Great War bonds poster via Imperial War MuseumBy January 1917 the Great War had been going on for 2 1/2 years. Everyone grasped the human toll after the carnage at the Marne, the Somme and Verdun. Less obvious to many was the financial cost. Estimates vary widely, which is not surprising in that most nations were hesitant to show any weakness by discussing the details. One report released the first week of January 1917 put the combined national debts of Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary at $49,455,000,000. The bean counters quickly acknowledged however that even that number was low, given the extent to which internal bond drives were paying for the bullets, shells and other accoutrements of war. A separate report issued a week later put the various European powers’ war debts at $62,000,000,000, or $1,169,000,000,000. in today’s dollars.

The war of course ground on for another almost two years, and even after that there was civil war and violence in numerous regions, most obviously in Russia. War debt was a huge sticking point at the negotiations at Versailles. Even more far-ranging, the groundwork for the inflation and instability of the 1920s was already being put into place.

(image/War Loans and Savings Campaign, Home Front, UK via Imperial War Museum)