Death in Britain in the Second World War at the IHR

Just over a week ago, I gave a paper on Death in Britain in the Second World War at the Institute of Historical Research Military History seminar. Apart from falling victim to the Institute’s habit of wrapping the laptop security cable around the speaker’s chair (thus forming a highly effective booby-trap that toppled me like a felled tree and nearly provided the most ironic end for a historian since Robert Darnton was massacred by those cats), it went pretty well. Here are some reflections.
I spoke about three areas – the relative absence of work on death in Britain in the Second World War (although that may be changing), particularly compared to its predecessor – it would be unthinkable to write about the First World War and not discuss bereavement and mourning, whereas the subject is often passed over in studies of 1939-45; the difficulties of defining death from enemy action/operations of war (both at the time and later) and what the spread of death has to tell us about ‘equality of sacrifice’ in terms of geographical region and class.

Although I revisited a lot of the material visitors to this blog may already have seen in terms of calculating the numbers of dead, preparing the paper did force me to engage in some research. I searched out and read Pat Jalland’s Changing Ways of Death in Twentieth Century Australia: War, Medicine and the Funeral Business (Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2006), which is very interesting on the effect of social and medical change plus the experience of the First World War on mourning in the Second. Jalland makes a good case that it was harder to mourn expressively the second time around, although the Australian case, with so many bomber crew and POWs, may have been distinct. I tracked down a variety of quotes about the balance of civilian and service casualties over the first years of war:

‘…until September 1941 the enemy had killed more civilians than combatants’ (A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford: OUP, 1965), 502)
‘…it was not until late 1942 that total British uniformed casualties in the war exceeded civilian.’ (M. Smith, Britain and 1940: History, Myth and Popular Memory (London: Routledge, 2000), 70)
‘British civilian casualties were higher than military ones until after the invasion of Europe on 6 June 1944.’ (J. Bourne, ‘A personal reflection on two world wars’, in P. Liddle, J. Bourne and I. Whitehead, eds, The Great World War 1914-45 I: Lightning Strikes Twice (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 18) and
‘Until the middle of 1944 there were more civilian deaths than military’ (P. Stanksy, The First Day of the Blitz: September 7, 1940 (London and New Haven: Yale UP, 2007), 4)

and finally traced them back to the ur-source, which is, as I suspected but couldn’t find, Richard Titmuss, in the brilliant chapter on the Arithmetic of Stress in Problems of Social Policy:

‘Not until two years of war had passed did the number of civilians killed fall below the total of fatal casualties among soldiers, sailors and airmen. Not until over three years had passed was it possible to say that the enemy had killed more soldiers than women and children.’

As can be seen, this couple of sentences seems to have been subsequently misquoted by other historians. I can’t find a source before Titmuss making this sort of comparison (although Leslie Hore-Belisha did compare road casualties to military losses in the middle of the war (‘Carelessness exacted a greater toll than valour’, ‘1942 Road Casualties Higher than 1939-41 War Losses’, Daily Express, 19 April 1943, 3). It would be good to know if anyone has one. What you certainly don’t get is any idea that these were politicised numbers at the time, as the services fought over manpower and endeavour, and the Treasury, services and IWGC discussed who’d get a war grave and a pension. The point I tried to get across is that any number we come up with for deaths is probably wrong – it’s the recognition of how complex this area was and how much it meant at the time that matters.

Finally, I made use of various bits of number crunching to suggest that although the consequence of the Blitz – a large number of civilian deaths, many of them working class – was unusual and very different from 1914-18, conscription didn’t mean that the burden of military death was equally borne. In fact, it seems disproportionately to have been borne by Scots and social elites – I will come back to this topic in a later post – which makes the Second World War look in some ways rather like the First.

Both in the course of delivering the paper, and in the questions that followed, it became apparent to me that I need to do some follow up research as well. I need to:
1) try to work out where Titmuss got his numbers from. Intriguingly, there is a PRO CAB file on the provision of statistics for the official historians, but I also need to look at Titmuss’s papers in the LSE.
2) actually look at the legislation passed about pensions and compensation – I’ve been referring to it because it’s in the files I’ve been reading, but I’ve not read it myself, and it would clear up some definitions in my mind.
3) look at the Adam Papers in the LHCMA to see what discussions the Adjutant General was having with Churchill about casualties
4) look in the Churchill College archives to work out why Churchill didn’t pay more attention to casualties in his writing of The Second World War.
5) complete a survey of as many as possible university and public school memorials, comparing First and Second World War totals.
6) work out how to crunch numbers to see whether RAF deaths were geographically evenly distributed.
7) Make it clear, in future iterations of this paper, why it is that I use pre-war county population estimates as a means of calculating the spread of bereavement, rather than wartime totals.
8) present the statistics of Blitz deaths differently – the way I showed them this time round didn’t make it clear how concentrated they were.
9) continue research at the CWGC – I was there for most of the day before the paper, and there’s a lot of great material to be dug into about the definition of deaths and overseas personnel.

That might seem like a lot – and this has been more an aide-memoire than a post perhaps – but I actually think it should be do-able between now and when I present the next version of this paper, in March: by which point it should be close to submission as an article as well.

One Response to Death in Britain in the Second World War at the IHR

  1. DVD to PSP says:

    Bravo, very good idea

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