Monday 29. November 2021
#219 - October 2018

The humanitarian consequences of War

The Great War is still perceived today as a sheer military confrontation. However, it largely affected the civilian populations too and profoundly changed the nature of humanitarian activities.

STC335786 Red Cross men in the trenches attending to a wounded man, 1916 (sepia photo) by English Photographer, (20th century); Private Collection; ( During the Somme Offensive, July-November 1916;); The Stapleton Collection; English,  it i

The First World War is generally seen as an event involving only military personnel. With an estimated nine to eleven million deaths among the military personnel, it is often described as the last conflict in which the military casualties were higher than the civilian ones. And the ratio of nine combatants killed for one civilian is still used as a marker to describe the violence of these four years of conflict.


Now, a more precise analysis of the real impact of the Great War on civilian population contradicts such assertions. The non-combatants suffered as much as the warriors during the battle years, and even more after the official end of the fighting on 11 November 1918. In this sense, one may say that a comparable equivalency between military and civilian losses exists.


Civilians as targets


Civilian populations were affected by the war in different ways, directly or indirectly. They were the target of military actions, as for instance the Austro-Hungarian populations who were killed because of the fighting on the Eastern Front, or the Northern French inhabitants who suffered from German bombing. Civilians were also victims of retaliations, as the Serbs under Austrian administration, or of massive and, sometimes, mortal displacements, organized by the enemies or their own governments, as in the Russia or in the Ottoman Empire. In this last country, massacres against non-combatants were also perpetrated. New perspectives also show that the local civilian populations of European colonial empires were not spared by the war and its tragic consequences. The killings of civilians continued after the Armistice of November 1918, as new armed conflicts, directly linked to the Great War, erupted in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Finland, etc., and in the Middle East.


Indirectly, the civilian populations were affected by the consequences of military occupations, as in Romania or in Northern France where civilians could be taken as hostages, interned in camps or even deported. For the Central Powers populations especially, the disastrous effects of the economic blockade imposed by the Entente worsened the conditions. In everyday life, Malnutrition, linked to poor hygiene and the spread of contagious diseases (such as typhus), substantially increased the rates of civilian deaths, particularly for those living in cities. As a direct consequence of the First World War and the collapse of the Russian Empire, the great famine in Russia of the years 1921-1922 cost several millions of lives.


The new humanitarianism


Faced with such catastrophes, humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or the National Red Cross Societies could not remain passive. During the war, the ICRC International Prisoners-of-War Agency whose main task dealt with military captives also ran a special section to respond to enquiries specifically concerning civilians (internees, deportees, hostages, and people living in occupied territories). This was a real innovation, since the scope of the ICRC's activities had not previously included civilians.


Moreover, the ICRC missions and delegations, which had originally been set up in several European States to help prisoners of war awaiting repatriation, soon became involved in distributing food relief and medical supplies to starving populations, particularly in defeated countries (Austria, Germany, Hungary, etc.) whether alone or in collaboration with other international organizations; this was the case during the Russian Famine where the ICRC intervened on a massive scale alongside the American Relief Administration, for instance. Special attention was devoted to children in this relief work and, together with the Save the Children Fund, the ICRC co-founded the International Save the Children Union (ISCU) in the early 1920s. The ICRC also assisted Russian and Armenian refugees, particularly through its delegations in Constantinople and Athens. In addition to helping provide supplies, this also involved interceding to help refugees emigrate and settle in third countries.


For the ICRC, these were all new humanitarian challenges. However, they paved the way to what this institution is today and to the way how it works for war victims in the field, amidst the armed violence of the 21st century.


Daniel Palmieri

Historical Research Officer

Library and Public Archives Unit

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Geneva



The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.