can be readily imagined how rapidly the 'collective memory' of a battalion/ regiment, and the recall of the fate of the individual casualties, could be eroded over quite a short period of time by this continual flow of reinforcements, replacements, mergers and disbanding.

The variations in casualty figures
The number of British and Empire men Killed and Missing in Action, presumed dead, on the Western Front is officially given as around 750,000. This indicates that at best, one can only expect an approximation of the real casualty figures on a daily or longer-term basis. Inevitably, some figures were more reliable than others, but it is often difficult to identify which is which. Accordingly, the published figures can vary considerably.

A good case in point is the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, where an extraordinary variation occurs in the total number of casualties quoted by on both sides. The official British figure of 244,897, for the period 31st July 1917 to 21st November 1917, was submitted on the 25th February 1918 by the British to the Supreme War Council of the Allies - three months after the conclusion of the Battle. (One marvels at the rapidity at which these enormous casualty figures were collected and collated: even in today's computerised world the handling and processing of such large numbers would present a considerable logistical task).

One is also led to wonder whether the pressure on Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig to extract more new soldiers from the casualty sensitive Prime Minister Lloyd George and his cabinet, induced his Haig's Staff to massage the figures up somewhat.

On the other hand the German record states there were more than 300,000 British casualties; one would anticipate in the tradition of warfare, that these would be exaggerated somewhat. But, even more remarkably, Sir Winston Churchill maintains it was even higher at nearer 400,000.

A frequently quoted total casualty figure for this battle for the British, Germans and French is 700,000, which includes around 8,500 French. So, which is the most reliable figure does indeed remain a conundrum.

It is with these caveats in mind that the whole question of casualties figures in the Great War should be approached; be it on the Western Front or elsewhere.

All but the very final few of the non-fatal casualties of Great War have now passed from the scene, with virtually no trace to mark the passing of the majority other than the anonymous statistic. But the British and Commonwealth War Dead cemeteries (1,000 military and 2,000 civil) in France and Belgium are a constant reminder of the generation that gave their lives on the Western Front.

This 'ominous presence' is, perhaps, particularly evident to the British and former Empire visitors to the battlefield, whose men fought and died on what was then very much considered to be foreign soil on the Continent of Europe.

The highly visible Commonwealth War Graves Commission's (CWGC) cemeteries, in France and Belgium, have standardised head-stones, one for each individual soldier. Most are arranged in serried rows, like troops on parade, in immaculate garden settings. Even after the passage of 70 years they remain very impressive, poignant and evocative to the later generations, both the younger and older. Many can find the graves of their long lost relatives and family friends there.

On the Western Front, as the war progressed, the casualties included a whole gamut of losses in effective manpower that were recorded as, e.g.;

  • Killed in Action (KIA).
  • Wounded in Action (WIA).
  • Died of Wounds (DOW - usually, outside the battlefield).
  • Missing in Action (MIA - including Missing Believed Dead).
  • Gassed.
  • Prisoner of War (POW).
  • Shell Shock - and it's various euphemisms.
  • Disease, - always a significant cause of debilitation, and mortality, even in the Great War.
  • Self-Inflicted Wounds (SIW).
  • Desertion - also see Executed by Shooting below.
  • Suicide - for obvious reasons rarely mentioned in regimental or battalion records.
  • Executed by Shooting.

A small, but significant category of deaths, these were the 'Shot at Dawn'. A total of 3,080 men were sentenced to death by Courts Marshal. Of which 346 (11%) were executed - 266 for desertion. The majority of those executed, 291(84%) including 3 officers, were serving on the Western Front, mainly in France. They are buried there, in military cemeteries, unidentified as having been executed, among their former comrades under the standard CWGC headstone and inscription.

An excellent example of this not always standard classification of casualties, and other changes in battalion strength, is the record of a single unnamed battalion that served on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918, as given by the war historian, the late John Terraine.

  • Served. 8,313.*
  • Killed/Died of Wounds. 1,462. (17.6%)
  • Wounded/Gassed. 3,648. (43.9%)
  • Invalided sick to the UK. 2,066. (24.9%)
  • Transferred to units in the UK. 227.
  • Transferred to other battalions and units. 896.
  • Commissioned in the field and transferred. 11.
  • Drowned. 1.
  • Executed by shooting after Field General Courts Marshal. 2.

* Representing a turnover, in just over four years, of over eight times the nominal strength of the battalion.

Any student of these various casualty rates quickly realises that the losses of the Central Powers (Germany-Austro/Hungary and, later Turkey and Bulgaria) in killed and captured were generally lower than those of the Allies, particularly so on the Western Front; as most of the post-war publications of the Allies generally admit. However, as stated earlier, there is often a widespread disagreement on the actual numbers of casualties quoted for any particular event, so most casualty rates will vary, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the source used. Ultimately, the decision of which source is used must rest with the individual researcher.

The Central Powers recorded a kill rate of around 35% superior to that of the Allies. A total 5.4 million of the Allies' soldiers died from all causes in the Great War against 4.0 million of the Central Powers'. Giving an appalling overall total of circa 9 million dead. Some British statistical sources give a ratio favourable to the Central Powers of 2:1

As for the capture of POWs, the official figures were also more favourable to the Central Powers if somewhat variable depending on the source. At the higher end of the estimates, around 3.7 million Central Powers soldiers became POW's whereas the Allies had around 5.1 million made POW. However, it is notable that three and half a million of the Allies taken as POWs were Russians, as were two million Austrian-Hungarians of the Central Powers.

As regards the wounded category, the casualty figures are circa eight million for the Central Powers, whilst the Allies reported circa 7 million, averaging 40% of those who served. However, the situation becomes muddied somewhat when it is realised, as mentioned earlier, that the Germans did not record minor wounds, whilst the Allies did. On the other hand, all the combattant armies recorded multiple wounds received by an individual soldier as separate woundings. And many wounded soldiers (55% of the British) were eventually returned to active duty, some to be wounded again: soldiers with as many as four or five separate wounding events were by no means a rarity.

Did the non-recording of German minor injuries mean that an even greater proportion of the Central Powers' soldiers was wounded than were those of the Allies? And, as the overall fatality rate on the Western Front is uniformly given by both sides as around 25%, why the discrepancy between casualties and deaths? It seems unlikely that the Medical Services of the Central Powers were that inefficient. Yet another series of conundrums unsolved and probably insoluble.

Perhaps a more realistic evaluation of the casualty figures amongst the combattant nations is the proportional loss of their actual fighting manpower - many soldiers were never in active service on the Western Front.

During the duration of the war on the Western Front, France lost 16% of its fighting soldiers at an average rate of 900 men per day. Whilst the figure for Germans, with double the population, averaged 1,300 and the British, with roughly the same population as France, lost 460. Of course, at the time of a major offensive by either side, the daily casualty rate soared. Particularly notoriously, when on the first day of the First Battle of the Somme - 1st July 1916 - the British and its Commonwealth casualties totalled 57,470, with 19,240 killed/missing, the majority due to machine gun fire.

Moreover, these Great War offensives lasted for months rather than the days of earlier wars (e.g. entire Battle of Waterloo took place during ten hours of daylight on the 18th June 1815). The First Battle of the Somme lasted for five months, Verdun 10 months and the Third Battle of Ypres (including Passchendaele), four months.

During the First Battle of the Somme, - July to November, 1916 - the British and Empire forces suffered 419,654 casualties, the French 204,253 and the Germans 437,000 - 680,000. At Verdun the French incurred 360,000 casualties and the Germans 340,000 to achieve, what was at best, a virtual stalemate.

Such figures readily exemplify the strategy of 'attrition' whereby losses would be 'acceptable' until the enemy was, in the phrase of the day, 'bled white'. This philosophy was first enunciated by the German Field Marshal Graf Alfred von Schlieffen in 1909. But it was General Erich von Falkenhayn who in 1916, in the run-up to the Verdun offensive, claimed 'The forces of France will bleed to death'. The same theme was enthused by the British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and others - notably a rather less enthusiastic General Sir Wlliam 'Wully' Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff for much of the war. It not only led to huge losses by launching repeated massed frontal offensives ('Big Pushes') on well prepared defensive positions, but was also used to justify the continuation of these offensives long after there was any hope that the promised strategic advance 'into the open countryside' or a 'breakthrough' could possibly be achieved.

Unreliable and contested, though many of these casualty figures may be, the sheer scale of their numbers is almost unimaginable to the younger generations; less familiar as they are with mass and frequent death on this scale. Appalling though they were, the 3,000 deaths of the New York Twin Towers incident in September 2001, only represented one seventh of the British deaths on 1st July 1916, less than one fortieth of the toll of the whole four and a half month 1916 Somme Offensive and one two hundred and fiftieth the total British deaths on the Western Front in the Great War.

If the list of the names and the battalions/units of the 415,000 British and Empire troops killed, missing and wounded at this First Battle of the Somme - 1st July 1916 to 18th November 1916 - were to be read out, with an average of five seconds devoted to each, it would take 24 days to read all of them. If an equivalent number of men were formed up into a column, three abreast, it would be 140km in length and take them 28 hours to march, non-stop, past a fixed point. Even so, it would only represent the men lost in one four and a half-month battle in a war that lasted just over 51 months.

The impressive serried rows of headstones in the many CWGC Western Front cemeteries only represent a fraction of those who died (60%) and, of course, there are no memorials anywhere to the vastly greater number of the maimed of body and mind who also suffered there.

As much of the data used in this article is ultimately derived from many well known primary sources of up to eighty years ago, it becomes rather academic to list specific references from then or more recent times. However, the author would like to thank Mr. John O'Brien of the South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association for pointing out some particularly interesting primary and later references.

The Everlasting Conundrum of the Casualties on the Western Front in the Great War.

In the preparation of the above mentioned WFA website article, many references and resources were consulted. But there is a practical limit to what the amateur war historian can do in terms of research; some of the useful data - particularly on the casualties in the British Empire and Dominion troops - was just not available. It is, therefore, most useful when a professional war historian - who, by definition has an infinitely wider resource base - provides a wide readership with such much wanted information.

In Brigadier Richard Holmes' latest and excellent book 'Tommy' (Harper Collins 2004 - ISBN 0-00-713751-6) there are some figures that are a highly informative supplement to those given in the article. Brigadier Holmes has been kind enough to consent to the reproduction of some of it here along with incomplete data already to hand.

Of course, to put the number of casualties into perspective, it is necessary to know how many soldiers were, potentially, at risk.

Numbers of troops who served on Western Front

Number of British soldiers

<= 4,000,000+

Minimum number (from March 1916)

<= 1,000,000+

Maximum number (1st August 1917)

= 1,721,056.

Total number of troops under British command, including British Empire and Dominions* in 1917

<= 2,000,000+

Australian contingent

= 300,000+

Canadian contingent (excluding Newfoundland)

= 400,000

Indian contingent

= 160,000

Newfoundland contingent

= ? **

New Zealand contingent

= 90,000

South African contingent



* Australia, Canada, India, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa.

** Some Newfoundlanders served in the British and Canadian armies.

*** Plus an additional non-combatant black, Native Labour Force.

Although the usual caveats apply as to most Great War casualty figures - as is made clear in Brigadier Holmes' book and in the original WFA article - these are the approximate figures for the British casualties on the West Front. (In brackets, expressed as a percentage of those who served).

Numbers of casualties (killed/wounded/missing) on the Western Front.


= 1,724,000 (43%).


= 180,000 (60%).


= 210,000 (53%).


= 3,616 (? %).

New Zealand

= 47,000 (52%).

South African

= 14,000 (47%).

The Dominion casualty rates are uniformly higher than those of the British. This can be accounted for, at least in part, by the fact that the Dominion troops were almost entirely front line troops with British units supplying much of the necessary support arms. Front line troops almost inevitably had higher casualty rates than those of support troops.

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