History songs

February 11, 2008

Brett Holman at Airminded has posted up a video of the Aussie pub band Weddings, Parties, Anything performing their song ‘A Tale They Won’t Believe’. As Brett explained in a previous post, the song is about a celebrated incident in Australian history, the cannibalism of the bushranger Alexander Pearce. Quite aside from Robert Hughes’ version of it in The Fatal Shore, this is an episode which I think I saw Victoria Wood describing in a programme she did about the Empire. Pretty well known, therefore.

Brett also points out – and the video highlights – that the song totally goes off in a packed pub. This set me thinking about history songs: can anyone come up with an example of a song about an incident in modern (or earlier) British history that would get the same reaction?

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Commonwealth War Graves Commission deaths

February 8, 2008

One way that’s been suggested to me by a couple of people to get hold of casualty statistics is to look at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database. This won’t provide information by month – and in a phone call today the CWGC told me that their computer can’t cope with trying to drag that information out of their database. You can, however, enter a search for a death where you don’t put in any details but year and service. This way, you can get annual figures for deaths for the armed services, civilians and for the merchant navy (the system will also let you search for the Australian, New Zealand, South African and Indian dead, which I think is probably essential).

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Why think about casualties?

February 8, 2008

I’ve got several posts coming up on the issue of casualties and the difficulties I’ve encountered in this research so far. But before I get onto the problems, I want to suggest some reasons for trying to draw up a month-by-month table and graph of British service and civilian casualties.

1. This information isn’t easily available in a published form (1). Compiling it and making it available is therefore a service to the historical community.

2. In the absence of that information, it’s possible to make unexamined and unchallenged statements about British casualty figures. For example, I’ve read in different sources that it wasn’t until after D-Day that more British servicemen were killed than civilians, or alternatively that it wasn’t until mid-1942 that the rate of attrition in the army rose above that for civilians. I’m going to reserve judgement on both of these – because whatever their statistical accuracy, as I’ll argue later I think they both reflect aspects of wartime experience. But these statements have both achieved the status of ‘historical fact’ – in the sense that they are now often cited without a footnote (2). And both leave unanswered a number of questions: Read the rest of this entry »

So, what are you working on?

February 6, 2008

I’ve spent the last week or so working on tabulating British armed service and civilian casualties over time during the Second World War, as a means of getting to grips with telling the story of the war as a whole. Quite aside from the depressing nature of the topic – I do feel a bit like Brian in the clip above – it’s not easy: getting hold of good consistent data is hard, not least because the different services defined casualties in different ways, and the files at the PRO are often frustratingly incomplete. But I still think it’s a worthwhile project, and one that I’ll keep posting on as I work at it. When I’ve got the tables sorted out, I’ll get the QM History Dept to put them up on its research webspace.

Here’s the easy bit of it – there is a Home Office file that details civilian casualties by month. So here, to compare to Brett’s First World War equivalent, are those figures as a graph.


Here, killed is those killed outright or died of wounds, and seriously injured entails admission to hospital. Whilst this doesn’t give a day by day account, which even if I had the information would probably be too complex graphically, it does show the concentration of British civilian casualties in the winter of 1940-41, with a second bulge when the V weapons started to hit in 1944. In between those, it could be argued that more civilians were killed each year in traffic accidents than by enemy bombs (the document in which I found the Vice Chief of the General Staff making that just that argument is worth a post in itself). Looking at it quickly now, I wonder whether we can draw any conclusions from the small number of children relative to adults?

What working on all these figures – but particularly the service ones – has made me realise is just how politicised the issue of casualties was, internally and externally. I’m toying with the argument that this itself explains some of the differences between published sources for the two wars. What I want to do when I’ve got good national figures up is to compare these to the experience of individual civil and military communities.

Things noted

February 4, 2008

The petition of 10 Downing St to make the study of history compulsory to 16 has been rejected. But there is going to be plentiful study of ‘citizenship’. What’s the difference between citizenship training and the study of history? One teaches you what the government thinks is good about the country, the other teaches you how to make up your own mind.

‘Kings of War‘ – the blog from the War Studies department, King’s College London. Horrible name, interesting content.

Although it’s inevitably linked to ‘citizenship education’ – sigh – the wonderfully interactive Food Stories website (click on interactive) drawing on the oral history department at the British Library’s project on food. I wonder if they want to put on a university course?