What did you do in the Second World War, Daddy?

1/7 Battalion Middlesex Regiment Routine Orders, Roman Way Camp, Colchester, 27 November 1940

…407. Discipline.

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’. All armed forces lose men and women to illness and accident not necessarily because of hostile action, but because a) just like civilians, service people are subject to the vagaries of sickness and fate and b) their jobs sometimes involve extra risk factors (handling explosives, flying, spending a lot of social time with young men aged 18-25 who try to flag down trucks by standing in the road).

So which of these should be counted as the result of war? This is something that other historians have grappled with: in his work of demographic history, The Great War and the British People (1985), Jay Winter calculated the ‘extra deaths’ due to war by looking at actuarial records. It was also an issue that concerned Richard Titmuss in his official history of Problems of Social Policy – even if he was concerned with civilian rather than military deaths. But it was also a matter of contemporary concern. For reasons including tradition, experience, the range of risks and the sort of war they were fighting, the three British services in the Second World War calculated casualties in different ways. To give just one example, the army counted only those killed by enemy action or by ‘defences erected against the enemy’ as casualties of war, whereas the RAF counted those killed in air training accidents as well. Between the service departments, there were arguments about these definitions. When the Air Ministry argued that the relatives of those who had died in aircraft training accidents should get a message of condolence from the King, as happened for battle casualties, army officials first disagreed, and then suggested that in that case, the King should also commiserate with the families of soldiers killed in traffic accidents (the correspondence and minutes relating to this matter are in TNA AIR 2/9151).

I don’t think that as historians we necessarily need to adjudicate in these sort of disputes. Wartime death wasn’t a competition. But we do need to be aware of them for three reasons. First, it affects how we produce and use statistical information. Second, it highlights issues of experience (in this example, planes might have improved since 1914-18, but it was still bloody hazardous to learn fly a lot in 1939-45, whether or not there were enemy planes about). Finally, it makes us aware that any statistics produced at the time were intensely political – they related to government departments’ sense of what they did and were used to prove points about manpower and effort.

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3 Responses to What did you do in the Second World War, Daddy?

  1. Alan Allport says:

    In the first year of occupation, 146 British servicemen in Austria were accidentally shot by their own comrades. 47 died …

  2. Rob Dale says:

    Reading this reminded me of a document I took notes on in the central communist party archive in January. The military prosecutor in a monthly report recorded instances of alcohol/chemical poisoning of Red Army men.
    In the third quarter of 1945 (July-September) amongst forces in the far east were recorded 49 cases of poisioning, in most cases the result of drinking metholated spirits or anti-freeze.
    An adjutant in the 136th infantry regiment captured a quantity of antifreeze which he then shared around the soldiers. As a resukt 17 people were poisoned, and 8 soldiers died, including the regimental commander.
    In another instance troops in an airforce service regiment got hold of two barrels of what they thought was alcohol, but turned out to be metholated spirit. 63 people were poisoned, of which 22 died.
    Do you think your hitch-hiking troops from the Middlesex regiment might have been under the influence?

  3. trenchfever says:

    ‘Under the influence’? Just possibly – somewhere I have the figures for the number of bottles of beer bought by the CO to celebrate Albuhera day (the Peninsula War battle which gave the Middlesex their ‘Diehard’ nickname. I don’t think too many casualties can be assigned to drinking anti-freeze, but the capacity of soldiers to act stupidly under the sway of drink should never be underestimated.

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