6th October 2017, Volume 130 Number 1463

Nick Wilson, Glyn Harper

The 5,547 deaths among New Zealand military personnel in 1917 was more than for any other year of the First World War. Indeed, a third of the deaths in the whole war occurred in this year (33.2% of the total up to the day the war ended [5,547/16,703]1). It was also nearly half (46.5%) of all the deaths among New Zealand military personnel in the Second World War [5,547/11,9282]. The total also far exceeds the 1,896 deaths for all of the 56 sudden mass fatality events with 10 or more fatalities between 1900 and 2015 occurring in New Zealand territory.3

When considering the average age of these military personnel (28 years4) and an average life span for soldiers who survived the war of around 71 years,4 we calculate a total loss of 239,000 years-of-life from these 5,547 premature deaths. In today’s terms this would also be a massive loss of ‘human capital’, ie, with one way to value this loss being to use the valuation of a healthy-year-of-life in terms of per capita GDP.5 For New Zealand, with a current per capita GDP at around NZ$45,000, this would give a monetarised loss of NZ$10.8 billion from these 5,547 premature deaths. But these statistics don’t capture such aspects as the loss of the fathers of young families, multiple sons in the same family dying and the greater economic dependence of families on individual workers at this time in history (ie, the relative importance of manual labour in the agricultural economy and the relative lack of government-run social welfare systems).

Injury deaths

Our analysis of deaths recorded in the Roll of Honour shows that injury deaths from combat predominated (at 92.8%, Table 1). Most injury deaths in this year (and each year of the war) involved outright death: ‘killed in action’ (KIA). The next major category was ‘died of wounds’ (DOW), whereby the victim was medically assessed while still alive and then died subsequently (potentially up to weeks/months later). The proportion of injury deaths that were in this category did not trend downward over the last three years of the war (27.0% in 1916; 25.6% in 1917 and 28.8% in 1918).1 This was despite every year of the war seeing substantial medical and surgical advances. Indeed, there were such developments as better organisation of medical and surgical services, growing use of transfusions and much better splints.6–8 These developments collectively resulted in documented survival improvements for a range of different types of injury.6 However, there were many other factors that would have impacted on these ratios, eg, the varying levels and speed of evacuation, the changing nature of military tactics and weaponry9 and theatre-specific issues (such as the extent of wounds being contaminated by mud in settings such as Passchendaele).

Table 1: Causes and characteristics of deaths in 1917 among New Zealand military personnel (from Wilson et al1 and new analyses done for this article from the Roll of Honour and online military files).

Characteristic

Number

Percentage

Other details/Comment

Killed in action (KIA) 

3,831

69.1%

These two categories (ie, combat-related deaths) accounted for 92.8% of the total deaths.

Died of wounds (DOW)

1,316

23.7%

Accident

41

0.7%

 

Other injury (drowned, suicide, executed)

8

0.1%

 

Died of disease (DOD)

250

4.5%

 

Section 2 or Section 3*

101

1.8%

Probably mainly disease deaths, see the main text.

Total

5,547

100%

 

Disease deaths in the Northern Hemisphere by four-month grouping (n=224)

Winter months (December 1916 to March 1917)

93

41.5%

The risk of death in this harsh winter season11 was significantly raised compared to the other months: Risk ratio=1.20 (95%CI: 1.07–1.58, p=0.007).

April to July 1917

63

28.1%

 

August to November 1917

68

30.4%

 

Total

224

100%

 

Specific diseases (random 20% sample of 50 out of 250 disease deaths)**

Pneumonia/bronchitis

16

32.0%

 

Tuberculosis

8

16.0%

 

Dysentery or typhoid

4

8.0%

 

Meningitis

4

8.0%

 

Cancer

4

8.0%

 

Suicide

2

4.0%

Technically these are injury deaths but were classified as DOD in the records.

Not determined

2

4.0%

These military files were “restricted access”, possibly reflecting death from suicide.

Other

10

20.0%

 

Total

50

100%

 

*“Section 2” was for those “who died after discharge from the NZ Expeditionary Force (NZEF) from wounds inflicted or disease contracted while on active service.” “Section 3” were for “those who died from accident occurring or disease contracted, while training or attached to the NZEF in New Zealand.”
**Randomly selected “DOD” deaths from the Roll of Honour with examination of the full free access online military files at the Archway website (http://archway.archives.govt.nz/). 

We now consider three specific aspects of the mortality burden in 1917: two major battles and deaths from disease.

The Battle of Messines

Three specific battles generated much of the mortality burden in 1917: the Battle of Messines in June 1917 and the two battles of Ypres in October 1917. The Battle of Messines was widely regarded as a tactical victory for the Allies, and the New Zealand Division achieved all its objectives.10 Field Marshal Douglas Haig described it as “the most successful attack yet carried out under my orders”.10 Nevertheless, the month of June when the battle occurred contributed to 24.3% of all the injury deaths for that year in New Zealand military personnel (KIA plus DOW was 1,253 deaths out of 5,147 for the year, Table 2). This was the month when the proportion of death from wounds out of all injury deaths was second lowest at 24.7% (Table 2). That is, the injury death toll was largely being driven by sudden death on the battlefield.

Table 2: Cause of death by month in 1917 among New Zealand military personnel and comparisons with the non-fatally wounded (analyses from the Roll of Honour and data on the wounded from Carbery15).

Month/key event

KIA [A]

DOW [B]

[B]/[A+B] (%)

DOD

Other deaths*

Total deaths

Total non-fatal wounded

Ratio injury deaths [A+B] to non-fatal wounded

January

34

33

49.3%

24

10

101

246

1:3.7

February

107

38

26.2%

26

7

178

166

1:1.1

March

52

29

35.8%

21

12

114

273

1:3.4

April

35

27

43.5%

13

14

89

217

1:3.5

May

78

29

27.1%

28

11

146

402

1:3.8

June (Battle of Messines)

943

310

24.7%

16

9

1,278

4,110

1:3.3

July

179

68

27.5%

15

8

270

1,112

1:4.5

August

248

112

31.1%

18

13

391

1,614

1:4.5

September

37

32

46.4%

14

27

110

427

1:6.2

October (Broodseinde & First Passchendaele)

1,506

399

20.9%

30

13

1,948

2,904

1:1.5

November

219

105

32.4%

15

11

350

2,039

1:6.3

December

393

134

25.4%

30

15

572

1,249

1:2.4

Total

3,831

1316

25.6% (average)

250

150

5,547

14,759

1:2.9 (average)

*Includes deaths from accidents, other injuries and the categories of “Section 2” and “Section 3” (see Table 1).
For acronyms, see Table 1. 

Third Ypres—Broodseinde and First Passchendaele

This battle first involved a militarily successful attack on 4 October on Gravenstafel Spur by New Zealand personnel (the Battle of Broodseinde)—though with 486 deaths recorded in the Roll of Honour for this day (KIA=451, DOW=35). But on the day of the next major attack (12 October) the death toll reached 846 (KIA=807, DOW=39 in the Roll of Honour), and with 138 dying from wounds in the following week.11 This day, 12 October 1917, is the worst single mass-fatality day in New Zealand’s history. The nearest equivalent occurring on New Zealand’s territory is the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931 at an estimated 258 deaths,3 albeit with some of these deaths occurring in subsequent days as a result of injuries.

This battle resulted in the month of October, having 37.0% of all injury deaths for 1917 among New Zealand personnel (KIA=1,506, DOW=399, total=1,905/5,147, Table 2). This was the month when the proportion of death from wounds out of all injury deaths was the lowest at 20.9% (Table 2). The high ratio of those killed to those with non-fatal wounds at 1:1.5 was also relatively exceptional (Table 2).

On 18 October the New Zealanders were relieved by Canadian troops and on 6 November these Canadian troops captured the ruins of Passchendaele village.11 This took the Canadians three separate attacks and it cost them around 13,000 casualties, of which over 4,000 were killed in action.11 Hence there was some military advantage achieved—albeit at enormous cost. But the high mortality burden of the 12 October battle appears to be an avoidable mistake by military leadership. The offensive on that day failed completely with this being due to heavy rain and the inability of the artillery to destroy the barbed wire and concrete pillboxes that comprised the German defences. The poor decision not to delay the offensive was made by Field Marshal Douglas Haig and was against the advice of most of his army commanders. Theorist and historian Major General JFC Fuller believed that Haig’s decision to continue with a “tactically impossible battle” was “inexcusable”.11,12 But this failed offensive was also partly due to others, eg, the “ineptitude” of Major General Alexander Godley’s staff.13,14 Yet another reason the 12 October battle failed so badly was that the Germans knew it was coming. They could see the preparations for the attack being made, and also a British deserter on the night before the attack told them of its exact start time.11

The 12 October action at Passchendaele also demonstrated another ongoing problem with military leadership around tactics: the persistence with infantry charges in the face of the enemy’s machine guns and artillery. There is evidence that such patterns of charges occurred in multiple attacks during 1917, as shown in a famous painting of an actual British attack in late 1917, which resulted in heavy casualties: “Over the Top” by John Nash (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20015).

The burden of disease

There were an estimated 250 deaths from disease (4.5% of all the deaths in 1917, Table 1), which was higher than that of the preceding year (at 171 for 19161), but the true number of disease-related deaths in 1917 was probably even higher. For example, if all the less well-classified deaths (ie, Section 2 and Section 3 deaths, see Table 1) were from disease, then the percentage would be 6.3% [351/5,547]). In a 20% random sample of the disease deaths, the dominant cause of these was pneumonia/bronchitis (32%), followed by tuberculosis (16%) (Table 1). Of the disease deaths occurring in the North Hemisphere, such deaths were statistically significantly more common in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter months (p=0.007, Table 1). This particular winter was reported as being a particularly severe one.11 Combined with this was that the water table in Flanders is only just below ground level and so the cold was combined with near-constant wet conditions in front line positions.

The extent to which any fraction of these disease deaths were preventable with knowledge of the day is speculative. Nevertheless, we note that some of the diseases causing death are known to be related to crowding (eg, pneumonia, meningitis, tuberculosis and measles). Furthermore, crowding and poor living conditions was almost certainly a likely factor in disease deaths earlier in the war at the military camp in Trentham, Upper Hutt in 1915.16,10 Also, crowding has been implicated in the high mortality from a pandemic influenza outbreak on a New Zealand troopship (HMNZT Tahiti) in the last year of the war, 1918.17 However, 1917 did not see events such as the large outbreak of dysentery (which is related to both crowding and hygiene) seen in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915.18

In conclusion, the year 1917 was the worst year from a mortality perspective in the country’s military history. This very heavy mortality burden was partly driven by three major battles, with a relatively small role played by disease.

Summary

At a total of 5,547 deaths among New Zealand’s military personnel, the year 1917 was the worst year from a mortality perspective in the country’s military history. This year had a third of the deaths in the whole of the First World War for this military population. Major drivers of this mortality burden were the battles of Messines and Third Ypres (Passchendaele) in June and October 1917 respectively. The contribution of disease deaths to the mortality burden was relatively small at 4.5%. Disease deaths were significantly more common in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter months, and some may have been related to crowding.

Abstract

At a total of 5,547 deaths among New Zealand’s military personnel, the year 1917 was the worst year from a mortality perspective in the country’s military history. This year had a third of the deaths in the whole of the First World War for this military population. Major drivers of this mortality burden were the Battles of Messines and Third Ypres (Passchendaele) in June and October 1917 respectively. The contribution of disease deaths to the mortality burden was relatively small at 4.5%. Disease deaths were significantly more common in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter months (p=0.007), and some may have been related to crowding.

Author Information

Nick Wilson, Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington; Glyn Harper, War Studies, Massey University, Palmerston North.

Acknowledgements

The authors thank the organisers of the Symposium “The Myriad Faces of War: 1917 and its Legacy” held at Te Papa, Wellington, on 25–28 April 2017, at which some of the material in this paper was presented. They also thank the Journal reviewers for very helpful comments on the manuscript.

Correspondence

Professor Nick Wilson, Public Health, University of Otago, Mein St, Wellington 6021.

Correspondence Email

nick.wilson@otago.ac.nz

Competing Interests

Nil.

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