After a fair share of swearing, toil, tears and sweat, I’ve come up with a first attempt at a graph representing the numbers of Britons killed during the Second World War. As I’ll explain, this has involved a fair amount of fudging and compromise, and I would not claim that what I’ve produced is perfect, but I still think the project is worthwhile and I’ll also give some examples of how I think it’s been useful.
This is part of an ongoing series of posts on trying to draw a graph showing British service and civilian losses in the Second World War.
Some of the hardest casualty figures to get hold of are those relating to the Merchant Navy. As I’ve described before, the Royal Navy doesn’t seem to have kept a running total of the dead and wounded in the way the RAF did: probably because it the number and class of ships sunk that was most important in terms of whether it could sustain its war effort. For the Merchant Navy, that was also a consideration, but the situation was further complicated by the range of different ships and different seamen, of different nationalities, who saw action. Three knowledgeable maritime historians whose judgements I trust have told me that they think there’s no way to get hold of detailed month by month figures for the Merchant Navy. So how to get round this if you believe, as I do, that Britain’s ability to access resources from around the globe needs to be written into the ‘grand narrative’ of the Second World War, and you want to include Merchant Navy losses in the graph of wartime deaths?
Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, has written and performed a poem to mark the birthday of Harry Patch, Britain’s only survivor of battle on the Western Front. I was all ready to be horrible and cynical about this, but Motion does seem to have been keen to write about how one – relatively brief – part of a life can come to dominate the whole of it. It might be an interesting addition to courses on the First World War and poetry.
Update: some interesting discussion on George Simmers’ site of this poem
1/7 Battalion Middlesex Regiment Routine Orders, Roman Way Camp, Colchester, 27 November 1940
It has been reported by the Police Authorities that in certain areas, soldiers who are desirous of catching a lift from passing motorists are adopting the practice of hailing vehicles after ‘black-out’ by standing in the middle of the road. It is obvious that under present lighting conditions this practice is one which lead [sic] to accidents and gives the motorist little chance to avoid a collision. All ranks will be informed of the need for discretion in this matter.
(1/7 Middlesex War Diary Sept-Dec 1939, June-Sept 1940, National Archives, WO 166/4461).
One of the problems in calculating casualty figures is working out who should be defined as a ‘casualty of war’. Read the rest of this entry »