Just over a week ago, I gave a paper on Death in Britain in the Second World War at the Institute of Historical Research Military History seminar. Apart from falling victim to the Institute’s habit of wrapping the laptop security cable around the speaker’s chair (thus forming a highly effective booby-trap that toppled me like a felled tree and nearly provided the most ironic end for a historian since Robert Darnton was massacred by those cats), it went pretty well. Here are some reflections. Read the rest of this entry »
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?
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 »
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).
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 »