Commonwealth War Graves Commission deaths

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).

We need to be clear about what figures we’re looking at here. This is a post war accounting of wartime dead, not a reflection of the wartime experience. It’s different in nature, for example, from the casualty lists the War Office compiled for wartime operations from cables back from the theatre, which necessarily reflect uncertainty over the missing. Looking just at the dead, and not at the wounded or prisoners, might seem to have some advantages. It was possible for servicemen to be wounded more than once, but death is a one off thing. Even so, there are major discrepancies between the figures derived here, and the total figures provided in Cmd 6832. These relate to how wartime death is defined – a topic which I need to research more, and that I’m going to come back to in a separate post. It’s worth noting, however, that the CWGC database of civilian casualties suggests over a thousand civilian deaths in 1939. I presume that these were passengers on ships lost at sea, and it suggests that the graph here should be relabelled as ‘Civilian Casualties from Enemy Bombing’.

If we were to take the figures generated by the CWGC database as unproblematic, then we’d be able to state that ‘In 1940 and 1941, more British civilians than soldiers died as a result of the war, but in no year did British civilian deaths exceed those of the three armed services combined.’ But I want to do a lot more work on the numbers and on definitions before I either stand by that, or put up the graphs I’ve drawn from the information.

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6 Responses to Commonwealth War Graves Commission deaths

  1. Dan says:

    As well as different definitions of what ‘counts’ as a death, of course, there’s also just the sheer complexity of counting up and gathering information, which you can see in similar records from the First World War.

  2. Someone has made their own search engine to overcome the limitations of the CWGC’s own search. It’s aimed more at people who are researching particular units so might not do what you want, it’s not necessarily complete, and it’s very slow, but it’s better than what CWGC provides. I find the CWGC site quite annoying as the search engine is so limited and the the whole site is very Google unfriendly. The site seems to have been designed with the utmost respect for the war dead, indifference to living researchers and total contempt for computers.

    Definitions are very tricky because CWGC includes men who died as a result of the war even if it was after the war, but before a certain cut-off date (I can’t remember exactly when – I think for WW1 it goes into the 1920s). Also new names are added every so often if someone who has been missed is proved to have met the criteria. CWGC’s greatest strength is that they really care about accuracy and go to great lengths to correct errors, whereas Ancestry and PRO DocumentsOnline generally don’t.

    Maybe when WW2 service records are released to the public it’ll be possible to get more accurate figures for killed and wounded service personnel by going through every file (less risk of double counting wounded prisoners, DoW, wounded on several different occasions etc), but that would take ages. Loss of records means that it isn’t possible for WW1.

  3. trenchfever says:

    Gavin, I’ve got to say I’ve got no idea how I would actually devise a search engine such as that. Even bearing in mind the possible difficulties of definitions, how difficult do you think it would be to come up with something for a total novice? And how do you actually go about accessing the data? This might be a suitable subject for some emailing.

  4. I haven’t actually tried it myself but Bill Turkel at Digital History Hacks has a lot of experience of this and has posted some examples in his archives. The basic idea is you write a program which scrapes the data off web pages and arranges it into a form that you can use. Even if the page hasn’t explicitly marked up the fields as anything special you can often work it out by matching patterns in the text and/or underlying code. It can be done using Python which is a powerful language but quite easy to use. It might also be possible using Yahoo Pipes, which allows you to mash up data from different websites without having to write a whole program yourself. Again I haven’t tried that, but at some point I’ll be experimenting with pulling together WW1 soldiers records from various online sources.

  5. trenchfever says:

    That looks like it could be worth an experiment, particularly with regard to this site, which gives month by month listings of Royal Navy dead by name. What I’d want to do, to make it comparable to other data, is to weed out who died as a result of enemy action as opposed to accidents and illness and tally them up. It had struck me that this is something that could be solved electronically, rather than with a pen and paper.

  6. Have you seen this? It’s a petition calling for CWGC to recognise civilian casualties from WW1 in the same way as those from WW2.

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