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 1158.

    100 years on

    World War watching

    Still a spectator sport: "I don't think so", "I hope not"

    "Don't you know, Dad?"


    Who doesn't yet know, The Cause still with us?

    Morally illegitimate leadership and followership

    Not 'thinking for ourselves', thinking 'for ourselves'

    Having trouble defining 'ourselves'

    One for OFSTED?

    Without equal partnership

    What ARE the chances?

    And the profits?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1157.

    "Money talks... and the usa doesn't have any!"

    For all its mendacity, the usa did prevent many wars by largely choosing where & who it fought & supported.

    This has come to an end since the impoverished usa is no longer of any significance on the world stage, its diplomacy the work of amateurs who bought their positions & its allies offended by its spying.

    We'll see a new war soon enough...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1156.

    It's nice to see us brits pointing fingers at the evil of China/Russia/Extremists. Simple guide for evil, food crisis.
    How is it that Africa produces food but at the same time suffer from severe starvation? How much does an average european citizen consume compare to an average african person?
    Get off the high horses, the evil is around us - the white fat rich boys that run the countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1155.

    If there was ever going to be a WW3; it wouldn't be because of politics and religion; it'd all about money. Personally I think wealth should be spread more evenly in the world and people should live within their means. And we really need to have more love and tenderness in this world now. Money, is really the greatest evil in our time. And all these expensive mobile phones are a waste of time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1154.

    WW1&2 both started as a power struggle in Europe
    WW3 is being fought economically with GDP, rather than murderous weapons
    Germany is now winning this 'war' - they were the 'new kid on the block' in 1914, trying to compete with the colonial old fogies (UK & Fr) & thats why they started WW1
    We won't beat them in our factories, thats why I'm glad we're friends now & in the same EU economic club...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1153.

    Why not, given that the human species is what it is, given that cooperation is a naughty word, and competition rules supreme, given that those who speak out against the nastier aspects of our species are decried, condemned and abused. Which country will be brave enough to say 'enough, we lay down all our arms'? Could even work, though I'm not visiting the betting shop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1152.

    Tragically I think, given time, there will inevitably be another world war. Unfortunately, politicians care more about their egos and place on the international stage then they do about the lives of other parent's sons and daughters. It has been the case since the beginning of time. No politician should be able to start a war they either won't fight in themselves, or send their kids to fight in!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1151.

    Much of the world is in constant readiness for war.

    To maintain peace, one prepares/plans for war - there lies the crux & the constant danger

  • rate this

    Comment number 1150.

    omegaman @ 1134
    "I would guess that it would be the same proportion that would return to the UK to fight for us."

    No, most are retired and SUPPORTING their hosts, not using their hosts as launch pads for terrorist operations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1149.

    The problem is that there will always be people who actually want wars. Either because they believe it will make them rich through weapons sales or because they want to blame other countries for their own shortcomings.
    For example even in the UK anti-Semitism is still alive and well but the political parties involved use "Europe" as a coded reference and think nobody has noticed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1148.


    I have never seen God start a war-have you?

    I've never seen any gods full stop... and neither have you; though clearly you believe in them...
    Equally... By your argument, we've never seen any gods stop wars either!
    But we've seen plenty of wars started in the name of gods and armies blessed in their name!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1147.

    1059. Lopekal
    "I have to chuckle at the continual calling of 2 European civil wars as world wars, and the BBCs lusting over war porn."

    Japan and the USA are not actually in Europe.

    Nor are Canada, China, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Iceland, the Philippines, Mexico, Iran, Cuba.

    There you go, you've learned something about WW I & WW II.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1146.

    "It could be argued that a Third World War has already started between the Shia and Sunni involving a number of countries in the Middle East. Whilst western powers are not fully involved they are playing a proxy role...."

    mainly by selling weapons to both sides. Just like in the original crusades really.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1145.

    I don't think a world war will ever play out like the previous, I do wish people would stop and think.

    What are we actually fighting for ? Are we actually better off or worse for it ?

    Oh and should we remember to live at some point ?

    Might seem harsh, might seem somewhat demeaning, but its not - so many regions fighting, so many people killing - for what ?

    But W3 ? Never like before.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1144.

    If there are 30 wars being fought today, one could argue we're already in WW3 not many countries can say they aren't involved either with economic support, arms supply or political interference..

    We won't see millions of men in holes facing each other again,
    technology has seen to that (thank god)

    Most countries try to better themselves at the expense of others that 's a world, at war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1143.

    When the Persians have finished wasting everyones time to develop their own atomic weapons it will start. They have already promised to wipe Israel of the face of the world and this wont go unpunished

  • rate this

    Comment number 1142.

    Anybody else grow up through the 80s, with the threat of nuclear war looming on the horizon?
    Did you sit through "Threads" and "The Day After", with the stark knowledge that they were based on hard science?

    I had a lot of sleepless nights that decade...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1141.

    I think maybe the recent exposure (as if we couldn't guess anyway) of North Korean atrocities could be a trigger. If something is not done then the world is just standing by, while yet another regime 'gets away with it.' There are already too many mad dictators / regimes but this one has Nuclear capabilites. I don't think even China would stand in the way of the whole world... or would they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1140.

    Yes. Probably caused by some globalist meddler, intent on imposing a single world currency and multiculturalism on the masses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1139.

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


Page 33 of 90


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