It goes without saying that all wars are deadly but some conflicts stand out in history for the enormous human toll they took on the sides involved. Though the question of how to come up with a list of the deadliest conflicts has sparked academic controversy, as has the question of whether or not conflicts are becoming increasingly deadly. This requires taking into account developments in technology and armament, as well as population growh, both of which may explain the massive loss of life in combat experienced during the twentieth century.
Given this complex history, choosing which battles in these wars were the bloodiest can be difficult. One could argue that the phrase popularised by Mark Twain that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics” has some truth to it.
This is to argue that, in general, statistical data and what they appear to show should be questioned and evaluated with scepticism.
This is especially true when attempting to interpret battle statistics. The sheer intricacy of combat, as relayed afterwards through numerous and disparate sources, makes it simple to misread what occurred during previous wars.
As a result, creating accurate and relevant comparisons between historical battles should be approached with caution. A Google search for “history’s ten worst or biggest battles,” or words to that effect, will return several lists.
However, to guarantee that a list is actually trustworthy, it should be compiled by someone like Micheal Clodfelter. He has accumulated as much data on casualties as possible from conflicts and fights throughout history.
Clodfelter makes the following statement in the introduction to his book, ‘Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500 – 2000’:
To cut through the intricacy, he used a strategy that entailed comparing war reports with medical information. Despite this meticulous approach, he is forthright about the fact that any of his estimates are still vulnerable to criticism. Such is the complication of the subject.
Thus, the following list is based upon his best accounting of the 5 most deadly battles in history, with “deadly” meaning the number of people killed.
It is a depressing narrative, but it is historical in nature. The sheer scale of each of these missions explains why the World Wars in which they took place were so devastating. Battles of this magnitude have also left indelible marks on the collective psyche of the nations and peoples that fought in them, something that continues to loom in the backdrop of politics and international relations today.
Each battle is shown in ascending order. The figures do not include civilian deaths (unless otherwise noted) or POWs who perished in captivity. Please also keep in mind that Clodfelter claims that the military casualty estimates for the Battles of Hankow, Beylorussia, and Berlin are based on extremely broad estimations that are less credible than the other figures presented here.
The 5th Most Deadly Battle In History: The Battles of the Frontiers
The Battles of the Frontiers, essentially a major conflict that comprised a number of lesser ones (including the conflict of Mons), were the principal German push against France in the early days of the First World War.
In the years leading up to the war, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the Imperial General Staff of the German Army, planned an attack plan designed to bypass the majority of the French Army and quickly conquer Paris. The Schlieffen Plan, as it was known, concentrated German operations in northern France and Belgium, whereas the French expected more German resistance further south. The Battles of the Frontiers, essentially a major conflict that comprised a number of lesser ones (including the conflict of Mons), were the principal German push against France in the early days of the First World War.
In the end, German commanders who carried it out between August 14 and 25, 1914, did not follow it to the letter, though its general scheme was followed, resulting in the bulk of the opening German war effort taking place and being resisted in the north before being stopped at the Battle of the Marne. Trenches, as unpleasant as they were to live in, saved lives during the First World War, and this is a significant part of why so many lives (125,000) were lost in this fight, which occurred before trench lines were built.
The 4th Most Deadly Battle In History: Passchendaele
The Battle of Passchendaele, synonymous not just with dead but also with slime and mud, took place between July 31 and November 10, 1917.
It continued through some of the wettest weather witnessed during the war, and its muddy, water-filled craters have become the quintessential image for fighting on the Western Front in general – and not without reason, because dreadful muddy trenches were not limited to this engagement. They were just extremely terrible at the time.
A conflict principally between the British and the Germans for control of a portion of Belgium, total deaths, according to Clodfelter’s accounting, reached 151,000 – though, as with other major and complicated battles, numbers vary greatly.
The 3rd Most Deadly Battle In History: Moscow
The Battle of Moscow, arguably the turning point of the Second World War, took place between November 15 and December 5, 1941 (according to Clodfelter’s narrative), and effectively ended the German advance towards the Russian capital.
The Battle of Moscow, together with the Battle of Stalingrad, reversed the momentum of the German advance into the USSR, which had been so swift and determined since June 1941. It was then pushed back in the opposite direction, eventually resulting to the Battle of Berlin and the destruction of Nazi Germany.
Temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit hampered operations as much as soldiers and materials.
There were 155,000 war deaths in total.
The 2nd Most Deadly Battle In History: The Brusilov Offensive
The campaign, which took place on the Eastern Front during World War I, was named for General Alexei Brusilov, the leader of Russian forces at the time.
Its battle area covered a 300-mile front and lasted from June 4 to September 20, 1916, resulting in 215,000 war deaths.
It supported Russia’s friends elsewhere in the war, particularly Italy, which was fighting the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany’s main ally. The Germans were also militarily damaged as a result of the overwhelming Russian offensive, albeit it was Austria-Hungary that suffered the most, having been substantially weakened by the conflict.
In this sense, it aided in reducing Germany’s reliance on its key ally and weakening it for eventual defeat on the Western Front in 1918.
The Most Deadly Battle In History: Verdun
The Battle of Verdun is notable for being one of the rare occasions when the Germans mounted an assault on the Western Front during World War 1.
General Erich von Falkenhayn devised the attack, which was directed directly against a vital section of the French defensive line.
Falkenhayn reckoned that by instilling memories of Germany’s loss of France during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, they would toss every man into defending the fort at Verdun. In ‘Verdun 1916,’ William Martin reveals that German forces sent in to conquer the town were only given this aim to raise morale, rather than being told the truth. The truth being that they were meant as mere bait for the French counterattack.
The French obeyed Falkenhyn, but not without causing about the same number of German casualties, turning the campaign into a massacre for both sides and leading to a total of 234,000 fighting deaths between February 21 and December 18, 1916, according to Clodfelter.