NEEDED: “Tomb of the Unknown Civilian.”


Written by Richard Cosgrove, as posted on

On 28 July 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia and set in motion the events that led one week later to the clash of nations that became World War I.

This conflict caused casualties in unprecedented numbers, with the final total of deaths approximately 17 million. The roster of battles and their military deaths remain seared into the collective memory of the major combatant nations: France at the battle of the Frontiers on 22 August 1914 suffered 27,000 dead; Britain on 1 July 1916 (to this day remembered simply as the First Day of the Somme) lost 21,000 dead; the extended battle of Verdun of 1916 at Verdun cost the French and German armies some 300,000 dead. Some battles became defining moments in national identity, such as Vimy Ridge in 1917 for the Canadians and Gallipoli in 1915 for Australia and New Zealand. Other battles are recalled for stunning defeats: the Russians at Tannenberg in 1914 and the Italians in 1917 at Caporetto.

What is often not part of this tragic story is that of the 17 million dead, about 7 million were civilians. What led to such a high number of civilian deaths and who now speaks for the civilian dead? One answer is disease, for the flu pandemic of 1918 killed worldwide. Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations had 180,000 deaths, Italy 432,000 dead of flu-related causes and both France and Germany endured 200,000 deaths. In 1915, 150,000 Serb civilians died from typhus.

Another familiar explanation is the 1 to 1.5 million Armenians who died during the war through massacre or fatal neglect. The debate about the Armenian genocide has remained a lively historical issue that demonstrates history as a debate without end. Even these statistics do not, however, account for the total of civilian deaths.

Another one million civilians are now thought to have died from military action, caught in the midst of operations and being in the place at the wrong time. Add to that the migration of civilian populations and its attendant dangers of taking to the road to flee from areas of combat. For the elderly, the infirm, the sick and the young, this posed special dangers. For example, as many as 1.5 million Belgian refugees fled from the German juggernaut that rolled through their country in the opening stages of the war.

Famine provided another substantial number of civilian deaths, with Austria-Hungary and Germany, the targets of Allied blockade, the primary nations, with 460,000 and 420,000 deaths respectively. One frequently overlooked contribution was the insatiable demand for horses by armies. Despite mechanization horses continued to play a fundamental role and over 29 million died from military action, exhaustion, disease and neglect. Without horses agricultural production dropped and famine resulted.

In the past decade another smaller contribution to civilian deaths has received renewed study: those who died as the result of deliberate atrocity. The old narrative read like this: the German army perpetrated the rape of Belgium, with accusations of assaulting Belgian nuns and babies impaled on the tips of bayonets. The stereotype of the Hun was created and the British used (invented) these tales for propaganda advantage, especially in the United States. After the war calmer heads prevailed and the accusations of the Bryce Commission proved either exaggerated or false. The default conclusion became that few, if any, atrocities were attributable to the Germans, who vehemently denied such accusations.

Recent research on the atrocities of the German army in Belgium in August 1914 has created a new narrative. As a result of civilian resistance in the Franc-Prussian war of 1870, the German army in 1914 acted under a draconian code of how to treat civilians. It is now clear that German soldiers, experiencing combat for the first time, often mistook friendly fire for sniper attacks. Frustrated by a stronger Belgian resistance than anticipated, the German military responded with a series of reprisals that were far worse than the accusations of British propaganda.

On 23 August 1914, for example, in the Belgian village of Dinant the Germans executed 674 men, women and children, with the youngest victim a three-week-old baby; this total was about ten per cent of Dinant. On 25 August 1914, after capturing the city of Louvain a few days earlier, the Germans took the approach of their own troops for an enemy attack. In the ensuing hours the library, containing priceless manuscripts from the Middle Ages, was destroyed, 20 per cent of buildings were demolished and hundreds of civilians were killed at random. In August 1914 approximately 5000 Belgian and French civilians were executed by the Germans.

Of course the Germans were not alone. In the first month of the war the Austrian army killed about 5000 Serbian men, women and children. Conveniently authorities took photographs of mass hangings to record the atrocities. The report of Swiss-German criminologist Rudolf Reiss published in 1916 contained harrowing stories of the savagery visited upon Serbian civilians. Throughout the Balkans religious and ethnic hatreds invited rape, looting and murder upon populations. The Russians found a ready civilian target in their own Jews, with new pogroms begun on the alleged Jewish preference for the German cause.

Finally, although associated more with World War II, civilian populations were the victims of mass deportations to help a work force depleted by military service. Many of these individuals never returned to their homes. Amidst this chaos at least one positive story emerged. In 1916 when the Germans deported Henri Pirenne, arguably the greatest Belgian historian of the twentieth century and deprived him of books and notes, he began work on his classic multi-volume history of medieval Europe from memory. Unfortunately few stories had such a happy ending.

In this time of Great War remembrance individuals should reflect on the fate of the millions of nameless civilians who died. Many nations now salute the Unknown Soldier with a tomb; I do not believe that any nation involved in World War I has honored the Unknown Civilian.


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