20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls

Steve - December 23, 2018

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
Soldiers of the Royal Irish Rifles on the first day on the Battle of the Somme (c. 1916). Wikimedia Commons.

8. The First World War, the “war to end all wars”, was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 10,000,000 soldiers and laid the groundwork for the resumption of hostilities just two decades later

World War I was a military conflict that engulfed much of the Earth from July 28, 1914, until November 11, 1918, involving more than 70 million soldiers from 32 separate countries. After a period of heightened tensions in Europe, the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, provided the spark to ignite the conflict. After Serbia failed to satisfy Austrian demands in response, war was declared. Two competing alliances of great powers – the Triple Entente consisting of France, Russia, and Great Britain and the Tripple Alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy – mobilized their armies in support of their respective factions and interests.

Although Germany made early advances into France via the Schlieffen Plan, by the end of 1914 the Western Front had stagnated into a stalemate that would continue until 1918. Whilst the Western Front persisted in a condition of perpetual trench warfare, the rest of the world underwent significant turmoil; in February 1917 the Russian Revolution took place, whilst in April 1917 the United States entered the conflict after fearing a German-Mexican alliance. Culminating in the Treaty of Versailles in 1918, the First World War was responsible for the deaths of millions, the disintegration of Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires, and laid the foundations for the rise of Nazism and the Second World War.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
Emperor Xuanzong of Tang fleeing to Sichuan province (c. 11th century). Wikimedia Commons.

7. The An Lushan Rebellion between the Tang Dynasty and the self-proclaimed Yan Dynasty of China resulted in the deaths of between 13,000,000 and 36,000,000 people

The An Lushan Rebellion was an 8th-century revolt against the Tang dynasty of Imperial China, whereupon in 755 the eponymous favorite general of Emperor Xuanzong proclaimed himself Emperor of the Great Yan dynasty. Seeking to take advantage of the element of surprise, An Lushan’s forces sought to hurriedly consolidate the north and invade the south. Despite superior numbers, the geography of the mountain passes precluded an advance on the capital of Chang’an until 756, at which point Xuanzong was forced to flee to Sichuan where he abdicated his throne.

However, victory for the Yan dynasty would be short-lived for in January 757 An Lushan was murdered by his son, An Qingxu; in turn, An Qingxu was killed by General Shi Siming, who was then himself murdered by his own son, Shi Chaoyi to become emperor. This period of intense instability opened the way for the Tang to regroup and form a united opposition to the rebellion. By the spring of 763 the Yan were defeated and driven from the capital;. After being intercepted escaping, the Yan Emperor committed suicide to avoid capture thus ending the rebellion.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
The Conquest of Mexico by Cortés; author unknown (c. late 17th century). Wikimedia Commons.

6. As a result of the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire, an estimated 24,000,000 people lost their lives

The Spanish-Aztec War of 1519-1521 was the first conquest by the Spanish Empire of a major pre-Columbian American civilization, setting in motion the European colonization of the Americas. Arriving in Mexico in 1517, two years later an expedition led by Hernán Cortés embarked with the goal of subjugating the native populations. Marching on the city of Cholula, the second largest in Mesoamerica and the center of the Aztec religion, Cortés was welcomed as a guest. Ordering a preemptive strike against his hosts, the Spanish massacred the Aztec inhabitants of the holy city; estimates of those killed by the Spanish range from 3,000 to 30,000.

Marching on the island capital of Tenochtitlan, one of the largest cities in the world with an estimated population of 250,000-300,000 people, the Aztec Emperor, Moctezuma II, welcomed the Spanish to his city. Forced to flee after some of his men attacked and killed much of the Aztec nobility in the “Massacre in the Great Temple”, Cortés would return in 1521 to complete his conquest. Establishing the new capital of Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, in 1522 Holy Roman Emperor Charles V proclaimed Cortés captain-general of New Spain as a reward for his services and genocide.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
The Battle of Shanhai Pass in 1644 (c. late Ming period). Wikimedia Commons.

5. The Qing Conquest of the Ming took almost 70 years, costing the Chinese nation more than 25,000,000 lives

The Ming-Qing transition, also known as the Manchu conquest of China, was a sustained period of conflict between the Qing dynasty of Northeastern China and the Ming dynasty of Southern China. Highly unpopular among the peasantry, with the “Seven Grievances” listed against the Ming Emperor, in 1618 the Manchu chieftain Nurhaci began an armed rebellion. Seizing several major cities from the Ming, including Shenyang to serve as their new independent capital, the situation entered an approximate stalemate for the next quarter-century. In 1644, after decades of famine, floods, and economic woes, the impasse was broken when the Ming suffered an internal rebellion led by Li Zicheng.

Capturing Beijing on April 24, 1644, the last Ming Emperor hung himself in the imperial garden and Zicheng proclaimed himself the Shun Emperor. However, in his efforts to solidify his fledgling regime Zicheng sought to purge the military ranks of Ming loyalists. One such general, Wu Sangui, consequently defected to the Qing cause and with their combined forces defeated the new dynasty at the Battle of Shanhai Pass. With no true opposition left, the Qing set about pacifying the remnants of Ming China, a task that would take another forty years to complete. Declaring a new dynasty in 1661, the Kangxi Emperor claimed the throne and, finally, in 1683, after decades of war, the Qing emerged triumphant.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
The Battle of Anqing (1861), by Wu Youru (c. 1886). Wikimedia Commons.

4. The Taiping Rebellion, the largest Chinese conflict since the Qing Conquest, is estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of between 20,000,000 and 70,000,000 people

The Taiping Rebellion was a Chinese civil war that raged from 1850 to 1864, fought between the Qing dynasty and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Based in present-day Nanjing, the Taiping, led by Hong Xiuquan, was a fanatical Christian movement seeking to impose radical social change upon China. Faced with the threat of divided loyalties, on January 1, 1851, the Qing Green Standard Army attacked the God Worshiping Society at Jintian; in response to this provocation, Hong proclaimed himself the Heavenly King of the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace and sent forth his armies against the Qing. Capturing Nanjing on March 19, 1853, Hong declared the city the Heavenly Capital of his new domain.

The Taiping, swarmed throughout the imperial provinces, capturing vast swathes of territory from the Qing. With the Imperial Armies ineffective, the Xian Army, a militia force under Zeng Guofan, served as the primary defense against the dominant Taiping. Following an attempted coup within the Heavenly Empire in 1856, the Xian Army seized the opportunity to reclaim large portions of conquered land. Gaining momentum, the Xian besieged Nanjing in May 1862; despite efforts to break the siege by the superior Taiping numbers, the Qing loyalists held firm. On June 1, 1864, Hong died and Nanjing fell in his absence on July 19. Without central leadership the Heavenly Kingdom fractured, allowing for the gradual defeat of disunited rebellious factions across the next seven years.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
The Battle of Yehuling between the Mongols and the Jin dynasty, by Sayf al-Vâhidî (c. 1430). Wikimedia Commons.

3. The Conquests of the Mongol Empire, spanning more than a century, resulted in the deaths of tens of millions in the course of constructing the largest contiguous empire in human history

Beginning in 1206, Genghis Khan, having united the Mongol people under a single banner for the first time in history, unleashed his new empire upon the world. Starting with the invasion of Western Xia, by 1209 the victorious Mongol hordes descended upon their ancient enemy: China. In 1211 the Mongols invaded Jin China, capturing and sacking the capital city of Yanjing. Pivoting to the West after the execution of his ambassadors by the Khwarezmid Empire, Genghis invaded Khwarezmia in 1919; taking just two years to conquer the Central Asian nation, the Mongols slaughtered at least 25% of the local population who suffered approximately 2,000,000 fatalities.

Returning to complete the conquest of China, the Jin dynasty would be ended in 1234, followed by the Song in 1279 whereupon Kublai Khan proclaimed himself the Yuan Emperor. In the interim years, the Mongols, under the leadership of Ögedei Khan, invaded Eastern Europe, defeating Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Serbia, in addition to solidifying control over the Middle East after the sack of Baghdad in 1258. In total, across more than a century of warfare the Mongols are believed to have been directly responsible for the deaths of 30,000,000 to 40,000,000 people, in addition to displacing hundreds of millions and indirectly causing the calamitous Black Plague in Europe.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
The Three Kingdoms as of 262 CE. Wikimedia Commons.

2. The Three Kingdoms, during which period China existed in a state of continuous warfare, saw an estimated 40,000,000 lose their lives

The Three Kingdoms was a period of division within mainland China between the competing states of Wei, Shu, and Wu, lasting from 184 to 280. Beginning with the deterioration and eventual collapse of the Han dynasty, and concluding with the ascendance of the Jin, each rival faction claimed dominion over the others as the sole legitimate emperor. Eventually, after decades of war, in 263 the Shu was conquered by the Wei. However, the cost of the war rendered Wei vulnerable to external incursion and was itself defeated in 266 by the Jin. Unable to stand alone against the combined might of the enlarged Jin, Wu was conquered by the Jin in 280 ending the conflict.

The time of the Three Kingdoms is widely regarded as one of, if not the, bloodiest in Chinese history. A census taken in 280 following the reunification of the region under the Jin accounts for 2,459,840 households, encompassing 16,163,863 total subjects. This seemingly large figure was merely a shadow of the population during the preceding Han dynasty, under which 10,677,960 households included at least 56,486,856 individuals – a decline of more than 40,000,000 over the hundred year conflict.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
American soldiers at Omaha Beach, during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day: 6 June 1944. Wikimedia Commons.

1. World War II, the deadliest war in human history, was responsible for the deaths of as many as 85,000,000 people in just six years

World War II, the largest and deadliest war in human history, was a global total war between 1939 and 1945, involving more than 30 countries and 100 million participants. Traditionally dated as beginning on September 1, 1939, following the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the subsequent declarations of war by the United Kingdom and France in retaliation, the war rapidly expanded to engulf the majority of the world. Spanning multiple theaters of war, including Western and Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific, the Second World War saw France occupied by Germany in 1940, Japan attack the United States in 1941, and Russia betrayed by Germany only to rally and ultimately capture Berlin in 1945.

Although not even close to the longest war in history, the consequences of World War II were both lasting and devastating. Encompassing the creation and first use of atomic weapons, the mass industrial extermination of humans during the Holocaust, in addition to combat fatalities and widespread starvation, the Second World War is estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of 50,000,000 to 85,000,000. Despite concluding in the unconditional surrender of the Axis to the Allies, tensions did not abate; instead, the emergence of the United States and Soviet Union as rival superpowers merely provided the foundations for the half-century Cold War that was to follow.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Punic Wars”, Nigel Bagnall”, St. Martin’s Press, 2005

“A Companion to the Punic Wars”, B.D. Hoyos, Wiley-Blackwell (2011)

“England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225”, R. Bartlett, in “New Oxford History of England”, J.M. Roberts, Oxford University Press (2000)

“The Hundred Years War, Vol. 1: Trial by Battle”, J. Sumption, University of Pennsylvania Press (1999)

“The Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815”, David Gates, Random House (2011)

“Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815”, Charles Esdaile (2008)

“The Concise History of the Crusades”, Thomas Madden, Rowman and Littlefield (2013)

“Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors A.D. 425-600”, Averil Cameron, Cambridge University Press (2000)

“Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel”, Moss Roberts, University of California Press (1991)

“The Mughal Empire”, John Richards, Cambridge University Press (1995)

“The Origins of the Thirty Years’ War”, Myron Gutmann, Journal of Interdisciplinary History (1988)

“History of the Thirty Years’ War”, Antonin Gindely, Putnam (1884)

“The Russian Civil War, 1918-22”, David Bullock, Osprey Publishing (2008)

“A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution”, Orlando Figes, Penguin Books(1998)

“Fall of the Inca Empire and the Spanish Rule in Peru, 1530-1780”, Philip Means, Scribner (1932)

“The Last Days of the Incas”, Kim Macquarrie, Simon and Schuster (2007)

“Temur and the Problem of a Conqueror’s Legacy”, Beatrice Forbes Manz, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (April 1998)

“Tamburlaine the Great”, Christopher Marlowe, Kessinger Publishing, LLC (2010)

“Encyclopaedia of World War I”, Spencer Tucker and Priscilla Roberts, ABC-CLIO (2005)

“The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-Shan”, E.G. Pulleyblank, Oxford University Press (1955)

“Mexico and the Spanish Conquest, Ross Hassig, Longman (1994)

“Imperial China”, Raymond Dawson, Hutchinson (1972)

“God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan”, Jonathan Spence, W.W. Norton (1996)

“The Mongol Conquests in World History”, Timothy May, Reaktion Books (2012)

“The History of the Mongol Conquests”, J.J. Saunders (2011)

“The Three Kingdoms and Western Jin: A History of China in the Third Century AD”, Rafe de Crespigny, East Asian History (1991)

“The Second World War”, Antony Beevor”, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2012)

“The Second World War”, Winston Churchill, Houghton Mifflin (1948-1953)