Military strength and deaths in combat
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The military casualties incurred by the UK during the World Wars dwarf anything that has occurred since.
Three times as many British forces died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (19,240) than have been killed in every combat operation since the end of WWII. Had the Prime Minister read out their names in the House of Commons, as has been done since 2003, it would have taken at least 11 hours. Over the course of the war, 880,000 British forces died, 6% of the adult male population and 12.5% of those serving. The toll on the adult male population meant that the 1921 Census recorded 109 women for every hundred men.
In WWII there were 384,000 soldiers killed in combat, but a higher civilian death toll (70,000, as opposed to 2,000 in WWI), largely due to German bombing raids during the Blitz: 40,000 civilians died in the seven-month period between September 1940 and May 1941, almost half of them in London.
The strength of the British military during the World Wars was boosted greatly by the conscription of civilians. The army reached a peak of 4m soldiers in 1918 and 2.9m in 1945. A more limited form of conscription, known as National Service, lasted until 1963, with the last use of conscripts in combat operations occurring at Suez in 1956. The decline of Empire, technological change, and a transformation of Britain’s role in the world have been reflected in a decline in personnel numbers: the army and naval service is smaller than at any point since the mid to late 19th century, while air force personnel are at a post-WWII low. The 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review envisages further reductions to 2015. But the UK continues to spend well above the average for rich countries on its military.
Drawn-out counter-insurgency operations in Northern Ireland and Iraq have come to an end within the last decade, and the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 will close a chapter in British military history. The sensitivity of public opinion to military casualties incurred in wars perceived to have no clear purpose or definition of victory, together with constraints on public spending, mean the threshold for future interventions will be high. But the crises in Libya and Syria indicate that the question of when and where to risk the lives of UK forces will remain a pressing one.
Emergencies and counter-insurgencies
The chart shows deaths of UK armed forces personnel in each medal-earning combat theatre since the end of WWII.