War has often been described by those who have experienced it as the closest thing to hell their minds can conjure. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to imagine a more horrific position to be in than that of a soldier in the midst of a battle. Bombs exploding every way you turn, mortars falling from the sky like rain and bullets whizzing by your head, starving to take your life at every moment; it takes a special kind of courage to maintain any semblance of reality while inside the maelstrom of war. And yet there are those soldiers who do, and also those soldiers who come home from war leaving many of their wounds on the battlefield.
Sadly, there are many more survivors who come home to a world that is no longer familiar to them, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, physical limitations due to injury, or most often both. And then there are those who don’t come home at all: lost on a foreign beach somewhere in France, or in a trench in Belgium, frozen in a winter wasteland in Russia or simply “missing in action, presumed killed.”
While there have been many battles throughout history that have claimed vast numbers of lives, the battles represented here are battles that are not the type of battles where armies met on a field and either clashed with swords, or shot at each other with muskets for a few days, but rather, these battles are more modern, were considerably prolonged, and far more bloody. Ultimately these battles could in fact be considered campaigns, a few different battles encompassing a larger whole; that may very well be true, but in order to fully grasp the magnitude of the dead, they are included here as one entry.
5. Battle of France: 1940, World War II
On May 10, 1940 the Nazi war machine rolled into France and began Hitler’s all out assault on an historical enemy. For nearly a month and a half the Nazi’s utilized their highly successful blitzkrieg warfare and urban combat to force the French Army and members of the British Expeditionary Force to retreat all the way to the English Channel. By June 22, a mere 43 days after the battle for France began, an armistice was signed between Germany and France, carving the country into two zones, one occupied by Hitler, the other by Mussolini’s Italy. All told, the battle was decisively won by Germany, with France suffering over 350,000 casualties to Germany’s 150,000. A further 2 million French soldiers were captured and made prisoners of war. For France, the country remained occupied by the Nazi’s until D-Day in 1944.
4. The Battle of Passchendaele: 1917, World War I
The First World War was an absolute mess. Not that all wars aren’t messy, but the First World War had exceeded all expectations in terms of madness by the time it was three years old in 1917. The first modern, semi-mechanized war ever fought, when fighting broke out in July of 1914 many of the belligerent nations thought their soldiers would be home for Christmas. Instead, both sides dug trenches, settled in and spent the better part of four years annihilating each other with machine guns.
One of the most brutal campaigns of the war was fought over a series of ridges south as well as east of the city of Ypres in Belgium. The ridges had been fought over numerous times, hence the need for a third battle. From July until November of 1917 the British Empire (including soldiers from Canada, Australia etc.), France and Belgium fought the German Empire to regain control of the area in Flanders once and for all. It wasn’t until the 10th of November when the Canadian Army captured the town of Passchendaele that the fighting came to a close. All told, the battle claimed over 580,000 casualties, was a strategic turning point for the allies, and built momentum that ultimately led to the end of the war a year later.
3. The Battle of the Somme: 1916, World War I
The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles fought during the First World War, and was also subsequently one of the bloodiest. Furthermore, other battles that were fought as part of the major battle over the Somme, such as the Battle of Verdun, and other campaigns fought simultaneously, such as the Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front, were among the bloodiest in world history. All told, the Battle of the Somme and the battles fought in support of the British Empire and France’s objectives versus the German Empire at the Somme led to nearly four million casualties in less than ten months, making the period between February and December of 1916 among the most violent and costly in terms of lives lost ever.
2. The Brusilov Offensive: 1916, World War I
The most catastrophic defeat the Austro-Hungarian Empire suffered during the First World War, and in fact the battle that crippled the primary belligerent of the war beyond repair, the Russian Empire’s Brusilov Offensive from June until September of 1916 is considered one of the greatest victories for the alliance between Britain, France and Russia against the Germans and Austro Hungarians.
In part designed as a counter measure on the Eastern Front to draw German Troops away from the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun in the west, the offensive also sought to reclaim Russian territory lost to the Germans and Austro-Hungarians the previous year. In diverting German troops from the west, the hope was that the British and French could achieve victory there, and by assembling a massive assault on their enemies on the Eastern Front the Russians hoped to regain both the cities of Kovel and Lviv, as well as deliver a crippling death blow to the Austro-Hungarian Army in hopes of forcing them out of the war.
The Brusilov Offensive was a massive success; the diversion of troops east to combat the Russians allowed the British and French to defeat Germany at the Somme and Verdun, and, while the assault on the Austro-Hungarians didn’t completely decimate them to the point of surrender, it crippled the Empire’s army enough that it could never launch another attack again, merely playing a supporting role to Germany therein after. The victory came at a massive cost however, making the Brusilov Offensive arguably the second most brutal campaign in military history: nearly 700,000 casualties for the Austro-Hungarians, a further 140,000 for the Germans, and an astounding 1.4 million Russian casualties; in three and a half months.
1. Operation Barbarossa: 1941, World War II
The Eastern Front of the Second World War was the most barbaric, depraved and casualty filled theater of war in military history. Never before or since has such barbaric violence occurred to such an extreme level, and over such a prolonged period of time. It literally played out like the end of the world; scorched earth policies, mass civilian executions, battlefield atrocities, and millions dead.
Hitler and Stalin marched their armies to their deaths on a whim, taking as many civilian lives as possible in their wake. Imagine The Lord of the Rings but the war being waged was between Sauron vs. Sauron. Beyond brutal. After Hitler reneged on the non-aggression pact the Nazis and Soviets signed in 1939, he amassed an invasion force of 4 million troops, the largest in military history, and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
While the Eastern Front of World War II remained the most brutal until the final days of the war in 1945, Operation Barbarossa was the first campaign fought in the largest battle in terms of manpower and casualties in world history. While the Nazis experienced rapid success to start the operation, and seemed poised to enter Moscow within the first few months of the invasion, once the brutal Russian winter began the Soviet Red Army eventually stalled the German advances, forcing the Nazis to halt Operation Barbarossa on December 5 of 1941, mere days after being less than 30 kilometers from Moscow.
From then on, both belligerents dug in and fought a war of attrition in many major battles and campaigns on the Eastern Front, most notably the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, the Dnieper Offensive, and ultimately the Battle of Berlin. But it was Operation Barbarossa that began the trail of dead on the Eastern Front from the Soviet borders, to Moscow, and all the way back to Berlin. In just over five months, Operation Barbarossa claimed nearly five million casualties and a further three million Soviet soldiers captured by the Germans as prisoners of war during the campaign never made it home alive. And this was just the beginning; the Eastern Front that opened with Barbarossa in 1941 and ended with Hitler’s suicide, and the Red Army capture of Berlin in 1945 claimed a total of 30 million lives. By far the bloodiest and most brutal campaign to launch the most brutal military front in world history.