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.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 678.

    What scares me most is the generation Y Chinese officers who were born after the horrors of the cultural revolution and whose rise up the ranks is coinciding with China's rising power. These men are aggressively anti-Japanese and anti-American. By the time they are Generals will be itching for a fight. The question is whether China's government can control its military...

  • rate this

    Comment number 677.

    Many here have mentioned an economic war, including myself. I believe that the global economy will further divide 'haves and have nots' - I do not believe this will lead to a world wide physical war as technology is far advanced to that of 70 or 100 years ago. It will become one of misinformation and manipulation of monies, businesses etc. Sound familiar? It should.

  • rate this

    Comment number 676.

    victory is almost assured!

    Pure fantasy

    1st on any W war agenda will be to take out ALL satellites to alienate missile & targetting systems, submarines, shipping, drones & airpower & communications, also devastating commerce.

    WWIII would be fought in same context as WWII, just with modern equipment much of it useless.

    Even in Starwars, fighting is hand to hand

  • Comment number 675.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 674.

    620, Das..........Do you mean a religious war with the Muslims. Yes, I think you could be right, but they will probably be within a nations boundries, bit like a civil war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 673.

    The fact that countries are now armed with nukes makes it difficult to start a war, because it could be ended before it has even begun.

    I can't see a large scale war taking place any time soon, but its hard to ignore what's going on now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 672.

    I don't think there is a foundation for a new World War at the moment. The 1st and the 2nd occurred when the world started to seem small enough and technology powerful enough to achieve domination. It had to be tried. Now the world is too small for a nuclear war but too complex for a conventional one. MAD is still valid.
    The next WW will be between Mars and Earth, until then - not likely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 671.

    @657 Andy "In addition the world population is set to plateau later this century and is already declining in most first world countries" - Whilst that may be the case in some nations, the world populations in the top10 largest countries are all increasing.
    @645 William Clark - WHilst democracies do not attack eachother (questionable) they do attack other independent nations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 670.

    Nuclear weapons prohibit an all out conventional world war. They are dismissid in the article but even the UK still maintains a constant at sea deterrent, the US and Russia are still armed to the teeth with missiles ready to launch in minutes.

    Were nuclear weapons not possible there would have been WW3 instead of the cold war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 669.

    Lots of stupid comments like kids of Simpson

  • rate this

    Comment number 668.

    Some people on here and in this country consider Iran and North Korea the 2 biggest dangers for a world war 3 but the UK has been involved in more wars than those 2 countries put together in the last 50 years. People in the UK are blinded by government propaganda about countries we know little about and it all has 2 things in common, the US and capitalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 667.

    World War III has already begun.....it is an economic war!!

    On September 1st 1939 Germany invaded Poland and WWII begun. Later in 1945 Mr Hitler shot himself and the war was soon declared over.

    Now we have the EU (unofficially) controlled by Germany....... which was exactly what the Germans wanted all those years ago!

  • rate this

    Comment number 666.

    i think there is a distinct possibility that a world war will happen, not in the near future though, maybe in 50-60 years when major powers begin to run out of oil and everyone attempts to corner the market. i do not however believe that the situation in Ukraine and Syria could cause a World War, the most dangerous places to me are Israel, Iran, China and The Indian - Chinese Border.

  • rate this

    Comment number 665.

    my apologies - I should have added the possibility of fall out between india and pakistan, China doesn't need to use nuclear weapons as it is overhwelmingly powerful conventionally as it seeks to annex everything that once was chinese controlled.

  • rate this

    Comment number 664.

    598 Cheddy.

    Oh dear! Hitler removed democracy - regardless of how he gained power. As for GWB/TB - I predicted in 1991 when they stopped advancing into Iraq that 'we would have to go back to finish Saddam off' within 10 years - OK I was a year or two out - but it was the right thing to do - awful though it was. Realism may not be popular - but its better than denial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 663.

    .. dwindling phosphorous supply..estimated that all the worlds known sources of phosphorous will be exhausted in the next 60yrs. Phosphorous vital for mass food production as it is a key ingredient for fertilizers.
    Which is why unsustainable use of such fertilisers should be discouraged. There are older traditional (manure) & newer (less resource-intensive) alternatives.

  • Comment number 662.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 661.

    As long as there is an Arms industry yes.

  • 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...

  • rate this

    Comment number 659.

    @649.Dork Angel

    "I think the US will continue to start mini-wars (afganistan/iraq, etc) and push for revolutions in the Middle East. This keeps their enemies occupied fighting there rather than attacking America itself."

    I'm curious to know, how would you envisage these US enemies going about attacking America?


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