The First World War in British Memory

For Remembrance Day this year, the Canadian non-profit Vimy Foundation commissioned an Ipsos poll on the First World War whose most interesting question, at least for me, was about the number of soldier deaths suffered by the Canadian, American, Belgian, British, French, and German armies – with answers from online panels in all six countries. You can see the results, including average error, on page 17 of the poll.

Unsurprisingly, everyone was wildly inaccurate all the way, with the average error ranging from 299,286 for the French to 487,980 for the United States – relative to actual casualty numbers between 40,936 (for Belgium) and 1,397,800 (for Germany). I doubt I would have done any better without any cues for scale or relative order.

The official summary highlights a few interesting observations:

Respondents in the US, UK and France came closest to correctly guessing their own country’s World War One soldier deaths. US respondents also came closest to correctly guessing the numbers for Canada and Belgium, while those in France were nearest the mark for Germany. Each country over-estimated Canadian deaths – including Canadians by nearly 3-times. French respondents’ guesses were, on average, the most accurate.

Converting the results from absolute numbers to percentage error, though, makes some other facts jump out.

 

Deaths Respondents
Canada United States Belgium Great Britain France Germany Average
Canada 237% 107% 211% 266% 220% 241% 213%
United States 229% 201% 229% 237% 312% 289% 250%
Belgium 456% 278% 520% 659% 440% 447% 466%
Great Britain 59% 42% 58% 119% 54% 65% 66%
France 42% 30% 40% 47% 65% 60% 47%
Germany 41% 31% 52% 57% 73% 60% 53%
Average 130% 80.5% 135% 162% 130% 132%
More than anything else, what respondents missed was that European powers were an order of magnitude more involved in the war than Canada and the US (and that Belgium was, relatively speaking, a tiny country). Respondents in every country – with one exception – overestimated the North American and Belgian losses and underestimated the French, German, and British losses.

Beyond that, the accuracy of the French guess in absolute terms turn out to have rested on the fact that French and German deaths constituted three-quarters of the total deaths being estimated – the French guesses were the least accurate of any nation for US deaths and subpar for Canadian deaths too. In fact, if you look at the average error as a matter of percentages, it’s the Americans who come out best. I sure didn’t see that coming.

Last, but hardly least, only one country bucks the trend when it comes to under- or over-estimating a country’s deaths.The average British guess for that country’s losses is one of three cases where the nation’s guess of its own losses is closest of the six, but it’s the only one that breaks the common pattern.Where every other nation under-guesses British soldier deaths the British over-estimate their own by twenty per cent. I wouldn’t read too much into any of these numbers, but there’s got to be something interesting going on where the French and German’s underestimate their national losses by 35–40% and the British overestimate their by 20%.

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