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  • Fewest Casualties… June 25, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback


    In what modern war did the fewest people die? Beach has been wasting a couple of joyful hours this morning looking through the annals of battles past and some dodgy Wikipedia pages. He has built in several limits to the survey. First, he has restricted himself to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where it is far easier to get hold of reliable casualty figures. Second, he has only included wars between established armies. So separatists and ‘rebels’ are only included if they actually have troops constantly in the field: an IRA insurgency campaign does not count, the American Civil War does. Third, some wars have low casualties because very few people took part. Beach has limited himself then to wars where at least a thousand had guns (or spears) on both sides. The 1838 Mormon War or the Pleasant Family War, for example, did not see these numbers  and so are ignored.

    And the results…

    1) The Anglo-Zanzibar War is famous as the shortest war in history. It lasted under thirty-eight minutes and centred on a British bombardment of Zanzibar Town. One Briton was seriously injured and ‘about five hundred Zanzibarians’ were killed. That ‘about five hundred’ could mean 20 or 2000, of course. Perhaps Beach should have insisted on wars that lasted at least forty minutes?

    2) In 1983 the United States attacked Grenada to prevent a communist takeover on the island (pictured): whether this was a figment of Reagan’s imagination or a real domino danger is still much debated. Ninety nine were killed including twenty-five Cubans, which may go some way to answering the previous question.

    3) The Sonderbund War that pitted French-speaking Cantons against most of the rest of Switzerland is the closest that country has ever really come to a civil war. A paltry eighty six men killed despite the use of gunpowder and full federal units.  This is sometimes taken as proof that the Swiss don’t know how to fight. Of course, it proves precisely the opposite. What a country…

    4) The Second Barbary War in 1815 was some unlikely early US muscle flexing in the Mediterranean a century before the Sixth Fleet. 57 US naval personnel and Barbary sailors were killed in the conflict as the US effectively put an end to Barbary piracy.  

    Any other contributions to this list of human incompetence or, as we suggested under the Sonderbund War, perhaps extraordinary competence: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT COM Beach also wonders if there isn’t space here for another post on wars where one side lost more troops to friendly fire than to enemy action. For example, for the Gulf War, Mark One, the Allies lost: ‘190 killed by enemy action, 44 killed by friendly fire, 248 killed by in-theater accidents’. Now that’s depressing…

    26 June 2013: Here are some other potential cases. First up, Tacitus from Detritus writes in with the suggestion of the German invasion of Luxembourg 10 May 1940. No German soldier seems to have been killed and one Luxembourgian gendarme was seriously injured. Beach’s only quibble with this is the question of whether the Luxembourg army in the field reached 1000, particularly as most of said army seemed to have been understandably confined to barracks as the Wehrmacht crushed one of Europe’s smaller countries with three Panzer divisions, ouch. Second, Michael R refers to the Ecuador Peru border wars that ‘raged’ from c1820-c1980. Michael writes, in fact: There were a series of  ‘wars’ battles etc. fought in this border dispute over a century and a half all of which were financially expensive for the combatants but appear to have had relatively few combatant casualties.  Its hard to get any accurate figures.’ Third, Michael C-J writes in with an accidental war between the Scilly Isles and the Netherlands. Again Beach doubts that the Scillians had an army of ten never mind 1000 men but it is an exceptional instance. Thanks the two Michaels and Tacitus!!

    27 June 2013: John G. has come up with a couple of golds: ‘The Ten Day War or Slovenian War of Independence‘ seems to tick all the boxes. Then during a bout of insomnia I remembered a bizarre footnote to our Imperial history, the invasion of Abyssinia in 1867 to free a handful of missionaries and a couple of Imperial representatives. Abyssinian casualties at estimated 700 dead might be on the high side for your criteria, but only 2 dead on the British side redresses the balance.’ For the record Beach didn’t even look at Balkan wars, he thought that no Balkan war could possibly have ended with less than 10 percent of the civilian population in shallow graves. Thanks John!

    28 June 2013:  Mike Dash writes in: I wrote recently on Shakushain’s Revolt, which saw 30,000 Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, rebel against Japanese encroachment on their island and, equipped only with stone age weapons, take on an army of samurai armed with the latest muskets back in 1669. The number of combatants on the Japanese side was just under 1000; on the Ainu side several times more: perhaps 2,500 or 3,000. There were, it’s true, numerous Japanese civilian casualties in the run up to the actual fighting, but as to the war itself: the result of the solitary skirmish that took place was probably a couple of hundred Ainu dead (the numbers were never formally established) and a solitary, ridiculously unfortunate Japanese. Then Nils writes: You may be interested in the Aroostook War between the US (really the state of Maine) and British Canada over placement of the US/Canadian border between 1838 and 1839. According to Wikipedia, the US militias fielded 6,000-15,000 men, while the Canadians fielded a similar number. There were zero combat casualties (though 38 in non-combat situations). Don’t know if this fits your criteria, but it’s a weird military footnote in North American history. Thanks Mike and Nils!

    30 June 2013: Bjorn writes: ‘It may be mentioned that in the so called “Theater War” (or Tyttebærkrigen (The Cowberry war) as it is called in Norway as the forces had to eat wild berries to survive) where Denmark-Norway invaded Sweden in 1788, the Danish–Norwegian force only lost eight men through acts of war. However the total casualties were higher due to hunger and disease, about 1,500-3,000 men. ’ thanks Bjorn!

    19 Sep 2015: Stephen D on the Swiss Civil War of 1847, ‘This war, fought between the armies of the Sonderbund – an association of Catholic cantons opposed to centralised government – and the Federal forces, lasted 25 days. Of the Federal army of 99,000 men, 60 were killed; of the 79,000 Sonderbunders, 26. This works out as mortality rates of 0.0024% per day, and 0.0013%, respectively. Looked at in another way, if the war had lasted a year the average Federal soldier would have had a better than 99% chance of surviving alive; over ten years, 92%. Sonderbund survival rates would have been even better.’ Thanks Stephen…