War. Death. Destruction. A tale as old as time. A cycle that never ends. The millions of lives lost to mankind’s love of warfare is startling in quantity and impossible to grasp.
Some wars are so ancient, the world seems to have forgotten they ever occurred. Some are so recent, it is like they happened only yesterday. But both have staggering cultural, political, economic and social repercussions. Here is a look through history at some of the most costly wars mankind has endured.
22. The Biafran War
The Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War, was fought between the government of Nigeria and the secessionist state of Biafra from July 6, 1967, to January 15, 1970. After Britain formally decolonized from Nigeria in the early 1960s, political, economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions grew and Biafra sought succession. An estimated 2 million civilians perished due to famine during the blockade.
21. The Japanese Invasions of Korea
The two Japanese invasions of Korea between 1592 and 1598 CE are also known as the “Imjin Wars.” The first invasion started when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a Japanese military leader, put into motion his long-held plan to invade China through Korea. It got off to a successful start as cities like Pyongyang and Seoul were captured, but eventually, the combined operations of the Korean navy, a large land army from Ming China and well-organized local rebels resulted in the first invasion stalling in 1593 CE. After unsuccessful peace talks, Hideyoshi launched a second, much less successful invasion in 1597 CE, and when the warlord died the next year, the Japanese forces withdrew. The conflict led to a death toll of 1 million for Korea.
20. The Iran–Iraq War
This prolonged military conflict between Iran and Iraq lasted through most of the 1980s. Open warfare began on September 22, 1980, when Iraqi armed forces invaded western Iran along the countries’ joint border. The roots of the war lay in a number of territorial and political disputes between Iraq and Iran. Fighting was ended by a 1988 cease-fire, though the withdrawal of troops did not take place until the signing of a formal peace agreement on August 16, 1990. Estimates of total casualties range from 1,000,000 to twice that number, with Iran likely suffering the greatest losses. Both sides fought brutally with the use of chemical weapons and deliberate attacks on civilian targets.
19. The Siege of Jerusalem
The Siege of Jerusalem of 70 CE marks the Roman military blockading Jerusalem during the First Jewish Revolt. The Romans encircled the city with a wall to cut off supplies to the city completely and thereby drive the Jews to starvation. They also destroyed much of the city, including the “Second Temple,” a center of worship and national identity in ancient Israel. The fall of the city marked the conclusion of a four-year campaign against the Jewish insurgency in Judaea. The majority of information on the siege comes from the notes of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. According to these notes, 1.1 million civilians died during the siege, mainly as a result of violence and famine.
18. The Korean War
At the end of the Second World War, Korea was divided along an internal border between North and South Korea (sometimes referred to as “the 38th Parallel”). Tensions reached an explosive high in June 1950 when North Korea—supplied and advised by the Soviet Union—invaded the South. The United Nations—with the United States as the principal participant—joined the war on the side of the South Koreans, and the People’s Republic of China came to North Korea’s aid. After more than a million combat casualties had been suffered on both sides, the fighting ended in July 1953 with Korea still divided into two hostile states—North and South, as it remains today.
17. The Mexican Revolution
The Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, was the first major social revolution of the 20th century. It was the dawn of many changes in Mexico’s government, including the end of dictatorship in Mexico and the establishment of a constitutional republic. Though a constitution drafted in 1917 formalized many of the reforms sought by rebel groups, periodic violence continued into the 1930s. It has been difficult for historians to quantify the death toll of this period of Mexican history, but most estimates range from 1 to 2 million.
16. Shaka´s Conquest
Shaka´s Conquest is a term used for a series of massive and violent conquests in Southern Africa led by Skaha, one of history’s most influential monarchs of the Zulu Kingdom. In the first half of the 19th century, Shaka led a large army that invaded a number of regions in Southern Africa, destroying tribe after tribe in a deadly cycle of warfare and conquest. It is estimated that up to 2 million tribal people fell victim. Shaka himself was killed by three assassins in 1828.
15. The Goguryeo–Sui War
The Goguryeo-Sui Wars refer to a series of campaigns launched by the Sui Dynasty of China against the Goguryeo kingdom of Korea between 598 C.E. and 614 C.E. The Sui believed that Goguryeo geographically belonged to China. This was their motivation to launch four mighty invasions, all of which failed. Goguryeo defeated the Sui Dynasty, leading to the collapse of the empire, but Goguryeo refrained from invading China to assume control of China. This was Goguryeo’s downfall—they later fell to a combined Silla-Tang Dynasty attack in 668 C.E. The Goguryeo–Sui War brought a death toll of 2 million people, but this number does not include Korean and civilian casualties.
14. French Wars of Religion
The time frame of these wars was 1562 to 1598 and these years represent the conflict in France between Protestants (Huguenots) and Roman Catholics. The exact number of wars and their dates are still debated by historians but it is estimated that up to 4 million people died as a result of the war, famine and war-related diseases.
13. The Second Congo War
The Second Congo War is the deadliest war in modern African history claiming the lives of up to 5.4 million deaths, mostly through disease and starvation. In the First Congo War, the support of Rwanda and Uganda enabled Congolese rebel, Laurent Désiré-Kabila, to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko's government. However, after Kabila was installed as the new President, he broke ties with Rwanda and Uganda. The Second Congo War kicked off when they retaliated by invading the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Within a few months, no less than nine African countries were involved in the conflict in the Congo, and by its end, nearly 20 rebel army groups were fighting in what had become one of the deadliest conflicts in recent history.
12. The Napoleonic Wars
Napoleonic Wars, a series of wars (fought between 1803 and 1815) between Napoleonic France and shifting alliances of other European powers that produced a brief French dominance over most of Europe. The death toll of these conflicts is estimated to be around 5 million. Along with the French Revolutionary Wars, the Napoleonic Wars constitute a 23-year period of recurrent conflict that concluded only with the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon’s second renunciation of the throne on June 22, 1815. Napoleon was an incredibly successful military leader. He fought about 60 battles during his career and lost just seven, mostly at the end of his reign.
11. The Thirty Years´ War
Fought between 1618 and 1648, the Thirty Years War was caused by a religious divide between German Catholics and Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire and spread to spark a strong religious divide throughout most of Europe. In the end, the conflict changed the geopolitical face of Europe and the role of religion and nation-states in society. The death toll estimates differ significantly but the most probable count suggests that about 8 million people, including civilians, died in this very lengthy war.
10. The Chinese Civil War
This military struggle for control of China was waged between the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong. The war—which eventually resulted in two de facto states, the Republic of China (now known as Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China in mainland China—began in 1927 and ended when major active battles ceased in 1950. During the war, both sides carried out mass atrocities, with millions of non-combatants deliberately killed. The death toll is estimated to reach as high as 8 million.
9. Conquests of Tamerlane
Also known as Timur, Tamerlane was a Turco-Mongol conqueror and a military leader. Tamerlane is perhaps the most well-known for his cruelty and brutality. He often ordered massacres of his enemies. For example, in Delhi, he killed 80,000 people and built pyramids of their skulls in honor of his victory. Regardless, he is often applauded for uniting the Muslim world. In the second half of the 14th century, he led military campaigns across Western, South and Central Asia, the Caucasus and southern Russia. He emerged as the most powerful ruler in the Muslim world after defeating the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the emerging Ottoman Empire and the declining Delhi Sultanate. It is estimated that his brutal military campaigns caused the deaths of 17 million people, which was about 5% of the world’s population at the time.
8. The Dungan Revolt
The Dungan Revolt was an ethnic war in China between Chinese Muslim minorities and the empire's reigning Qing Dynasty (1862 – 1877). It was caused by a dispute between a Chinese merchant and a Muslim Hui over the price of bamboo poles when the Han merchant did not receive the amount demanded for the goods The resulting conflicts led to the deaths of an estimated 8 to 12 million people, including warriors and civilians on both sides, making it one of the most lethal civil wars ever fought.
7. Conquest of the Americas
European colonization of the Americas began as early as in the 10th century when West Norse sailors briefly settled areas on the shores of modern Canada but generally, the period between 1492 and 1691 is used when referring to the conquest of the Americas. Invading conquerors subjugated local populations and imposed Christianity upon them. It is nearly impossible to estimate the Native American death toll due to a lack of consensus on their population in pre-Columbus times, but there is no doubt that tens of millions of Native individuals perished.
6. World War I
Although there were a number of causes for the war, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the main catalyst for starting the war. The duration of WW1 was between July 1914 and November 1918. It originated in Europe and gradually drew in all the world’s economic great powers—including the United States, Japan and the Ottoman Empire—that assembled in two opposing alliances: the Allies and the Central Powers. Thanks to new military technologies and the horrors of trench warfare, World War I saw unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction. By the end of the war, the total number of deaths included about 11 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians, for a total death toll of about 18 million.
5. The Qing Dynasty Conquest Of The Ming Dynasty
These conquests lasted between 1618 and 1683 and caused the death of about 25 million people. The Qing Dynasty developed from the Manchu people, a combination of Mongols and Jurchens who lived just north of the Great Wall. Although the two peoples fought at first, the Jurchens eventually absorbed the Mongols into their tribes and the two peoples became joined into a much larger force. They began to attack the Ming cities, also installing Ming generals into their armies, who they used to help rule the regions that they conquered, curbing the unrest within the conquered cities. The generals began to develop loyalty to the Qing court, and the Qings, in turn, gained more modernized war methods by using Ming resources. Rebel armies continued to chip away at the Ming cities, with Beijing as the last major battle. Their battle for Beijing became much easier than anticipated when a Ming general who was assigned to protect and guard the wall sided with the rebels and opened the gate door to allow them into the city. This conquering of Beijing occurred in 1644, marking the beginning of the Qing Dynasty.
4. The Second Sino-Japanese War
Fought between 1937 and 1945, the Second Sino-Japanese War, was a conflict that broke out when China began a full-scale resistance to the expansion of Japanese influence in its territory (which had begun in 1931). The war, which remained undeclared until December 9, 1941, may be divided into three phases: a period of rapid Japanese advance until the end of 1938, a period of virtual stalemate until 1944, and the final period when Allied counterattacks—principally in the Pacific and on Japan’s home islands—brought about Japan’s surrender. The Second Sino-Japanese War was the largest Asian war of the 20th century, accounting for the majority of casualties in the Pacific War—up to 25 million Chinese civilians and over 4 million Chinese and Japanese military personnel deaths.
3. The Three Kingdom War
This is one of the bloodiest periods in Chinese history. The Three Kingdom War took place between the Han Dynasty and the Jin Dynasty, starting in the year 220 AD and lasting until 280 AD. It was marked by a number of brutal battles that might have led to the deaths of up to 40 million people. During the Han Empire, China boasted a population of 54 million, but during the Jin Empire, its population fell to 16 million. The Three Kingdoms were the Wei Kingdom, the Shu Kingdom and the Wu Kingdom. Each was fighting to be the most powerful force in China.
2. The Mongol Conquest
The Mongol invasions and conquests took place during the 13th century, creating the vast Mongol Empire which, by 1300, covered large parts of Eurasia. The Empire developed in the course of the 13th century through a series of victorious campaigns throughout Asia, reaching as far as Eastern Europe. Not only was warfare a major cause of death in these conflicts, but Mongol expeditions may have spread the bubonic plague across Asia and Europe, helping to spark the Black Death of the 14th century. It is estimated that this deadly episode in history led to 40 to 70 million deaths.
1. World War II
The deadliest war in all of human history, the Second World War (1939 to 1945) claimed the lives of around 70 million people. It was fought between the Axis Powers—Germany, Italy and Japan—and the Allied Powers—Britain, United States, Soviet Union and France—and most of the countries in the world were involved in some way. It was the most widespread war in history and directly involved more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. In many respects, World War II grew out of issues left unresolved by World War I. Political and economic instability in Germany fueled the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party. WW2 ended on May 8, 1945, when the Allies accepted Germany's surrender, about a week after Adolf Hitler had committed suicide.
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