What are the chances of a third world war?

The remains of three South African soldiers buried at Tyne Cot in July 2013 Three South African soldiers, whose remains were found last year, are buried at Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres

This year Britain is commemorating the centenary of the start of World War One. But could we ever face a third world war? I decided to find out for The Editors, a programme that sets out to ask challenging questions.

Wandering around the war cemeteries of Flanders and northern France, I was constantly struck by the thought of the hundreds of thousands of private, small-scale catastrophes that are commemorated there.

Tyne Cot is the largest of the WW1 British cemeteries. It contains the bodies of 11,000 men.

Row upon row of the beautifully maintained white headstones are engraved with Rudyard Kipling's words, A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.

Blown apart by high explosive or drowned in the mud, huge numbers of men simply vanished or were impossible to identify.

Disastrous day

On the great rear walls at Tyne Cot, near the ancient Belgian city of Ypres, the names of those who died are inscribed in stone.

Yet the tragedy was not limited to these men. Many more were badly damaged, physically and mentally, by what they went through.

My own great uncle was one of them. The names of scores of his fellow soldiers from the East Surrey Regiment are listed at Tyne Cot.

Find out more

The Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium

The Editors features the BBC's on-air specialists asking questions which reveal deeper truths about their areas of expertise. Watch it on BBC One at 23:20 GMT on Monday, 24 February (except in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), or catch it later on iPlayer.

Some were killed on the first disastrous day of the Battle of the Somme. Others died during the four bloody months that followed.

My great-uncle Harold, who was promoted from second lieutenant to captain during the fighting on that first day, 1 July 1916, survived. But he was not unscathed.

He went into the battle a handsome, clever, charming man of 25, with a highly promising future.

He was wounded in the head by a piece of shrapnel, and never recovered. His entire character changed.

He turned into a morose, violent drunk, subject to devastating headaches.

Silver watch

His wife divorced him, and his family, who had once been so proud of him, closed their doors to him when he came round, angrily demanding money from them.

Harold eked out an existence as a homeless beggar for nearly 50 years, and eventually died on a bench at Waterloo station in London. The silver watch he wore when he led his men over the top on 1 July 1916 was still on his wrist.

A century later, could another world war break out?

John Simpson visits Tyne Cot

It seems unlikely - but that, of course, is exactly what people everywhere believed before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Serbian extremist in June 1914.

There are certainly potential flashpoints at present. Europe and Russia are trading angry insults over Ukraine, and China and Japan are squaring up over a few uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

There are two particular dangers at such times.

The first is that smaller countries can drag larger ones into conflict. In 1914, Russia, France and Britain became involved on Serbia's side, while Germany supported Austria.

The second is that governments are sometimes tempted to believe they can launch limited, successful wars that will be over quickly. They are usually wrong.

Clashes in the centre of Kiev last week Ukraine, scene of deadly clashes this month, is a potential flashpoint between Russia and Nato.

We assume nowadays that our globalised world is too closely linked together for a wider war to break out. Well, maybe, but in 1910 a man named Norman Angell thought exactly that.

Runaway best-seller

He wrote a book, The Great Illusion, to prove that war would be madness, given the close trading ties between the great powers.

It was a runaway best-seller but although he was quite right, and received the Nobel Peace Prize 22 years later, war broke out anyway.

Still, things have changed greatly in 100 years. No matter how it may seem, our world is less dangerous and war-prone than it was.

The threat of all-out nuclear war no longer hangs over us.

At present there are more than 30 wars in the world. But they are much less destructive of human life.

Between 1950, when the Korean War started, and 2007, when the death toll in the Iraq war finally started to drop, there were something like 148,000 deaths per year from war.

From 2008 to 2012 that figure dropped dramatically, to 28,000 per year. It could even be lower in 2014.

Major General Stephen R Lyons of the US Army, Pacific shakes hands with Major Tang Fen of the PLA Best of friends at a Sino-US disaster relief exercise in Chengdu, Sichuan... but the US and Chinese are military rivals now in the Pacific

Putting the figures slightly differently, in the 14 years of the 21st century so far, the average number of war deaths has been 55,000, though there is always controversy about precisely how many people died in Iraq after the British and American invasion.

That is roughly half the figure for the 1990s, and a third of the number of deaths during the Cold War.

Huge losses, yet...

One final, and possibly comforting observation.

Britain suffered huge losses as a result of WW1 and the flu epidemic that swept Europe afterwards.

Yet if you compare the 1911 and 1921 census returns you will see that the British population actually rose during those years - by almost three million.

Will we have a world war in the near future?

We can't know, of course, any more than Norman Angell could in 1910. But this time, surely, it's safe to hope we won't.

Watch The Editors on BBC One at 23:20 GMT on Monday 24 February (except in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) or catch it later on iPlayer. Find out more about the circumstances that led to the outbreak of WW1 from the BBC's World War One Centenary website.


More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites



This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 1139.

    Well, yes: once Russia rolls into the Ukraine and raises its violence beyond a certain level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1116.

    We are pretty much in a world war now! If you look outside of the mainstream media and see all of the turmoil around the world that IS happening bigger than reported, civil unrest, revolutions, proxy wars, illegal wars etc... The world is at or close to WW! It's just that it's not being reported as such, probably because the tonnage of ordnance being unleashed isn't impressive enough just yet!

  • rate this

    Comment number 729.

    I don't think the prospect of a world war is likely any time soon.

    My grandfather is 91. Served in the RAF and was captured by the Nazi's in France, but was rescued by the Americans!

    3 years ago I met him at a Greenpeace event in London, which revealed something I hadn't known about him.

    He's quite conscientious about the world, and I think the risk in the future is in global warming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 718.

    I think, given the situation in Ukraine, another World War is more likely than not. The need for control of important regions and states is increasing, and we are already seeing "cold war" over energy. Russia is in a very difficult position right now, and that places us in a similar predicament. All eyes should be on Ukraine right now, Russian action could trigger something very dangerous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 660.

    Surely, It is self evident to many that WWW111 has already started for those who have lost their lives through world conflict, leaving grieving family and friends. The format is different this time perhaps, but still fueled by hatred and the deprivation of goodness...


Comments 5 of 12


More World stories


Features & Analysis

  • Cartoon of women chatting on the metroChat wagon

    The interesting things you hear in a women-only carriage

  • Replica of a cargo boxSpecial delivery

    The man who posted himself to the other side of the world

  • Music scoreFinal score Watch

    Goodbye to NYC's last classical sheet music shop

  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton checks her Blackberry from a desk inside a C-17 military plane upon her departure from Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, bound for Tripoli, Libya'Emailgate'

    Hillary gets a taste of scrutiny that lies ahead

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • Audi R8Best in show

    BBC Autos takes a look at 10 of the most eye-catching new cars at the 2015 Geneva motor show


  • A cyborg cockroachClick Watch

    The cyborg cockroach - why has a computer been attached to this insect’s nervous system?

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.