Real World War I casualty figures may be much higher, says historians

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A gravestone in Belgium belonging to an unknown Royal Fusilier

More soldiers may have died in World War I than official records show and the numbers of veterans suffering shell shock was also hugely underestimated, suggest two leading historians.

Antoine Prost, professor of history at the University of Paris, says that post war governments across Europe produced conservative casualty figures, partly because of clerical errors and partly to stem anger among the general public.

Missing soldiers

Professor Prost’s claims are made in The Complete Cambridge History of the First World War.

‘The calculation of losses isn’t easy and most studies present lists of figures without explaining what they cover or how they have been established,’ he told The Times newspaper in London.

‘There is confusion concerning places whose borders had shifted; there is inconsistency in recording the deaths of soldiers from sickness and prisoners of war who died in captivity; and there is uncertainty surrounding the number of soldiers reported missing. It seems that in several cases, including Britain, the generally accepted calculations are underestimates.’

Shell-shock ignored

The book’s editor, professor Jay Winter of Yale University, adds that the scale of shell-shock was also misrepresented. He suggests that as many as one in five injured British soldiers suffered with mental health problems.

‘Medical and administrative practices and prejudice led to radical underestimates of shell shock. ‘Studies show stress in the Great War was probably more intense than in later conflicts and yet physicians were reluctant to diagnose many injuries as psychological.

‘To do so probably would have made it less likely [he] would receive a pension.’

PTSD undiagnosed

In addition huge numbers of soldiers would have been suffering from what would now be termed post-traumatic stress disorder. In an era when men were encouraged not to complain and to ‘just get on with it’, such issues went undiagnosed and unmentioned.

However, the trauma experienced in World War I continued to live with many veterans, otherwise unharmed, for their entire lives and had considerable, if hard to quantify, effects on their families.

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