While the Second World War is still widely discussed and analyzed, the horrors of the first one have almost faded out of memory. For more than four years, millions around the world were slaughtered by newfound weapons of destruction like artillery, tanks, poison gas, airplanes, flamethrowers, and many others. It was the first modern conflict, bringing science and warfare together in a new, terrifying way.
According to one estimate, more than 15 million people may have died in the war, though the real number is probably far higher. Tragically enough, about 13 million of those were civilians, killed because of starvation, disease, massacres, civil wars, and a variety of other tragedies brought about by the Great War.
10. Surafend Massacre
On December 10, 1918, a group of soldiers from the ANZAC – short for Australian and New Zealand – mounted divisions surrounded the Surafend village in Palestine. After sending the women and children away, the unit proceeded to massacre the male population of the small village with guns, bayonets, and heavy sticks, killing anywhere between 40-100 people and burning down most of the village’s buildings.
This would come to be known as the Surafend massacre, carried out in retaliation for the murder of an ANZAC soldier by a local thief. It was one of the most shocking episodes of the war, even if the perpetrators have never been identified or charged. The Surafend massacre could be understood in the context of wider tensions between Palestinian Arabs and the occupying ANZAC forces throughout the war.
9. Mount Lebanon Famine
Before the war, Mount Lebanon was a semi-autonomous Turkish region in what is now Lebanon, with its economy heavily reliant on the production and trade of silk. Beginning in 1914, many factors related to the war came together to cause one of the worst famines in the history of the region, killing more than 200,000 people in a span of over four years.
At first, maritime trade was cut off due to an Allied blockade in response to the Ottomans joining the Central Powers. It was followed by a land blockade enforced by the Ottomans, as well as a devastating locust attack that destroyed crops across Palestine and Syria.
Accounts from inside the city recount horrifying stories of starvation, including cases of cannibalism. The ordeal continued until the British and French victory over the Ottomans in 1918, as it decimated between one-third to half of the population of Mount Lebanon.
The British blockade of Germany began almost as soon as the outbreak of the war, aimed at starving out the German population and breaking its will to fight. While it was hardly effective in the beginning, the continued lack of supplies really started to hinder the German war effort by 1917, as the officers found it difficult to procure food or warm clothes for their units engaged on the bitter front.
For the civilians in German cities, the situation went from bad to catastrophic by the end of the war. It was compounded by factors other than the blockade, like a severe shortage of agricultural labor across Germany, resulting in its worst phase during the winter of 1916-17. By the end of it, more than 770,000 people had starved to death, along with millions of others that died due to malnutrition and other related-reasons in the years to come.
The German army crossed into Belgium in August 1914, beginning one of the most brutal occupations of the war that remains largely forgotten today. The atrocities began almost immediately, triggered by the stiff resistance posed by Belgian forces. Within the first four days of the invasion, around 850 civilians were shot or bayoneted to death around the Liege region alone.
In allied nations, the episode was termed the ‘Rape of Belgium’ by the press, even if some of the published details were blown out of proportion for propaganda purposes. Regardless, the German army verifiably committed multiple massacres during the Belgian invasion, killing more than 100,000 people in a variety of ways. In one instance, 674 citizens from the city of Dinant were executed on August 23, 1914 for alleged partisan sniper attacks against German soldiers. Many of these techniques would be used on a much larger scale, and to far greater effect, during the Second World War.
6. Battle Of The Somme
The Battle of the Somme – named after the river Somme in France – was a large-scale offensive undertaken by British and French forces to relieve the French army fighting at Verdun. Beginning on Jul 1, 1916, it was one of the bloodiest battles in history, pitting old, outdated tactics of maneuver against new weapons of war like artillery and machine guns.
Just on the first day, the British contingent – made of British, Irish, and Commonwealth soldiers – suffered more than 57,000 casualties and about 20,000 dead, making it the single worst day for the British military in its history. Chemical attacks were common on the narrow, 18-mile front, as multiple waves of French and British soldiers were sent in to overwhelm the heavily-fortified German positions. While the allies did achieve some of their military goals, more than a million soldiers were wounded or lost their lives in the five-months-long battle.
5. Central Asian Revolts
Beginning in the summer of 1916, multiple Russian-controlled provinces in Central Asia rose up in revolt against the Russian empire. The primary trigger was a decree by Tsar Nicholas II mandating all non-Russian males to be conscripted into labor units on the Eastern front, though tensions between imperial Russia and its colonized populations began a long time before the war.
The revolt started in Khodjent in modern-day Tajikistan, though it quickly spread to the provinces of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and other Central Asian territories under Russian rule. While the demonstrations were largely peaceful barring a few incidents, it was still brutally crushed by Tsarist forces, killing, by one estimate, more than 270,000 Central Asians before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Some modern politicans in countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have even termed it a genocide, though the classification has been difficult to prove due to the fog of Soviet censorship after the revolution.
4. Anti-Jewish Pogroms
While anti-Semitic violence took on horrifying proportions during the Second World War, it wasn’t completely absent from the first one, either. In fact, many historians agree that the wave of anti-Jewish persecution that swept across Eastern Europe after the war – especially in Ukraine and Poland, where more than 100,000 Jews were murdered in the pogroms of 1919 – laid the ideological foundation for the massacres of twenty years later.
The most destructive of these campaigns were carried out by the Tsarist Russian army. The violence peaked during the ‘Great Retreat’ phase of 1915, when the Russians deployed scorched-Earth policies against the local population during its retreat from Galicia and Poland. Cases of rape, robbery, and summary executions against Jews were common across the front – an ordeal that would continue long after the war was over. Unlike previous pogroms, most of the violence was carried out by Tsarist soldiers, often under explicit orders from the higher-ups.
3. Greek Genocide
While the Armenian genocide is still widely remembered and analyzed, it was only one of the many campaigns of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Ottomans in their bid to carve out an ethnically-pure Turkish state. The first of these genocides – now known as Late Ottoman Genocides – was perpetrated against the Greeks living in Anatolia, or the Asian part of modern-day Turkey. By even the most conservative estimates, more than a million Greeks were killed in massacres or forced marches to prisoner camps across Turkey.
The violence included summary executions, rape, forced conversion to Islam, torture, looting, and arson, mostly committed by members of the Young Turks movement and the Ottoman military. While some of the officers responsible were punished after the war, many weren’t, as the Young Turks were an instrumental part of the post-war Turkish government.
While it’s difficult – almost impossible – to track down all the underlying causes behind the widespread carnage of World War One, the rivalry between Serbian nationalists and the Austro-Hungarian empire was a central part of the puzzle. It was, after all, the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand (that’s him pictured above) by a Bosnian Serb nationalist that triggered the conflict in the first place. Austria used that as a pretext for invading Serbia, forcing all the other major powers of the time to choose sides based on their respective national interests and military alliance treaties.
The retaliation for the assassination would be brutal. In the invasion that followed, Serbia lost a higher proportion of its population than any other country in the war. According to Serbian estimates, more than 1.2 million Serbs were killed during the three years of occupation – about 800,000 of them civilians. Many more were deported, tortured, raped, or forced into labor by the Hapsburg forces, as the entire Serbian population was treated as potential enemies and traitors to be eliminated.
1. The Spanish Flu
The last phase of the war overlapped with another global tragedy that claimed the lives of millions – the Spanish Flu. While precise numbers are impossible to ascertain, the outbreak – beginning in January, 1918 – may have killed anywhere between 50 to 100 million people around the world, making it one of the deadliest events in human history.
Even today, we don’t know much about the origins of the virus, though we do know that the war played a central part in its spread. One research points to the trenches, where mild strains were left to propagate and strengthen after the first wave of severe cases was withdrawn from the front lines.
The conditions of the front – where soldiers usually lived in cramped, overcrowded conditions – further accelerated the infection. According to some researchers, the number of deaths caused by the Spanish Flu might have hastened the peacemaking process, as the warring countries were suddenly losing a large number of their fighting forces to the disease.