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Canadian soldiers fighting during the Somme Offensive

6 deadliest battles from WWI

Image: Everett Collection /

‘The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic’, so said Joseph Stalin, himself responsible for the deaths of millions.

Here are six examples, in chronological order, of that quote in action. These numbers are based on estimates representing the fallen on all sides of the conflict and getting an accurate count is nigh-on impossible, especially when you bear in mind that by the end of the war millions of soldiers were still ‘missing in action’.

So, while reading, try to remind yourself that behind every estimated number, there is a person who never made it home.

The First Battle of the Marne (6th - 9th September 1914)

Estimated deaths – 150,000

One of the first of many casualty-heavy battles fought in the First World War was located in northeast France, around the Marne River Valley, a few weeks after the Germans had invaded Belgium. Now on French soil, the Germans advanced unchallenged and got to within 30 miles of Paris.

But the French successfully split the line of German troops to create a void that was rapidly filled by reinforcements. The Germans were forced to retreat over 50 miles north where they dug the first line of trenches, setting a precedent for the rest of the war.

The Battle of Verdun (21st February – 18th December 1916)

Estimated deaths - 330,000

Verdun is regarded as the longest battle in modern history. It was bloody, gruelling and ultimately pointless. After the Germans decided that the best way to beat the British was to defeat her allies, they attacked the understaffed fortress town of Verdun. The town was strategically located in the northeast of France on the River Meuse and the Germans began to take control of its nineteen major forts.

By June, it looked as if they were going to succeed, but summer rains slowed their progress. An ingeniously structured counter-offensive by the Allies, which included rotating fighting units to limit battle fatigue, forced the Germans to withdraw almost to the point at which they had begun their disastrous campaign.

The Battle of the Somme (1st July - 18th November 1916)

Estimated deaths - 300,000

Perhaps the most notorious battle in modern military history occurred in Northern France at the mid-point of the war. The plan was for the English and French to take advantage of the ongoing Battle of Verdun, where a sizeable portion of the German army was concentrated. However, the German defences had been vastly underestimated.

On the first day alone a record 19,240 British troops were killed. What followed was a bitter war of attrition as both sides dug into their trenches: in the 141 days it lasted, the Allies gained no more than seven miles of land. By the time the Battle of the Somme had ended, over a million personnel on both sides were either dead or wounded.

The Battle of Arras (9th April - 16th May 1917)

Estimated deaths - 285,000

‘"He's a cheery old card”, grunted Harry to Jack. As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. But he did for them both by his plan of attack.’

The last few lines of Siegfried Sassoon’s famous poem The General help to demonstrate how war disregards the value of human life, intensified by the fact that no real gains were made at Arras.

The idea behind the campaign was for the French to hit the Germans hard in the Aisne region, while the British would attack the German defences around the pretty city of Arras in Northern France. At the same time, the Canadians concentrated their divisions on securing the tactically significant Vimy Ridge, about five miles north of the city centre. The Canadians successfully claimed the ridge and the British made a good start on the German lines after hitting them hard with over 2.5 million shells.

But instead of taking advantage of their early gains, the Germans soon turned the advances into a bloody stalemate with the French suffering so many casualties that the lack of morale led to the army being disbanded. The campaign fizzled out shortly after.

The Battle of Passchendaele (31st July – 6th November 1917)

Estimated deaths - 585,000

The Third Battle of the Ypres as it’s also known was perhaps the deadliest battle of the First World War. Sir General Douglas Haig was the man responsible for ordering the initial mass shelling of the German lines in an attempt to push the Germans back once and for all. But the Germans were not as weak as it was assumed, and the result was a literal bloodbath.

1917 saw an inordinate volume of rainfall in the area turning the already macerated mud into slush and drowning men, horses and equipment in the quagmire. After claiming victory in November, the Allies had gained no more than five miles. A year later, the land was abandoned.

Spring Offensive (21st March – 17th July 1918)

Estimated deaths - 328,000

There is always something poignant when looking at incomprehensible casualty figures, just before peace breaks out. This sentiment is typified in one of the final battles of the First World War, the Spring Offensive. After Germany defeated Russia in the east, the generals decided to send the remaining German troops, 48 divisions strong, to see off the Allies on the western front.

After bombarding them with shells, German troops punched through the enemy line, even reclaiming the Somme. But without vital supplies to sustain them, the advance and the morale of the troops collapsed. As their casualty figures soared, the French unleashed a ferocious counterattack that was to mark the beginning of the end of the war that had claimed the lives of around 20 million people.