Farewell Life, Farewell Love
Centenary of the Great War (1914-1918)
In the 2018-3 issue of Population, the authors of this article study mortality among French military personnel during the First World War
This article provides precise and detailed insight into the mortality of French soldiers during the First World War, focusing on their survival time during the conflict. The article clearly contributes to the longpursued yet unfinished endeavour that is a thorough and definitive demographic assessment of this war. To provide a general framework for the article’s conclusions, it bears recalling certain multinational data on the losses incurred during what has often and rightly been referred to as the “hecatomb” or “the great bloodletting”.
According to an overall average estimate, the Great War caused the deaths of nearly 10 million soldiers, including more than 2 million Germans, nearly 2 million Russians, just under 1.5 million Frenchmen, 800,000 Britons, and 650,000 Italians, although these figures remain subject to debate. Counts include men from the most fertile age groups, between ages 19 and 40, that also made up the largest share of their countries’ labour forces. They form the “sacrificed generations”.
As a proportion of its total population and among Allied countries, France suffered the greatest number of military deaths after Serbia, slightly fewer than the Ottoman Empire in relation to the Central Powers. Deaths as tallied above correspond to troops killed in action. If we include soldiers who were wounded, taken prisoner, and who went missing, it becomes apparent that the Central Powers were the more grievously impacted side, with Serbia maintaining its tragic frontrunner status among the Allies. About 500,000 soldiers died after 1918 from wounds received or diseases contracted during the war.
These observations, which account for human losses in relation to the total population, are far from satisfactory. It is much more valuable and relevant for us to consider the proportion of military deaths in relation to the population of mobilized soldiers, which in turn should be characterized in relation to the economically active population. Due account must be taken of the fact that, depending on the sources consulted, the number of losses varies greatly (see tables by source in Rohrbasser, 2014, pp. 16–17). For example, France mobilized between 8,300,000 and 8,400,000 soldiers and suffered between 1,320,000 and 1,460,000 military deaths. For the United Kingdom and the British Empire, the number of mobilized soldiers ranges from 7,670,000 to 8,910,000, of whom 760,000 to 1,010,000 were killed. By calculating an average within these ranges and studying the correlation between the number of mobilized soldiers and military deaths, losses incurred are clearly shown to be proportional to the number of mobilized soldiers, consistent with the grim logic of war.
These figures’ most remarkable feature is their disparity, the degree to which they vary according to the source. Difficulties in conducting research, differing methods employed by various academic traditions, and smoothed averages as well as other – necessary but not systematically appropriate – numerical manipulations mean that here, as in many other statistical cases, caution and modesty are in order. It is more a matter of coming close to the truth than claiming to possess it outright, let alone imposing it.
The article’s authors have preferred to exercise this caution in the calculation and interpretation of numbers. They highlight the existence of a significant link between executions by firing squad in a regiment at the war’s outset and the survival time of soldiers in that regiment. This is an idea worth exploring. The authors also suggest that among the war dead, soldiers mobilized as early as August 1914 lived through an average of 18 months of war before being killed.
They point out significant differences in survival time depending on rank and corps, while providing appropriate nuance to the conclusion one might be tempted to draw about social hierarchy being replicated in survival time discrepancies at the front. Contextual factors, such as the department (département) in which soldiers were recruited or their assigned regiment, also bear out significant differences in survival time that merit further examination and investigation.