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Modern analysis casts new light on WW1 deaths

Press Release – University of Otago

Embargoed until Friday 1 November 2013

Modern analysis casts new light on WW1 deaths – Study

New research on injury-related deaths among New Zealand military forces in the First World War supports the idea that several preventive measures could have significantly reduced the death toll.

The research is published in today’s New Zealand Medical Journal by University of Otago, Wellington (UOW) and Massey University researchers. With the centenary of the First World War approaching, the researchers conducted the research as an opportunity to better understand the past and its potential lessons for the present.

This is the first time an analysis of the mortality burden on New Zealand military forces in the First World War has been undertaken using modern analytic methods, says UOW Associate Professor Nick Wilson.

Analysis shows that of 16,703 deaths among New Zealand Expeditionary Force personnel during the war (28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918), injury deaths predominated. This included 65% “killed in action” and 23% who “died of wounds” Remaining deaths were mainly due to disease, particularly pandemic influenza, but some deaths were also from accidents, drownings and executions. There were also many additional deaths from wounds and disease in the months following the war.

Injury deaths per year peaked at 1335 per 10,000 soldiers in 1915 during the Gallipoli campaign, and again in 1917, largely due to the Battle of Passchendaele. Another significant finding shows that the proportion of deaths from “died of wounds” out of all injury deaths actually peaked in the last year of the war, 1918, at 29%, Wilson says.

“What this suggests is that the ongoing improvements in medical services for the wounded were being overwhelmed by other factors like changes in weaponry and military tactics,” he says.

Professor of War Studies at Massey University, Glyn Harper, says that while historical interpretations differ, there are many plausible preventive measures that could have been taken to reduce loss of life, and the study supports this.
“A key one would have been better military planning to avoid failed campaigns such as Gallipoli and preventing the poor military leadership that resulted in the extremely high death rate of New Zealanders at Passchendaele. Improved preventive measures such as the use of steel helmets by troops earlier in the war could also have reduced both injuries and deaths.”

Wilson notes that improved design and resourcing of military medical services which were especially deficient at the start of the war could also have had an impact.

“The lack of adequate medical facilities was one of a number of deficiencies outlined in the final report on the Gallipoli Campaign by the Dardenelles Commission.”

He also notes that on the Western Front there was an initial return to horse-drawn ambulances, whereas civilian society was generally using motorised ones at this time.

The researchers summarised their findings by noting that “the First World War was by far the worst mass injury event in New Zealand’s history, exceeding all other wars and natural disasters. Many of those deaths could have been prevented through better diplomacy, better military planning and improved medical services.”

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