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First World War home page Aftermath
The quest for a 'just peace'
Counting the costs
Britain after the war
The British Empire after the war
The legacy of the war outside the British Empire
Remembering The First World War
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Counting the costs

Publicity for the British First World War film For the Empire included the slogan: 'Damn the cost, we must win this war.' Yet, for both the victors and the vanquished, the material and human cost of the conflict was devastating.


In economic terms, the First World War - fought at an estimated cost of $208 billion - caused the greatest global depression of the 20th century. Debts accrued by all of the major combatants, with the notable exception of the USA, stalked the post-war economic world. Unemployment was rife. Inflation dramatically increased the cost of living - most famously in Weimar Germany, where hyperinflation meant that, by December 1923, a loaf of bread cost 428 billion marks. The First World War abruptly ended a period of relative economic prosperity, replacing it with two decades of economic misery.

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Loss of life
Disabled ex-servicemen - opens new window
Registration of the Limbless
Ex-Servicemen's Association
In terms of loss of human life, the First World War was unprecedented. The number of war dead (i.e. those killed in action or from wounds received in action) was about 9.4 million: an average of roughly 6,000 deaths for every day of the war. The war's victors, the Allies, lost far more men (5.4 million) than the defeated Central Powers (4 million).

To these figures must be added the 15 million men who were crippled by their service in the First World War. In Germany alone, 2.7 million soldiers returned home with permanent disabilities. Only 800,000 of them received invalidity pensions. The ongoing cost of the war can be seen in the fact that, in Britain during the late 1930s, 639,000 ex-soldiers and officers were still drawing disability pensions. This figure includes 65,000 men whose disabilities were not physical but mental. Some servicemen were so traumatised by their experiences in the First World War that they spent the rest of their lives in hospital.

The victims of the First World War were not confined to the battlefield. The attempted genocide of the Armenian people cost between 800,000 and 1.3 million lives. As many as 750,000 German civilians died as a result of the Allied trade blockade. More Serbian civilians (82,000) died as a result of the conflict - largely from disease and starvation - than Serbian soldiers (45,000).

Millions of civilians and soldiers alike were killed by the virulent Glossary - opens new windowinfluenza pandemic that left none of the warring countries untouched in 1918 and 1919. In addition, there were the many millions of largely silent victims of the Great War: the widows, parents, siblings, children and friends who lost loved ones between 1914 and 1918. Historians have only recently turned their attention to the many ways in which survivors sought to cope with the grief caused by these innumerable personal losses. Their full cost is incalculable.
Influenza pandemic - opens new window
Influenza pandemic: East London

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Displaced people

The First World War also created a series of refugee crises, as the conflict forced whole populations - Armenians, Belgians, and Jews in Russia's Polish provinces - to flee from their homes to safer areas. The end of the war promised little better, creating a muddled legacy of displaced peoples throughout central and eastern Europe.

Post-war peace settlements in the Balkans and Glossary - opens new windowAnatolia, for example, led to the 'repatriation' of 1.2 million Greeks and 500,000 Turks. The truncation of German territory in Europe left roughly 9.5 million German speakers living outside the boundaries of the Weimar republic after the war. Many of the issues associated most readily with the Second World War - pogroms, refugee crises, forced transfers of populations, and genocide - had, in fact, already emerged in the First World War.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by the The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at the The National Archives.

FD 1/535-537: Various Medical Research Council files on the influenza epidemic, 1919.
FO 286/740: Demands for the repatriation of Greeks, Bulgarians and Turks, 1920.
PIN 26: Ministry of Pensions: selected First World War pension awards.
WO 32/5228: Repatriation of refugees from Mesopotamia, 1919-22.
WO 32/5726: Situation of Russian refugees at Constantinople, 1920.
WO 106/602: Various material on the repatriation of POWs, Mar-Jul 1919.


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