Counting The Fallen

casualties in WWII

The size of the armies and the number of the casualties in a given war, or even individual battle, is always a difficult discussion for historians.

When dealing with pre-modern sources of any kind, historians are cautious about accepting contemporary estimates.* The assumption is that at best the writer of the source did not have access to accurate numbers and at worst he** diddled the numbers to make a victory more glorious or a defeat less humiliating.

Modern** record-keeping makes it easier to feel secure that the size of armies in the field is more or less accurate, but counting the fallen is still tricky. The conditions under which the counting occurs are inherently difficult, the temptation to make a victory more glorious or a defeat less humiliating remains constant, and the definitions of what is counted may vary from battle to battle. Casualties can include dead, wounded, fatally wounded but not yet dead, or missing (a category that is inherently fuzzy).

Accuracy aside, it is hard to visualize just what the body count actually looks like. Forty-eight thousand dead and wounded at the Battle of Waterloo*** is much less than 425,000 casualties in the Battle of Normandy. But what does either number mean, beyond the fact that enough men are dead to populate a small southern city, in the case of Waterloo, or a western state, in the case of Normandy?

Filmmaker and data-journalist Neil Halloran grapples with these questions, as well as the even slipperier issue of civilian casualties, in The Fallen of World War II–a web-based graphic documentary that looks at the human cost of the war. The graphics are as simple and painful as a fist to the gut. Halloran doesn’t just look at how many people each country lost, but when and where they died. Most interesting of all, at least to this history buff/bugg, he compares WWII’s numbers to those of other wars across historian and does not hesitate to draw conclusions about what it all means.

Check it out:

(There’s an interactive option, but I couldn’t get it to run. Possibly an operating system upgrade is needed for either my computer or my brain. If any of you get it to work, let me know what you think.)

*Not surprising given that the further back we go the looser our definition of contemporary. Primary sources means different things for different periods.

**I usually hesitate to use he for the generalized third person singular, but the case of pre-modern history almost all of the sources are in fact “he” due to historical realities related to access to education, etc. [rant over]

***Definitions may vary

****That’s a LOT of teeth.


  1. Lorraine on June 25, 2015 at 1:00 am

    What an incredible journey we’re taken to arrive at the realization of peace that exists, yet fail to acknowledge. Definitely left with a mix of emotions while still inspired there is much hope as we are brought into the present moment.

    There are two interactive parts that allow you to look at specific components of the timelines for WWII and in 2015. They would be the 20% of the 80-20 rule. The video itself does the heavy hauling of the message and can stand strong on its own.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • pamela on June 25, 2015 at 4:00 pm

      It sounds like I didn’t miss too much without the interactive parts.

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