Why think about casualties?

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:

a) What, even before the autumn of 1940? Whatever measure of casualties we use, the army, navy and air force all suffered fairly significant losses before the Blitz really got going. How long before civilian casualties overtook military ones (if at all?)
b) Why do these statements only consider army casualties, when Britain was fighting a combined services war? And are Dominion and Imperial forces included?
c) What are the implicit judgements in these statements about the relationship between military and civilian death in total war? To what degree are these predicated solely on Britain’s First World War experience?
d) Who counts as a casualty? This will be the subject of a future post, but we need to consider whether prisoners and the missing should be counted as casualties.

3. Telling the story of the war as a whole. These are all imperfect measures, and it’s vital never to lose sight of what death, wounding and imprisonment might mean on an individual level (see below). But showing a graph of casualties over time is one way to give a comprehensible version of complex events, and to write back the three armed services into a ‘grand narrative’ that often seems more concerned with the Home Front.

4. Comparisons (numeric). Much of this data is available for the First World War, in the form of Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War, 1914-1920 (3). It would be useful to be able to draw direct comparisons. It’s interesting to note that this was something that some military administrators attempted during the early part of the Second World War, although it doesn’t seem to have been an effort that endured.

5. Context. One of the aspects of my Second World War project is to look at the experience of communities as well as the national picture. But without that larger context, it’s hard to understand that smaller-scale experience. Individuals and communities don’t experience casualties in terms of aggregates, cumulative totals or averages. They experience them sharply, separately, suddenly and sometimes seemingly at random. With national figures over time, we can make judgements about typicality and selection.

6. Comparisons (conceptual). There isn’t really a Second World War equivalent of the great casualty controversies surrounding Britain’s experience in the First World War. Many British campaigns contained attritional aspects, but since military leaders were smart enough to avoid the a-word, you don’t find the same lengthy debates about exactly how many servicemen died compared with how many opponents they killed, injured or took prisoner. The mere absence of that debate is worth noting. More than that, the notion of mass death and injury, particularly in relation to the armed services, is almost foreign to the British mythology of the Second World War. To give just four examples: in all six volumes of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War there are only two index references to casualties, one of which refers to his difficulty in getting precise information out of War Office statistics; Angus Calder’s The People’s War has eighteen index references to ‘casualties, air raid’, but none to ‘casualties, military’; and the three references to ‘death rate’ all relate to civilian health; and Mark Connelly, in his survey of British remembrance of the war, finds no need to discuss the representation of death, either at home or in the forces, in contemporary or subsequent texts (4).

In itself this is distinctive – imagine trying to write about the history of Russia in the Second World War without incorporating huge military losses. It undoubtedly relates both to the sense that Britain had escaped lightly both in comparison to the First World War and to her allies. I can’t help feeling, however, that it leaves out a major part of Britain’s wartime experience, both overseas and at home. As this graph shows, the forces suffered the great majority of casualties.


Each of those losses had an effect back home – indeed, many of them were suffered by forces permanently based in the UK, such as Bomber Command. If we are to understand what Britain’s war was like, how it was sustained and what it meant, at the time and afterwards, we need to write those losses back in.

7. Teaching. I can imagine that a seminar on death and loss might go down like a lead balloon. The narrative function of these figures will be useful in the lecture and seminar room, however, and even more useful in terms of a course on total war will be getting students to make their own judgements on who should be counted as a ‘casualty’.

(1) It’s not in CSO, Fighting with Figures: A Statistical Digest of the Second World War (London 1995), 15, 18, 43; or Cmd 6832, ‘Strength and Casualties of the Armed Forces and Auxiliary Services of the United Kingdom 1939 to 1945, presented by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence to Parliament by Command of his Majesty, June 1946’, (London 1946), which may itself be indicative.
(2) For example, P. Stansky, The First Day of the Blitz (New Haven and London 2007), 3.
(3) Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War, 1914-1920 (London, HMSO, 1922).
(4) W. S. Churchill, The Second World War, VI: Triumph and Tragedy (London 1985) 594, 599. A. Calder, The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945 (London, 1992), 642, 644. M. Connelly, We Can Take It! Britain and the Memory of the Second World War (London, 2004). Note that I’m not criticising any of these texts, just pointing out an absence. I’d be interested in any examples people have of more extensive discussions, particularly of the impact of bereavement.


6 Responses to Why think about casualties?

  1. Alan Allport says:

    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 think it’s implicit in these claims (and it probably should be explicit) that they’re counting from September 1940 onwards. My own work deals in part with the way in which WWII ceased to be a ‘traditional’ British war in terms of loss and sacrifice from that date onwards, and the effect this had on popular attitudes towards the armed forces.

  2. mahross says:

    Dan – This is all very interesting. The issue of defining a causualty is a very difficult one and I will be interested to see what you come up with. One thing that strikes me is that in terms of military casualties by the Second World War psychiatrict ‘casualties’ were become more common than in the First World War. It would be interesting to know if the campagn records split casualties into types of casualties and then how each of these catagories were treated. I look forward to more on this.


  3. trenchfever says:

    Thanks Ross – but wait, put down that can of worms and that tin opener! I’ll come on to the wounded when I’ve got a handle on the dead.

    Alan – my point was, as you’ve spotted, that they leave this implicit. And the fact that they do is indicative of how the war is thought about. On your own work, let me know if I’m treading on your toes – is this the soon to be published PhD or a new project?

  4. Alan Allport says:

    Hi Dan – my book (based on my Ph.D.) comes out next year and touches on some of the points you’ve made, though I’m dealing mainly with the demobilization (1945-1946) period; and (wrt the casualty discussion anyway) it sounds as though you’re heading off in a slightly different direction. So no, I think our projects can happily coexist! Email me sometime if you like and I’ll tell you more about what I’m up to.

  5. Brett says:

    So why didn’t anyone publish more detailed casualty summaries after WWII? Was ‘sacrifice’ not so sacred as after WWI? Did the government wish to avoid comparisons with the USSR’s losses? Or was it just an administrative oversight?

  6. trenchfever says:

    There is, of course, an immediately post-war parliamentary report, Command 6832, but as I’ve explained this gives broad brush strokes.

    There is certainly evidence in the files of wartime nervousness about publishing casualty figures ‘for fear of invidious comparisons’. In fact, parts of HMG were keen to let American know how hard Britain had been fighting – and, in the cause of democracy, to answer MPs’ questions – but there was caution lest the Russians use the same figures to point out what an easy time Britain had had.

    I haven’t looked at the files surrounding the CSO’s contributions to the Official Histories, but I’d suggest three different things. First, the continuing sensitivity of the information – not necessarily internationally, but domestically and imperially. These were politically powerful figures you wouldn’t want to get wrong. Second, they were just very hard figures to come by. The Navy simply didn’t keep monthly figures of casualties, the army started late, and the RAF used a different definition to everyone else. But that’s not to say it couldn’t have been done at all. I suspect that we also have to pay attention to a third point – there wasn’t political capital in a lengthy discussion of armed forces’ casualties. On ‘sacrifice’ itself, it sounds like Alan might be your man.

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