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The distribution of casualties by social class within the armed services

Ted Crawford

How far the upper classes among the fighting men suffer relative to those beneath them in war depends on two factors; the differential casualty rates of officers as opposed to other ranks and the degree to which such officers come from the upper classes. Changes in either of these will have social and political effects. This has some importance for Marxists as the degree to which the upper classes have a higher chance of dying in conflicts as opposed to the lower orders may effect their enthusiasm for war and whether they remain enthusiastic for longer than the hoi-poloi. It is also important that the bourgeoisie control the armed forces which have to act, if not in their name, in their interests. This little essay is an attempt to throw some light on this matter which has been obscured on the one hand by the belief of the left that the poor always suffer most and the opinion of the British upper classes that their losses were disproportionately high in two world wars. Furthermore statistics are not collected to provide details of the class origin of casualties and some rough guesswork has to be done.

There is no doubt that in the gunpowder age from about 1650 to 1900 the casualties of the rank and file in land forces were always much greater proportionately than among the officers. This was because the overwhelming proportion of such casualties were `non-battle' ones, largely from disease, so that the superior food and living conditions of the officers, particularly while on campaign, meant that they fell ill less often and, if they did fall ill, they were far more likely to be nursed back to health or sent home. In battle itself infantry and cavalry officers tended to suffer rather more than their men and medical aid, however costly, was often as deadly as neglect but even so their losses were not too disproportionate
because, as weapon accuracy was poor, deaths were distributed fairly randomly among those present on the `field of honour'. It was a matter of some comment that battles in the American War of Independence and in the American war of 1812, against frontiersmen who were good marksmen with muzzle loading rifles, led to heavier officer casualties in the British army.


A few statistics from the mid eighteenth century onwards are of interest here always remembering that before then disease was even more deadly and armies swiftly wasted away during European campaigns even when there was no fighting to speak of. The most disastrous campaign ever recorded in terms of
casualties for the British army was that in the West Indies from 1793-1799 when perhaps 75,000 men died of disease, comprising the vast majority who had been sent out and including most of the officers. A more micro example of this is shown in the regimental history of the 85th Foot which says that after a tour of duty in Jamaica in (1803-1808) they came back numbering 9 officers, 30 NCOs & 31 privates. They recruited heavily and went to Shorncliffe to train as Light Infantry 600 strong. At Walcheren in August 1809 the 85th went out nearly 700 strong & came back about 120 of all ranks though only one man had been killed in action. Wellington, though a fearful reactionary, was very careful of the health of his troops knowing that they were very difficult to replace by voluntary enlistment but in the six year long
Peninsular War two-thirds of the 24,000 dead were from sickness not battle. In the Crimean War about 25,000 British lives were lost but fewer than 4,000 were killed or died of wounds. The hospital at Scutari over which Florence Nightingale presided was full of sick - not wounded. The American Civil War,
involving vastly greater numbers, had similar proportions of battle to non-battle dead as the British experienced in the Peninsular and the same was true forty years later in the Boer War with 7,000 killed to about 13,000 dead of disease. Indeed the first prolonged war in history in which the battle dead outnumbered fatalities from sicknesses was as late as the present century in the Russo-Japanese in 1904-5.

Naval service, which invariably involved far fewer people than land service, was, before the middle of the nineteenth century, always characterised by very high death rates among sailors and in the Great War with France (1793-1815) eighty per cent of the deaths among British sailors were from sickness, fifteen per cent from accident (including wrecks) and only five percent in battle. Seamen had a far, far greater chance of dying from disease and falling out of the rigging than did officers. In battles such as Trafalgar, senior officers, including Captains, Admirals and captains of marines had very high casualty rates but battles were few and far between. Earlier than Trafalgar non-battle losses were an even larger proportion of the total at sea. In more modern times death rates on board ship are generally very low unless the entire vessel disintegrates in a horrible sort of industrial accident. There is not much distinction therefore between the losses of officers and men on board ship in a modern naval battle but, as in the eighteenth century, naval losses are a very small proportion of the total deaths in war.


As the twentieth century opened the accuracy and deadliness of modern weapons on land meant that when the fighting did occur officer casualties were getting proportionately higher and the accuracy of the Chassepot rifle led to frightful casualties among the Prussian Guard officers at Gravelotte and St Privat in 1870. It was very noticeable at the battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War that the proportions of officers to other rank dead among the colonial troops, Australian and South African, were similar for the Boers
could not distinguish between them and simply aimed at the tallest men in the unit. Unlike the colonials who had been fed on a decent diet in their youth, the stunted offspring of the slums among the British regulars were pygmies compared with their officers so the officer losses were proportionately double. This provided an excellent rationale for the upper classes to support health and welfare reforms in the period 1902-1914.

Thus when WW1 opened there was a historically quite new situation. Because of medical advances losses from sickness were very small in Western Europe in 1914-18 although much worse in `side-shows' like the East African campaign. The socially prestigious corps were the infantry and the cavalry
which suffered far more in battle than the artillery and engineers, particularly the infantry though cavalry frequently had to take a turn on foot in the trenches too. Troops even further back than the gunners, the
non-combatant corps such as railway troops, had grown in the nineteenth century but by the World War 1 the ratio was still about 9:1 in favour of the front-line. As a result the many literary and historical accounts of this period do accurately reflect the fact that the upper classes suffered even more than the poor. In Britain it has been said that of those members of the aristocracy who served in the military one out of five was killed as opposed to one out of eight of the general population. A brief glance at the war memorials of the great public schools tells the same story. Indeed not since the Wars of the Roses
had there been such a kill-off of the English nobility.

The social, technical and tactical situation was similar in all European countries and so the ancient aristocracies paid a terrible price - as too did the aspiring middle classes who sought to emulate their style and coveted junior commands in the `smart' regiments. If there was any group that suffered rather less it was probably the skilled workers who were held back for essential war work but in the First World War the importance of these for total mobilisation had often not been realised and they were frequently called up to be duly mown down with unfortunate effects on the production of munitions and therefore the war effort as a whole. Sometimes industrial workers in Russia and Germany were not called up because they were considered politically unreliable - the peasants were preferred but this option was not open to the British as there were not enough peasants here - though Scottish Highlanders served in relatively large numbers. Proportionately fewer Irishmen served as they were never conscripted.

The Second World War was not very different for the British save that the period of time when great armies were in combat was very much shorter and so casualties as a whole were that much smaller even if the rate of casualties over any given time was much the same. Once more the officers in the
infantry and this time the cavalry too, who were frequently burnt alive in their tanks, suffered disproportionately but with this difference that the proportion of rear echelon troops was growing and the more mechanised and therefore mobile the armies became the bigger did the proportion supplying
them. But officers in such corps as the RAOC, RASC & REME were less socially elevated members of the lower middle classes and once more the war memorials of the public schools repay study. The losses among the general male population of that age range were about a third of World War 1 but Eton had more ex-pupils killed in the Second than the First War while my own rather less prestigious old
school had about 50% of the slaughter in the previous conflict, 278 as opposed to 578. It is true that staffs, which were disproportionately of higher rank, became relatively larger and amounted in total to a division or two on the main fronts but to balance this there were huge losses in the RAF so that 40,000 air-crew of Bomber Command, mostly commissioned but generally of middle class/lower middle class rather than upper class origin, died over Germany.


But it was the American armed services which perhaps heralded the future. In their drafting process skilled workers were funnelled into those sectors of the services where their skills would be of use, the most striking example being the engineering troops composed of construction workers who constructed airfields, even if occasionally under fire, at the most amazing speed on Pacific islands. In this respect at least the United States was far ahead of anywhere else in military effectiveness. The technical arms, the
Navy and the Air Force ground staff got the first choice of the draftees (aviators were all volunteers) while the infantry got the worst educated and socially deprived recruits and often too the less well educated junior officers. The more upper class Americans went into the Intelligence Services, the more flash parts of the staff, perhaps the Navy which maintained its social prestige and sometimes the air force or naval aviation though these last two did suffer severely. Both in the United States and Britain war mobilisation was far more efficiently run than in WW1 and, as a result, skilled workers, engineers, electricians and so forth were as far as possible slotted into civilian or military tasks where their abilities would be useful and which, coincidentally, were either totally out of danger or were much further back than the fighting arms. In both countries it is probable that unskilled workers lost a much higher proportion than the skilled but in Britain as opposed to the United States the upper classes suffered far more than the average too.

In the fifty or so years that have elapsed since 1945, a longer period than that from the Boer War to the Hiroshima bomb, we have seen no all-out war. The experience of the USA in Vietnam and on a more Lilliputian scale the New Zealand and Australian contingent in the same conflict is however very
suggestive. In such colonial type wars against technically inferior opposition the technical troops, the air force ground staff, the men on board ship and the enormous planning and administrative staff suffered very little indeed save boredom, fatigue, traffic accidents, the disruption of their lives from military service and venereal disease. To a considerable extent this was true of the artillery too but the overwhelming proportion of losses fell on the infantry and even within battalions tended to fall on a tiny minority of the whole army in the rifle companies. The wireless operators and those in the support companies suffered a great deal less when the enemy lacked much artillery support. It was for this reason that such a disproportionate number of American casualties were black soldiers but, I suspect, no more than the
general percentage of the ill-educated and unskilled for both Mexican and American Indians suffered disproportionately as well. White `blue collar' workers lost a great deal too. Vietnam was truly a "Rich man's war and a poor man's fight" and this broke the army which eventually disintegrated and forced a withdrawal.

There was no land fighting to speak of in the Gulf War but those that did die often did so as a result of accident - rather more than the official statistics suggest. In the Korean War 33,000 Americans
died as a result of enemy action and 20,000 in accidents, I have not seen the figures for Vietnam. In any case large numbers of often not very intelligent, very young man who would not be able to get insurance in civilian life, driving very heavy and dangerous vehicles, frequently extremely tired and often under the influence of drugs or drink are a recipe for a massive accident rate. The accident figures too would tend to be over-represented among the other ranks rather than officers - a trend back to the 18th century pattern of non-battle casualties.


In the British army today the infantrymen are also often quite lumpenised and often barely literate though all are volunteers unlike the Americans in Vietnam and it is almost certainly the same in every other country where there is a volunteer army from a wealthy society. Such volunteer armed services are becoming more general and will, I predict, continue to do so. The skilled arms can be recruited by the bribe of training to those with aptitude but poorly qualified while the infantry will get the merely poorly
qualified. Any prolonged war with heavy losses would mean conscription and this will be difficult, if not impossible, for present day western societies. There are far fewer pilots today in their expensive but highly effective machines but increasingly the risky job of aerial fighting will be delegated to nerveless machines, drones, cruise and stand-off missiles. Unlike the poor and fit young infantryman, the educated and the manager will not be much at risk in such a scenario. So the first fifty years of this century may be the exception that proves the rule, a period of mass armies and mass production where class differences in battle casualty rates as well as living standards tended to narrow greatly in the areas of developed capitalism. This era seems to have come to an end.

As far as the cost to the rank and file is concerned all this has analogies with the widening class differentials as regards wages, security of employment, conditions and general welfare in civilian society. In the past the difference between the armed services and the productive labour force was that a section of the managers, the officer class, had to put themselves into danger, many of them into even more danger that those that they commanded and, since in the last analysis such managers had control over the application of force and violence in society, they had to be utterly loyal and committed to the existing ruling class. To some extent this is still true. The question of how this has been guaranteed in the past and how it is to be guaranteed in the future is however an interesting one and perhaps one of considerable difficulty for present day international capital.

Ted Crawford

February 2005


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