20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls

Steve - December 23, 2018

As Plato poignantly noted, “only the dead have seen the end of war.” Stretching across the vast history of the human race, as far back as the start of recorded history and beyond, war has served as a plague upon our species. Whether due to a lust for power or for wealth, a desire for vengeance, mindless irrationality, or some other factor, mankind has incessantly waged sustained and bloody violence against one another. Many of these conflicts, including notably the First World War, were billed as the “war to end all wars”; alas, this was not so, and war continues to ravage our planet with ever-increasing costs in human lives.

Here are 20 of the deadliest wars in human history (so far):

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps during the Second Punic War, by Heinrich Leutemann (c. 1866) Wikimedia Commons.

20. The Punic Wars, fought between Rome and Carthage, were responsible for an estimated 1,250,000-1,850,000 deaths

The Punic Wars were three wars fought between the ancient states of Rome and Carthage from 264 to 146 BCE: the First Punic War (264-241); the Second Punic War (218-201); and the Third Punic War (149-146). Seeking to curb Roman encroachment into the Mediterranean, the First Punic War was largely fought over the ownership and control of the island of Sicily. Whilst the Romans possessed superior armies, the Carthaginians retained a greater navy resulting in an approximate stalemate. The Second Punic War saw famed Carthaginian general Hannibal attack mainland Europe, in an attempt to sever the alliances between Rome and its vassals. Beginning in Iberia, Hannibal legendarily crossed the Alps in a surprise maneuver to invade northern Italy.

Despite achieving early victories at Trebia and Lake Trasimene, resulting in the deaths or imprisonment of 130,000 Roman soldiers and the defection of 40% of Rome’s Italian allies to Carthage, Hannibal was pursued back to North Africa by Scipio Africanus and eventually defeated in 201 at the Battle of Zama. This defeat would limit Carthage to merely the ancient city and see Rome emerge as the dominant regional power. Struggling after a century of periodic conflict, Carthage could hold off the Romans no longer. During the Third Punic War Carthage was besieged by the Romans and, in 146, was captured; set ablaze, the ancient city burned for 17 days, obliterating the walls and buildings of the historic capital. The remaining population of Carthage, numbering just 50,000 from an estimated pre-war peak of half a million, were sold into slavery.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
A battle of the Second Crusade, by William of Tyre’s (c. 1337). Wikimedia Commons.

19. The Crusades between the armies of Christendom and the Muslim world would cost the lives of between 1,000,000 and 3,000,000 lives

The Crusades was a period of successive religious wars encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church between 1095-1291, with the ultimate purpose of reclaiming the Holy Land from Muslim ownership. Initially called for by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, promoting military support for the embattled Byzantine Empire against migrating Turks in Anatolia to ensure a safe pilgrim road to the Holy Land, the First Crusade (1095-1099) went far better than predicted. Tens of thousands answered the church’s call and offer of indulgences for their sins, leading to the creation of four Crusader states, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

However, these victories were short-lived and despite eight further organized crusades the Holy Land was never permanently conquered by the armies of Christendom. The Crusades were marred by recurrent instances of barbaric actions in the name of religion, in particular by the invading Christian soldiers. Among the most famous instances of brutality were those committed by Richard I of England, who at Acre on August 20, 1991, ordered the mass executions of 2,700 Muslim prisoners in front of the besieged city. The conduct of these wars has imparted a lasting effect upon the region, creating a cultural hatred that would endure throughout the Ottoman Empire and to the modern day.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
The Battle of Agincourt (1415). Wikimedia Commons.

18. The Hundred Years’ War, lasting actually 116 years in length, saw the loss of between 2,300,000 and 3,300,000 lives

The Hundred Years’ War was a prolonged series of conflicts fought between the Kingdom of England, ruled by the House of Plantagenet, and the Kingdom of France, ruled by the House of Valois, to determine territorial ownership over France. Involving five generations of kings and soldiers, lasting from 1337 until 1453, the conflict is often considered by historians to mark the endpoint of the medieval period of European history. The Kings of England, from 1066, were of Norman and Angevin blood and consequently the English monarch historically enjoyed lands both in the British Isles and on mainland Europe; unwilling to serve as vassals to the Kings of France, by 1337 much of the French holdings of the Plantagenets had been stripped away.

After the childless death of Charles IV in 1328, Edward III of England tried to claim the French throne; failing in this attempt, Philip VI, Count of Valois, was offered the crown and sought to confiscate his distant relation’s lands in France for the attempted usurpation. The English cause seemed initially hopeful; victories at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt rendered belief that with further investment the war might be won. However, lacking the resources of the Kingdom of France, England could never complete its conquest and from 1429 the tide turned. The war ended with England having lost much of its possessions on the European continent, with the immense costs of the war a major contributing factor behind the War of the Roses (1455-1485) and the downfall of the Plantagenet dynasty.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
The Battle of Waterloo (1815), by William Sadler. Wikimedia Commons.

17. The Napoleonic Wars fought between an international coalition against the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3,500,000 to 7,000,000 people

The Napoleonic Wars were a sequence of conflicts fought between the French Empire, led by Emperor Napoleon I, against a varying coalition of European powers, commonly led by the United Kingdom, between 1803 and 1815. After Napoleon’s seizure of power in 1799, establishing himself as First Consul of France and reorganizing the French Empire into an expansionist power, Great Britain declared war on France in May 1803 in opposition to his attempt to annex Switzerland. Joined by Russia and the Holy Roman Empire, fearing French domination of their own territories, the War of the Third Coalition begun.

After the the Battle of Austerlitz, where Napoleon defeated the larger armies of Russian Tsar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, the War of the Third Coalition morphed into the Fourth Coalition (1806-1807), including Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Great Britain, in a desperate attempt to forestall the military might of the French Emperor. This coalition equally failed, becoming the Fifth Coalition (1809), uniting the forces of the British and Austrian Empires, then the Sixth Coalition (1813), consisting of Austria, Prussia, Russia, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden, Spain, and the majority of the German states, before finally the Seventh Coalition ended the threat posed by Napoleon in 1815.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
The Great Mosque of Kairouan, founded in 670 after the eventual Moorish conquest of the Byzantine region. Wikimedia Commons.

16. The Moorish Wars (534-548) between the Byzantine Empire and the local tribes of North Africa caused more than 5,000,000 deaths across a 15 year period

The praetorian prefecture of Africa was a region of the Eastern Roman Empire, conquered from the Vandals in 534; governed from Carthage, the new district almost immediately faced a rebellion from local Moorish tribes. Despite efficiently putting down this revolt, Solomon, the Magister Militum, faced a mutiny in the spring of 536, destabilizing the territory and allowing pockets of resistance to endure. Carthage was besieged by an army of 9,000, but was spared by the timely arrival of Belisarius from Sicily to relive the ancient city. Despite this reprieve, in 542 the Plague of Justinian would afflict the region, precipitating mass suffering and ferment further rebellion.

In 544, Soloman was killed in battle at Cillium and his armies routed. In the disruption, the Moors captured and sacked the coastal city of Hadrumentum and much of the rural areas of the prefecture fled to Sicily for safety. Eventually, after years of in-fighting, backstabbing, and chaos, Emperor Justinian sent John Troglita to restore order to the region. Despite commanding a numerically smaller force, John, a proficient general, rapidly made progress in reconquering the anarchic territory. In 547, John would emerge victorious at the Fields of Cato, defeating the combined forces of the Moors and rebellious Greeks, thus ending the fifteen-year revolt; this victory would be short-lived, with the Moors conquering the region in the 7th century.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
Ming dynasty illustration of the events of the Yellow Turban Rebellion (c. 1571). Wikimedia Commons.

15. The Yellow Turban Rebellion lasted for 21 years, resulting in the deaths of between 3,000,000 and 7,000,000 people and causing the collapse of an imperial dynasty

The Yellow Turban Rebellion, lasting for 21 years between 184-205, was a peasant revolt against the Eastern Han dynasty of China. Following a period of famine in Northern China, in conjunction with prohibitive taxation to fund military fortifications along the Silk Road and an increasingly corrupt Imperial Court, public support steadily declined as an opinion formed that Emperor Ling had forfeited his Mandate of Heaven. Organized by the Taoist sect of Zhang Jue, the planned rebellion was betrayed before it was fully ready. Despite this setback, tens of thousands joined the premature revolt in early 184 in an effort to overthrow the failing government.

Although winning some early victories and amassing a considerably larger force, outnumbering the Imperial Army 2,000,000 to 350,000, the untrained peasantry proved no match for professional soldiers. Suffering heavy losses in 185, the rebellion continued in a number of provinces in a guerilla format until 205. The losses were devastating, with millions killed, the control of central government eradicated in many districts, and much of the economy left in ruins. Whilst not personally achieving their ultimate goal, the rebellion set the stage for the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 after failing to regain control over the wounded nation.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
Sambhaji, the King of Maratha at the beginning of the Mughal-Maratha Wars. Wikimedia Commons.

14. The Mughal-Maratha Wars spanned nearly 50 years, costing more than 5,000,000 lives throughout this prolonged conflict in the Indian sub-continent

The Mughal-Maratha Wars, also known as the Maratha War of Independence, was a series of wars fought between the Mughal Empire and the Maratha Empire from 1658 to 1707. Beginning with the Mughal invasion of the Maratha region of Bijapur under Emperor Aurangzeb, the Mughals sought to eradicate their young neighbor through a sudden application of overwhelming force; the Mughal forces numbered 700,000 to the Marathan 150,000. Despite this numerical superiority the Mughal Empire initially failed to make progress, being routinely thwarted in sieges, taking seven years to capture Fort Ramsej, and enduring continuous losses via guerilla raids.

Nonetheless, by 1689 it appeared that Aurangzeb had emerged victorious, capturing and executing Sambhaji, Chhatrapati (King) of the Maratha Empire. However, this act served as a rallying cry for the martyred Sambhaji’s younger brother, Rajaram. Unwilling to surrender and fighting a war of attrition, the Maratha succeeded in pushing the Mughals from their territory. By 1698, Aurangzeb’s forces were depleted and war-weary. Beginning a counter-offensive the Maratha advanced into the Mughal Empire, gaining momentum and by 1705 penetrating the central regions of their enemy’s lands. Emerging as a major power in the Indian sub-continent, the Maratha finally reached the Mughal capital of Dehli in 1758, precipitating the division of Muhgal lands among the smaller kingdoms of India.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
Moorish and Christian Reconquista battle (c. 13th century). Wikimedia Commons.

13. The Reconquista of Spain took over 700 years and cost the lives of almost 10,000,000 people to accomplish

The Reconquista refers to an extensive series of wars lasting approximately 780 years, starting with the Umayyad conquest of Hispania in 711 and lasting until the fall of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada in 1491. In 711, the Muslim Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to invade the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania; this conquest would be completed by 719, whereupon the new realm of al-Andalus was created. Struggling to remain independent to the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate based in Córdoba, the Kingdoms of Asturias and Navarre served as the last bastions of Christianity in Spain. Winning several victories, notably the Battle of Toulouse in 721, these small states resisted the total conquest of Spain by the Moors.

With the fall of the Caliphate in the early 11th century, al-Andalus entered a period of prolonged civil war. Splitting into 34 competing kingdoms, the unified Christian kingdoms of the north were free to advance upon them one-by-one. By 1482, only the Emirate of Grenada remained and Ferdinand and Isabella launched the final war. Ending on January 2, 1492, with the surrender of Grenada, the Reconquista was finally completed and Spain turned its eyes towards the New World. At least seven million people were killed across the centuries of conflict, whilst in the aftermath of the Reconquista all Jews were expelled and Muslims were forcibly converted.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
Russian soldiers of the anti-Bolshevik Siberian Army (c. 1919). Wikimedia Commons.

12. The Russian Civil War, following on from the losses of the First World War, took the lives of a further 7,000,000 to 12,000,000 people

The Russian Civil War was a multi-factional conflict that chiefly took place between 1917 and 1922 to determine the future of the defunct Russian Empire. Beginning immediately after the Russian Revolutions of 1917, the primary combatants were the Red Army, led by Vladimir Lenin and fighting for the installation of Bolshevism, and the White Army, a broad tent of opposing forces including democrats, monarchists, and capitalists. In addition to these participants, several other independent armies fought for dominance and influence, as well as eight foreign nations which sought to determine the outcome in their respective favors.

With the Red Army ultimately victorious and creating the Soviet Union in 1923, the costs of the internal conflict were staggering. Estimates of the number people executed during the “Red Terror” by the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, ranged from the hundreds of thousands to in excess of one million; concurrently, the “White Terror” is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300,000 innocents, including 100,000 Jews in Ukraine. The remnants of the Cossacks were murdered or deported, with approximately half a million estimated to have been put to death. Meanwhile, several independence movements, sensing the weakness of Russian authority, took the occasion to become sovereign nations, including Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre (The Great Miseries of War) by Jacques Callot (c. 16th century). Wikimedia Commons.

11. The Thirty Years’ War, the greatest period of German casualties until the last months of World War II, was responsible for the deaths of between 8,000,000 and 11,500,000 people

The Thirty Years’ War, taking place between 1618 and 1648, was a lengthy conflict fought in Central Europe. Initially beginning due to disagreements between the Protestant and Catholic states of the Holy Roman Empire – accelerated by the election of Ferdinand II as Emperor in 1619 and his efforts to impose Roman Catholicism upon all the peoples of his domain – the war attracted the involvement of the foremost European powers. Seen as an opportunity for expansion and profit, for example, France interceded to prevent encirclement by the Habsburgs, Sweden did so to acquire territory in northern Germany, and Spain in an attempt to crush the Dutch rebellion.

The conflict devastated much of Central Europe, triggering famines, butchering much of the population through the fighting, and bankrupting many of those involved; conversely, France emerged greatly strengthened, as did Sweden, while the Dutch Republic, having won its independence, entered a Golden Age as the foremost economic and colonial power of Europe. Of particular note, due to the sufferings of much of Europe during the conflict many populations adopted the hysterical fear of witchcraft. Serving as the peak of the witch-hunting phenomenon, an estimated 25,000 women were put to death across these decades in a panicked attempt to end the horrific conditions of seemingly cursed everyday life.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
The death of Atahualpa, the last Sapa Inca on 29 August 1533, Luis Montero (c. 1867). Wikimedia Commons.

10. The Spanish Conquest of the Incas saw the loss of an estimated 8,400,000 native peoples in addition to irreparable damage to the indigenous culture

The Spanish Conquest of the Inca Empire, starting in 1532 and ending in 1572, was one of the fundamental campaigns behind the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Upon the arrival of the Spanish in 1528, the Inca Empire was the largest of the pre-Columbian civilizations, extending across an area approximately 2,000,000 square kilometers in size and encompassing more than 16,000,000 inhabitants. Beginning with the capture of Sapa Inca Atahualpa, the Emperor of the Inca nation, by 180 soldiers under the command of Francisco Pizarro in 1532, the Spanish demanded a substantial ransom for the Inca ruler. After receiving their tribute, the Spanish killed Atahualpa on August 29, 1533.

Despite a protracted rebellion against the Spanish in retaliation, the disunited Inca were unable to provide an adequate military response to the conquistadors. Taking forty years, in part due to an internal Spanish civil war between Pizarro and Diego de Almagro, both of whom were killed in this struggle, the conflict is estimated as having resulted in the deaths of half the indigenous population. Whilst not all in battle, with many dying as a result of smallpox and other diseases brought to the continent by colonists, the Inca civilization was devastated by the defeat and formally replaced by the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1572.

20 Wars in History that Left Behind Devastating Death Tolls
Timur, also known as Tamerlane (c. 15th century). Wikimedia Commons.

9. In the course of his many conquests, Timur and his armies killed as many as 20,000,000 people

Amir Timur, also known as Tamerlane, was a Turco-Mongol ruler and founder of the Timurid Empire in Central Asia. Born in modern-day Uzbekistan on April 9, 1336, although not a descendant of the Great Khan, Timur envisioned a restoration of the Mongol Empire akin to the greatness of Genghis Khan a century prior. Gaining control of the Chagatai Khanate in 1370, Timur embarked upon successive military campaigns across much of Asia, in addition to Russia and the Caucasus in pursuit of this dream. Defeating the Mamluks of Egypt, the rising Ottoman Empire, and the Sultanate of Dehli, Timur established himself as the preeminent ruler of the Muslim world.

Reuniting much of the composite parts of the Mongol Empire that had splintered following the death of Genghis, including the Chagatai Khanate, the Ilkhanate, and the Golden Horde, Timur came close, but ultimately failed, to restore the final member: the Yuan dynasty of China. In the course of the conflicts, Timur’s armies are estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of approximately 5% of the human population across Asia, Africa, and Europe. However, the Timurid Empire would not long survive its maker. After the death of Timur in 1405 the confederation rapidly declined throughout the 15th century; by 1500, the empire was dissolved and divided up among the Safavids, Mughals, and others.

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)

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

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