While working on a visualisation of Commonwealth war dead during the First World War, one important design decision I made was to restrict the dataset to the day the war ended: Armistice Day on 11th November, 1918.
Canadians celebrate Armistice in Mons, 1918 (National Library of Scotland)
Obviously many more soldiers died from wounds received during the war after this date — not to mention those from the flu pandemic that started before the war even ended and finished in mid-1919.
Steve Douglas, director of the Maple Leaf Legacy Project, also pointed this out to me a few days after the project went live.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (where I obtained the data) has records for 75,501 deaths between 12th November 1918 and 31st August 1921 (with 31 August being the end of “designated war years” for the First World War). While this is still a hugely significant amount of deaths, it pales to the amount of deaths incurred during the active war years.
The main reason I decided to omit deaths after 11th November 1918:
- 11th November 1918 is a powerful date. Telling the story of the war felt stronger ending on this day if only because those who died where possibly only hours or even minutes away from surviving the war
- Explaining why the dataset extended to 31st August 1921 complicated the visualisation. The more explaining required for a visualisation, sadly the less effective it becomes
- Deaths per day on average after Armistice dropped from around 627 to 86 per day. In comparison to the dead per day from battles like Loos, The Somme and Passchendaele visualising this level of data would be difficult given the sheer difference in scale of numbers
While I felt this data didn’t fit into the main war dead project, it definitely warrants it’s own visualisation, which I’ve put together below:
What’s most interesting about this visualisation is how to correlates almost perfectly with the UK-wide flu deaths from 1918-1919. During the war any pattern is hard to spot as the deaths are obviously far higher due to combat-related casualties. But post Armistice almost immediately the pattern is obvious.
Moving beyond the flu pandemic, another issue with CWGC’s dataset becomes obvious: these aren’t just war deaths, they are all services deaths between 4th August 1914 to 31st August 1921. Incidents such as the loss of HMS Iolaire, the Iraqi revolt against the British, the Waziristan campaign, loss of HMS K5 and the R38 airship accident demonstrate this with their spikes in deaths after the war.
Even with the data during the war, many services deaths were recorded during the First World War when the servicemen did not die as a result of the war. Probably the best example of this is the oldest death in the war — 85-year old George William Valentine Clements — who fought for the British Army in the Crimean War but most likely spent the entire First World War retired in his Norfolk home until he passed away in March, 1916.
Going back to original visualisation of the war dead, I was careful to use language that reflected what the CWGC dataset really is: a record of all deaths recorded during “designated war” years — but with a decision to limit the dataset to the “official” war dates of 4th August 1914 to 11th November 1918 for the reasons I’ve described above.
It’s regrettable (and frustrating) that it’s so difficult to include those who died after Armistice day into this sort of visualisation. But thinking about the war on a higher level, even Commonwealth war dead only make up a tiny fraction of estimated 16 million deaths of the conflict world wide.
However, I still genuinely hope the visalusation communicates the loss and tragedy in a way that transcends just numbers on paper.