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Recently I have read the Wikipedia article about the casualties in WW 1. There I found something I could not explain. I quote:

The Triple Entente (also known as the Allies) lost about 6 million military personnel while the Central Powers lost about 4 million.

Why did the Allies lose 2 million more soldiers (military personnel) than the Central Powers? Is it due to different military strategy?

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  • 15
    Russians considered their soldiers as expendable material. They probably account for at least half of these losses.
    – Roger V.
    Feb 9 at 7:14
  • 20
    @DevSolar no - we are speaking about tsar Nicholas sending millions of Russian peasants to fight, commanded by inept generals. Battles like the one in the Teutoburg forest (which made Ludendorff and Hindenburg national heroes in Germany), etc. Soviet losers in WW2 were much bigger than the numbers cited in the Q.
    – Roger V.
    Feb 9 at 7:31
  • 1
    Did you mean Tannenberg? @RogerV.
    – Zorg
    Feb 9 at 8:19
  • 4
    @Zorg Yes, indeed. My mistake - Teutoburg battle took place some two thousands years earlier :)
    – Roger V.
    Feb 9 at 8:23
  • 3
    Interestingly, the WP WWI page instead lists military deaths at 5.5 to 4.4 million. So I suspect rounding to the nearest million made the disparity look worse than it was.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 9 at 15:19

3 Answers 3

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  1. After their initial attack in 1914, the Germans were primarily defending in the Western Front.
  2. In the East, the Russians disintegrated into civil war.

Western Front, strategic defense

The initial German plan was to avoid a two front war with France and Russia. Germany planned on knocking out France before Russia could fully mobilize. This failed and Germany was now where they did not want to be.

After their initial penetrations into France and the Low Countries in 1914, the Germans slowly came to realize they could go onto the strategic defense in the west. They were sitting on French soil, and the French had to attack to kick them out. The Entente also had to keep pressure on Germany to take pressure off the Russians. Meanwhile, the Germans could go on the offensive in the East to knock Russia out of the war; the opposite of their initial plan.

Germany only conducted three major offensives in the West.

  1. Their initial offensive in 1914.
  2. The Battle of Verdun in 1916, equally bloody for both sides.
  3. The German Spring Offensives of 1918, taking fewer casualties than the Entente, but casualties they could not afford leaving the Germans exhausted.

The rest of the time it was the Entente on the offensive, and in WW1 it's generally the attacker who took the most casualties.

Eastern Front, successful offenses and revolution

The East found the Russian Empire still stinging from their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War 9 years earlier; unprepared for war with supply, logistical, command, and domestic problems.

After some initial Russian successes in East Prussia, the Germans fought them to a standstill with the Russians taking high casualties even when successful. After their offensive in France stalled, the Germans transferred their focus east. Infused with extra divisions, the outnumbered but better trained and better equipped Germans (with their not-so professional Austro-Hungarian allies) generally had the measure of the Russians.

Rather than the meat-grinder of trench warfare in the West, the Eastern Front remained mobile which the Germans excelled at. By 1915 the Russians had retreated hundreds of kilometers. 1916 saw much of the same, even the one Russian success of the Brusilov offensive cost both Russia and Austro-Hungary 1 million casualties leaving both shredded.

In 1917, Russia was in revolt and their summer offensive turned into a rout with Russian units disintegrating. 1918 saw the Bolsheviks in power, the Russian Civil War beginning, and cease-fire and peace negotiations. The Germans decided to seal the deal with an almost unopposed offensive, the bulk of the Russian armies either in chaos or fighting each other. In March 1918 Russia was out of the war.

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  • That makes sense, if you are forced to attack your losses will be higher. Besides this reason, I found in Wikipedia article Patalon rougue that the colorful uniforms of the French army lead to high losses in the first year of the war. This is of course not the most important reason but I think it must be considered in this case where are many different causes lead to this disbalance.
    – Zorg
    Feb 11 at 16:26
  • War isn't football where you can win "on points" - the Spring Offensives failed to achieve their objective, so they're better characterized as an expensive victory for the defender. Feb 12 at 9:18
  • @Shadur Agreed. If a victory, certainly a Pyrrhic one. But the focus here is on casualties.
    – Schwern
    Feb 12 at 20:10
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I did some research and in the German article about WW1 I found a explanation, that I found convincing. At first there original a text in German, "Erster Weltkrieg", Wikipedia, available at https://de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erster_Weltkrieg (Accessed: 09 February 2024).

Weltweit waren mehr als 60 Millionen Soldaten unter Waffen, davon kamen nahezu 9 Millionen und damit 14 Prozent ums Leben, pro Tag etwa 6.000. Bei den Mittelmächten betrug das entsprechende Verhältnis etwa 25 Millionen Soldaten zu 3,5 Millionen Todesfällen, bei der Entente 40 Millionen zu 5 Millionen. Die Todesquote war in den Armeen unterschiedlich und schwankte zwischen 6 und 30 Prozent, wobei besonders hohe Zahlen die südosteuropäischen Länder und das Osmanische Reich aufwiesen. Dies lag daran, dass die hochgerüsteten westlichen Truppen gegen alle gängigen Krankheiten geimpft waren und dass es – abgesehen von der Spanischen Grippe – kaum mehr zu tödlich verlaufenden Seuchen unter den Soldaten kam. Bei den absoluten Todeszahlen wirken sich dagegen die unterschiedliche Intensität der Kriegsführung aus. Der Hauptgrund für die Zunahme von tödlichen Verwundungen gegenüber früheren Kriegen waren Artilleriegeschosse. Die Sterberate der Kriegsgefangenen lag mit 5 bis 10 Prozent deutlich niedriger als bei früheren Kriegen.

Now a my translation into English.

Worldwide, more than 60 million soldiers were under arms, of which nearly 9 million, or 14 percent, perished, approximately 6,000 per day. In the Central Powers, the corresponding ratio was about 25 million soldiers to 3.5 million deaths, and in the Entente, 40 million to 5 million deaths. The mortality rate varied among armies, ranging from 6 to 30 percent, with particularly high numbers in Southeast European countries and the Ottoman Empire. This was due to the fact that the well-equipped Western troops were vaccinated against all common diseases, and aside from the Spanish flu, there were hardly any deadly epidemics among the soldiers. However, the absolute number of deaths was influenced by the differing intensity of warfare. The primary reason for the increase in fatal wounds compared to previous wars was artillery shells. The mortality rate of prisoners of war was significantly lower, between 5 and 10 percent, than in previous wars.

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  • This partly answers the question... Feb 9 at 14:12
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The numbers Wikipedia lists in the overall summary don't quite correspond to the ones listed for the individual theaters. In order to narrow down the impact of tactics, troop quality, etc, looking at the individual theaters is probably useful. The following numbers are taken from the Wikipedia articles about the respective theatres:

Western front:

Allies: 2 million dead, primarily French and British

Central Powers: 1.5 million dead, primarily German

Eastern front:

Allies: 2.6 million dead, primarily Russian and Romanian

Central Powers: 1 million dead, primarily Austro-Hungarian and German

Italian front:

Allies: 250k dead, primarily Italian

Central Powers: 150k dead, primarily Austro-Hungarian

Middle East:

Allies: 150k dead, primarily British

Central Powers: 300k dead, primarily Ottoman

Wikipedia isn't listing combat deaths in the Balkan theater, and the other theaters seem to be irrelevant when it comes to military combat deaths.

We can see that there is a significant discrepancy in every theatre, and with the exception of the Middle East, it is in favour of the Central Powers. However, the Eastern Front has the biggest discrepancy, both in absolut and relative numbers.

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    What is your source?
    – Spencer
    Feb 9 at 9:37
  • @Spencer The individual wikipedia articles. I've made it more explicit.
    – Arno
    Feb 9 at 9:38
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    You should at least link to those articles.
    – Spencer
    Feb 9 at 9:51
  • There's considerable variation in the estimates for the Russian side though encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/… Feb 9 at 14:09
  • 6
    You effectively repeated the question with more details added, but didn't answer it.
    – Jos
    Feb 10 at 0:44

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