Lost generations: The demographic impact of the Great War

Population and Societies

510, April 2014

The 1914-1918 war is remembered for the sheer scale of human losses: at least 18% of the soldiers enlisted in the French army - some 1.5 million men - died in uniform. Using data from the latest historical and demographic research on military and civilian losses, the author compares the carnage of the First World War with another great scourge, that of infant mortality, whose order of magnitude was similar.

At the end of the Great War, the cohort of men born in 1894 was aged 25. Half of the men in this cohort had already been struck down by two major killers: infant and childhood diseases, followed by war. Their life expectancy,already low in peacetime (48 years) was shortened by 11 years. War losses among other cohorts depended on age at mobilization and duration of exposure. The conflict left half a million young war widows (aged below 45) and a million fatherless children. More than a million children were never born, and in 1939 France became the world’s oldest country, before the baby-boom turned the situation around.

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