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Missing After World War I: The Tomb of the Unknown Civilian

On 28 July 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia and set in motion the events that led one week later to the clash of nations that became World War I.

This conflict caused casualties in unprecedented numbers, with the final total of deaths approximately 17 million. The roster of battles and their military deaths remain seared into the collective memory of the major combatant nations: France at the battle of the Frontiers on 22 August 1914 suffered 27,000 dead; Britain on 1 July 1916 (to this day remembered simply as the First Day of the Somme) lost 21,000 dead; the extended battle of Verdun of 1916 at Verdun cost the French and German armies some 300,000 dead. Some battles became defining moments in national identity, such as Vimy Ridge in 1917 for the Canadians and Gallipoli in 1915 for Australia and New Zealand. Other battles are recalled for stunning defeats: the Russians at Tannenberg in 1914 and the Italians in 1917 at Caporetto.

What is often not part of this tragic story is that of the 17 million dead, about 7 million were civilians. What led to such a high number of civilian deaths and who now speaks for the civilian dead? One answer is disease, for the flu pandemic of 1918 killed worldwide. Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations had 180,000 deaths, Italy 432,000 dead of flu-related causes and both France and Germany endured 200,000 deaths. In 1915, 150,000 Serb civilians died from typhus.

Another familiar explanation is the 1 to 1.5 million Armenians who died during the war through massacre or fatal neglect. The debate about the Armenian genocide has remained a lively historical issue that demonstrates history as a debate without end. Even these statistics do not, however, account for the total of civilian deaths.

Another one million civilians are now thought to have died from military action, caught in the midst of operations and being in the place at the wrong time. Add to that the migration of civilian populations and its attendant dangers of taking to the road to flee from areas of combat. For the elderly, the infirm, the sick and the young, this posed special dangers. For example, as many as 1.5 million Belgian refugees fled from the German juggernaut that rolled through their country in the opening stages of the war.

Famine provided another substantial number of civilian deaths, with Austria-Hungary and Germany, the targets of Allied blockade, the primary nations, with 460,000 and 420,000 deaths respectively. One frequently overlooked contribution was the insatiable demand for horses by armies. Despite mechanization horses continued to play a fundamental role and over 29 million died from military action, exhaustion, disease and neglect. Without horses agricultural production dropped and famine resulted.

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