From the local to the national: A new approach to casualties per department, 1914–1918

Quantifying the Great War
By Laurent Beau


In the collective memory of the First World War, soldiers from the countryside paid a much higher toll than the working-class inhabitants of cities, notably Paris. However, it has always been difficult to establish exact figures of war casualties for each department of France. Researchers who have attempted this approach have relied on a comparison with the male population for each department in the 1911 census. Based on a statistical analysis of the monuments to fallen soldiers in one canton in the Cantal department, this paper adopts a different perspective and factors in the population movements that occurred in the years preceding the war (rural exodus, with a concentration of the population in industrialized urban areas). This challenges the residential approach generally used. By adopting a demographic approach, based on the male active population by department of birth of the soldiers killed during the war, the urban/rural gap is considerably reduced: we note fewer casualties in rural departments and a clear increase in the losses of certain highly industrialized departments. The result is a new map of French casualties, with the remaining gaps pointing to paths for future research.
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