Losses in the Second World War

Each symbol indicates 100,000 dead in the appropriate theater of operations

Contemporary Context:

Not only was the Second World War the bloodiest conflict in human history, it was probably more costly than any three previous wars combined.

Boosting the body count of the war was the savagery with which civilian population was treated. The most obvious example of this was the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis. Of course, civilians inevitably get caught in the crossfire of big armies and are often driven into starvation by the destruction of the economy, but you can get a good feeling of the level of barbarism of the Second World War by taking a look at Italy. In this theater of operations, both sides generally obeyed the rules of civilized warfare, and as a result, civilian casualties were only about a third of military casualties. Now look at the Russian Front where 12 million soldiers were killed. A civilized war fought by the rules of the Italian campaign should have only killed some 3 million civilians (and yes, I am uncomfortable using terms like "civilized" and "only" in this context, but what can you do?). The fact that the total was considerably higher indicates that this was not a very civilized theater of war.

Aside from showing just how costly the Second World War was, these maps also indicate the radically different levels of technology at which the armies fought. The British, Americans and Germans were pretty evenly matched, and the heavier losses among the Allies in France and Italy were largely the result of the Germans having the defensive advantage. In the Pacific, however, the Americans clearly outclassed the Japanese, just as the Japanese clearly outclassed the Chinese.

The inevitable margin of error in these numbers shows up most prominently at the lower end of the scale. For example, the map makes it look like 100,000 British were killed in North Africa, but no one else. This is obviously not the case. The symbol is a compromise which attempts to show that...

  1. approximately 100,000 soldiers died in this theater of operations, a lot of them being British, and
  2. approximately 300,000 British soldiers died in the war, with North Africa being one of the costliest campaigns.


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Last updated May 1999

Copyright © 1997-99 Matthew White