Most battle deaths

I’m curious about which battle in World History had the most deaths or casualties.

To limit it further, perhaps we could talk about single day casualties. Major battles in the two World Wars went on for weeks and even months.

My picks for long battles: The Ukraine Campaign. The Battle of Moscow, The Battle of Lenningrad (if we include civilian casualties), Kusk, and The Somme.

My picks for single day: The first day of the Somme (56,000 British casualties, I don’t know how many German), Hiroshima (if we count civilians), Borodino (74,000). I don’t know if any single day WWII battle on the Eastern Front (maybe during the battle for Kiev) can compete. Nor do I have any idea if any ancient or Medieval Battles are close. The First Crusaders slaughtereed 30,000 (or something like that) infidels in Jerusalem, but that’s a little different that battle casualties.

I believe there was a thread on this fairly recently here in GQ. It’s worth a shot searching for it.

As far as ancient battles go, the Battle of Cannae in 216 bce certainly ranks as one of the bloodiest days in human history. The conservative estimate buts to casuality figure at about 48,000. I’ve also seen the Romans’ casualties quoted as high as 80,000. At any rate, 3/4 of the Roman Army died in four hours. It should also be noted that the battlefield was much smaller than those mention above, leaving the corpses piled in a great mound. Amongst the Roman dead was a Consul, two quaestors, more than half of the tribunes, and 80 senators. -good overview of the battle, with stats -nice diagrams of Hannibal’s tactics

The Battle of Lepanto, on October 7th, 1571, resulted in the deaths of nearly 10,000 Christians and 30,000 Ottomans. Renowned Spanish novelist Cervantes served here, and was wounded in his hand. Among the dead were 34 Ottoman admirals and 120 galley commanders.

At Issus, in 333 BC, Alexander the Great’s army killed somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Persian soldiers.

At Guagamela, on October 1st, 331 BC, Alexander’s forces killed more than 50,000 Persian soldiers.

40,000 Persian sailors perished on September 28th, 480 BC, in the straits of Salamis, succumbed to superior Greek naval forces.

If you do count civilian deaths, the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden are certainly high up there, each resulting in more than 90,000 dead.

If you count civilian deaths, where do Hiroshima and Nagasaki fit in? I wouldn’t call civilian massacres ‘battles’, though.

BDS: is it just actual battles you want, as in numbers of soldiers who died in ‘fair fights’?

This was something I was discussing in a bar last night, and so I’ve done a little research today to come up with the answer. Thanks.

It’s good to know that, despite our improved technology and increased population, we haven’t increased our one day counts by very much in the last 2400 years.

Of course I assume those Alexander the Great figures aren’t very accurate (how would anyone know?). The romans probably kept more careful records.

The highest casualties in the Napoleonic wars were at Leipzig, but they were spread over three days. If we count bombings, Hiroshima (I believe) beats out Dresden and Tokyo by 10 or 20 thousand.

The first day of the battle of the Somme saw 20,000 British soldiers killed. I assume German deaths were also appallingly high but can’t find a cite right now.

Well, it would only count if you factor in post-bombing radiation deaths. Otherwise, Dresden would probably have the most.

As for the Alexander the Great figures, those are the more conservative estimates. Contemporary sources sometimes put the numbers past 200,000.

Yes, the ancients had single-day casualtiy numbers that sometimes mirrored those of the 20th century. But someone like Alexander or Hannibal would have a battle every few months, modern wars manage to kill off thousands on a daily basis. In acient times, the armies would only exist during the times when farmers didn’t have to tend crops. Armies would build up, fight, disolve away, and build up again during the course of a year.

The estimates of the number killed in the firebombing of Dresden go up to 240,000–the citizens of the city itself, plus an unknown number of civilians.

Pardon my ignorance here, but what is the difference between “citizens of the city” and “civilians?”

Um…my bad. I meant “citizens of the city” and “refugees”. Sorry about that.

Extreme caution must be noted with regards to ancient battle tolls. For one, they were always based on estimates. And secondly, the totals were either derived from or extended from propagandist literature - of which contemporary ancient world histories almost always are.

Cannae isn’t so much an issue, but the figures suggested for Alexander above are quite ridulous and likely very unsupportable.

Speaking of which, don’t forget Agincourt - somewhere towards 20,000 French Knights having lost their lives on the field that day against Henry V’s 7,000 Longbow archers.

The biggest loss of life in a campaign could quite easily have been from the Japenese occupation of China during WWII, to which a final death toll of 10 million is ascribed - nearly twice as many killed under the Final Solution of Nazi Germany.

I got the Alexander stats from Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson. I don’t see why they’d be that absurd.

Also, your numbers on the Final Solution are off. About 11 million perished in the Holocaust.

Yes, they do - indeed, they’ve been pushed as high as 250,000 - but this is an exceedingly controversial issue. The most recent run through the question is by Richard Evans in chapter 5 of Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial (Verso, 2002). As the subtitle indicates, Evans’ book derives from his stint as an expert witness in the Irving vs. Penguin Books and Lipstadt libel action. His responsibility was checking Irving’s books for violations of professional standards. Given the issues at stake, he and his team concentrated on those of Irving’s works that relate to the Holocaust. His arguments about those were clearly central to the judge finding against Irving. But chapter 5 is the check case: does Irving exaggerate the casualty toll in his 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden and subsequently ? Evans concludes that he does. And Irving’s numbers are generally 200,000 or thereabouts.
Based on skimming the chapter again, Evans never really commits himself to a particular number, but I’d infer he’d buy a number somewhere in the region of 40,000. Without excusing even that death toll.

Numbers on Dresden civilian dead:

East German authorities- 35,000
Associated Press, 1991: 30k-60k
Air Marshall Sir Robert Saundby- 135k
Goebbels- 250k
de Zayas- 25k to 400k (range of estimates)
1949 Manstein Trial in Hamburg- 150k
International Committe of the Red Cross- 275k

RJ Rummel puts the number of civilian dead by Anglo-American bombings on Germany during WWII to be about 410k.


Averaging the AP & Red Cross gives us 160,000. Most cites I found when looking for the 240,000 reference (I had heard it on the History Channel, IIRC) gave 130,000. Either way, for a non-military target and a cultural jewel, it was certainly a travesty. But it does put the Bomb in perspective, doesn’t it? Why does Hiroshima get all the press whereas most people have probably never heard of Dresden?

For that matter, weren’t there internment camps for German-Americans and Italian-Americans as well? We never hear about those. But that’s for another thread.

Any number below about 150,000 wouldn’t particularly bother me. Of the estimates quoted by Daoloth, I’m really not inclined to uncritically accept ones by either Saundby or Goebbels, since both had more than enough (different) motives to push for high figures. Quite why the issue arose in Manstein’s trial, I don’t know. But the Red Cross figure seems weirdly high and I’d like to know the context.

Certainly not true in Britain. As a nation, we don’t feel any particularly direct connection with the atomic bombings in Japan. (Untrue, of course: the British government of the period was utterly proud of it’s involvement in the Manhatten project. And, as far as technical issues went, correctly so.) However there’s intense awareness of what happened in Dresden. It’s pretty much the emblematic Bad Thing that happened in British history and still immensely political. The recentish statue of “Bomber” Harris in the Strand is a good example; I don’t think anybody regards this a neutral symbol of anything. Some people regard it as entirely right and proper, while the rest of us can’t walk past it without feeling disgust.
I cited Evans because he applies the particularly trainspotterish attitute to such issues. It really is the fussy historian arguing about exactly what numbers are at all acceptable.

Antietam - 23,000 deaths in one day (both sides).
I’d bet that Stalingrad was probably the worst battle that one could been involved in… 70,000 Germans died in Stalingrad. The Russians took 91,000 prisoners, including twenty-four German generals. Only 6000 ever returned. I don’t know if the Russians have yet to reveal their total casualties… but they were probably worse.