The Second World War was the deadliest conflict in human history – involving 30 belligerent nations, it was fought from the far north of Europe to the South Pacific, and mobilised 1 in 9 of the global population. Estimates of the total number of soldiers and civilians killed range from 56 million to 85 million. But even today, many – perhaps especially in Britain – still believe that it was this country, standing alone and isolated, that delivered final victory over the Axis powers, led by Germany’s Third Reich.
In fact, as the infographic reprinted here attests (one figure on the graphic representing 100,000 people), Britain’s contribution in terms of men and woman mobilised was comparatively small when considered as part of the global total. Some 5,896,000 Britons were mobilised, fewer than 1 in 20 of the total figure of 127,171,000 men and women mobilised around the world, from a total population figure of 2.2 billion in 1939. That figure does, however, comprise almost a quarter of the male population of Britain at the time.
Of that overall number, 70% were fighting on the Allied side. They came from 16 nation-states and included citizens of the colonies of the imperial powers. In the last years of the war, Britain was conscripting more combatants from Australia and New Zealand than from the mother country. Russia supplied the greatest number, at over 34 million people – so many were conscripted that the economy was at risk of collapse by 1942.
However, the highest proportion in relation to the total male population came from the German Reich: 42%. This mass conscription of appropriately aged male soldiers was supplemented by foreign workers (involuntarily in the main), POWs, and concentration camp prisoners. By the last two years of the war, teenagers and old men were being conscripted as the fight for ultimate victory became desperate.
The astonishing scope of the Second World War, and the amount of data now available to digest and interpret, is overwhelming. The image above is only one graphic from a book that takes a new approach to the display and dissemination of the raw numbers, in terms of not only human involvement but also over 50 other subjects, including arms production, operations, specific organisations such as the SS, and many more. Reading lists of numbers can often numb the brain, but these fresh graphic displays bring the statistical realities of the calamitous conflict into sharp focus again.
World War II: Infographics is published by Thames & Hudson
This article appeared in the November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about receiving the latest cutting-edge military history research and analysis delivered to your door, click here.