Data Visualizations of the Great War, 1914-1918

Cimetière militaire de Marcelcave

Cimetière militaire de Marcelcave, Nécropole Nationale des Buttes; Photo credit: Serge Laroche

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In this project I am working with various statistical sources about World War I to produce some data visualizations that will better allow students to understand military statistics and assess the impact of the war. I will mostly be using Google chart tools and Tableau Public to create the visualizations.

A data visualization is just what it sounds like. Using a set of data/statistics, you create a visual based on that data. The visualization can be a simple chart or line graph, or it can be something far more complicated like a Washington DC Metro map or Minard's Carte Figurative of Napoleon's invasion of Russia. A visualization helps you to see better any pattern in the data.

As I studied the statistics of the Great War, I kept coming up with more questions that continue to bother me and that maybe I'll get around to researching:



The Illusion of Statistics

It is just extremely hard to determine an accurate amount of dead, not just for Romania, or Serbia or Bulgaria, or Turkey where record keeping was not always rigorous, or for Russia, which suffered such a huge number of casualties, but it just as difficult for the United States or France. People just disappeared during the war.

So, when you look for World War I statistics, everywhere you will find seemingly accurate "official" figures, such as these from Encyclopedia Britannica: 8,528,831 dead with total casualties as 37,468,904. And there are many other sources with total casualties:

One thing that I clearly learned in this project is that there are no authoritative statistics for World War I casualties. For example, with regard to killed in action during the war, you can find many different numbers for that. Even seemingly exact numbers like those of the British should only be regarded as very close approximations. It was just impossible to be 100% accurate.

This Illusion of statistical accuracy is even more so the case when dealing with lengthy “battles,” like Verdun, or all operations on the Eastern front.

It was extremely difficult for combatants to keep statistics, for example, who was responsible for recording the death, wounding or capture of a soldier? What if that responsible person himself was killed? How do you account for a person being recorded as wounded at multiple times (by his immediate commander, at the dressing station, at the divisional aid station, etc). And then there was the problem of how to tell if a soldier was either killed, wounded or missing as sometimes people just disappeared. Many bodies were never properly buried, and in some cases there was no body to bury with the soldier was literally blown to bits. And in some countries, like Russia or Turkey, there just never any real focus on accurate statistics.

Selected Sources