The Falklands War we forgot

There were more fatalities when Britain and Germany fought over the islands in 1914 than when Britain and Argentina did seventy years later.

Battle painting by William Lionel Wyllie

Despite the impression one might get from the violence in Syria, Iraq or Ukraine; war is on the decline. You are less likely to be a fatality of conflict now than in any other time in history.

This is a trend that’s especially pronounced for Western countries. In the most extreme cases we waged wars in Kosovo and Libya where the handful of fatalities suffered by our forces were the result of accidents rather than enemy actions.

To illustrate this point consider what happened on 8th December 1914. A squadron of German ships sailed into the waters of the Falklands Isles. They were intending to attack the British base at Port Stanley. However, it was an unusually clear day and the British forces could see them coming. The result was a one sided slaughter: the British lost ten men and no ships, whilst pretty much the entire German squadron was sunk with the loss of close to 2,000 men.

This was an event that was not without significance: it forced changes in Germany’s naval strategy and was the only battle of the World War to be fought in South America. However, it soon paled in comparison with the carnage of the Western and Eastern fronts. 2,000 fatalities in a single day was unremarkable in WWI: the British lost 20,000 men on the first day of the Somme. So despite our continuing fascination with the Great War; the Battle of the Falklands has largely been forgotten.

Yet while the 2,000 casualties in the South Atlantic  might have been a drop in the ocean of blood spilled in the first half of the twentieth century, it would still significantly outweigh the 255 Britons and 649 Argentinians killed the next time the Falklands would be fought over.

For all that events in places like Syria, Ukraine and Palestine might make the drive for peace seem futile, as a civilisation we’ve actually made good progress. When whole wars produce fewer casualties than afterthought battles that’s a sign of how far humanity has come.


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