Friday, 25 July 2014

Celebrating Scotland's disproportionate WW1 deaths

The Commonwealth Games is now upon us, and whilst that means one countdown is now finished for Glasgow another one is entering its final days. On 4th August 2014 the Commonwealth Heads will gather in Glasgow Cathedral for a service of commemoration to mark the centenary of the start of the Great War. There will also be another ceremony later in the day in George Square at the City’s Cenotaph.

A week later on 10th August, the Scottish Government’s own commemoration will take place in Edinburgh - at the Castle Esplanade and then Holyrood Park.

Around both dates I’m sure we can expect social media, online comments and letter pages to be filled with an indignant section of the Scottish population complaining about us celebrating the start of war in which the number of Scots killed was disproportionally higher than the other parts of Britain (26.4% compared to 11.8%).

I guarantee you will see these words and you will see these figures trotted out repeatedly over the next few weeks. With that in mind it’s worth having a look in some detail about the facts behind them.

Celebrating the Start of the War

Some people, and to be fair this isn’t just a Scottish trait, seem to find it highly offensive that the start of the First World War should be commemorated. They consider no centenary event before 11th November 2018 is worthy of commemoration. None of the battles where Scots fought so bravely to defeat the Germans should be marked – The Germans remember were the ones who had invaded and occupied parts of Belgium, France, Poland, the Baltic states, Russia and Ukraine. To some it is only the end of the “futile war” which should be remembered and nothing else. That is nonsense. If we are to learn anything from this  - and Scotland WW100, the Scottish Government’s First World War centenary programme, uses as its tagline “What do we learn from all th1s” (the 1 is their choice, not my typo)  - then we must commemorate the war’s events from August 2014 onwards.

For a list of the events being officially commemorated by the Scottish Government between 2014 and 2019, under the direction of Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop’s Scottish Commemoration Panel, there is a Scottish Government webpage.

Notice I have repeatedly used the words “commemorated” or “commemoration” and not used the words “celebrated” or “celebration”. The use of “celebrate” has been seized on by many with an agenda after a comment by David Cameron, at a speech in the Imperial War Museum in October 2012 after a very successful summer of celebrations across the UK for the Olympics and the Jubilee.

“Our ambition is a truly national commemoration, worth of this historic centenary.  I want a commemoration that captures our national spirit, in every corner of the country, from our schools to our workplaces, to our town halls and local communities.  A commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrated this year, says something about who we are as a people.”

It was ill-judged analogy, and Jeremy Paxman amongst others has criticised its use. Since that time, anyone involved in organising official events for the First World War centenary have been preparing for commemorations and certainly not Diamond Jubilee-like celebrations.  

The number of Scots killed in WW1 was disproportionally higher than the other nationalities in Britain

Thanks to two prominent Scottish academic history professors – Niall Ferguson and Sir Tom Devine – we have incorrect figures being quoted as fact by many Scottish commentators and our media. Because the good professors have quoted these figures it must be true. Even Trevor Royle, the Scottish Commemorations Panel’s historical advisor, has recently quoted the incorrect total for our war dead, even though he has been on record as quoting more accurate figures in the past, and admits on page 529 of his First World War chapter in A Military History of Scotland, published in 2012, that “it is impossible to get absolute agreement on the exact number of Scottish war deaths”.

Niall Ferguson first quoted the figure of 26.4% as a total number of Scots killed as a percentage of those who mobilised, on page 299 of his book The Pity of War in 1998 . On the previous page of his book he also said the following:

"The Scots were (after the Serbs and Turks) the soldiers who suffered the highest death rate of the war"

Ferguson cites American historian Professor Jay Winter’s 1986 book The Great War and the British People as his source of data. He compares Scotland’s 26.4% with the figure of 11.8% for the same numbers of dead for Britain and Ireland as a whole.  Winter’s book shows a table on page 75 – Table 3.4, Some Estimates of Military Losses Among Combatant Countries in the 1914-1918 War. The table includes the 11.8% figure for Britain and Ireland, and Serbia and Turkey, but there is no mention of Scotland.

Winter’s figures in his book are based on the statistics in the publications Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914-1920; General Annual Report of the British Army 1913-1919; History of the War, Naval Operations and History of the Great War. War in the Air. In none of these publications is the figure of Scotland’s war dead quoted. Ferguson seems to have come up with that figure himself but does not explain his calculations. Some fact!

Sir Tom Devine’s figures are in his book The Scottish Nation 1700-2000. (published 2000) on page 309.

"Of the 557,000 Scots who enlisted in all services, 26.4 per cent lost their lives. This compares with an average death rate of 11.8 per cent for the rest of the British army between 1914 and 1918. Of all the combatant nations, only the Serbs and the Turks had higher per capita mortality rates”

This looks quite familiar. 26.4% versus 11.8% and references to Serbia and Turkey.

Unfortunately, Devine does not cite his sources for these statistics and compares the number of Scots in all services - army, navy and air-force - against a figure for British Army deaths.

With neither professor providing the detail behind their calculations we will have to make some assumptions on where they got their figures from.

Devine gives us a figure of 557,000 of Scots who enlisted in all services in WW1 as a basis for his statement.  On page 740 of Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914-1920, published by HMSO in 1920, we get a figure of 557,618 as the men and women recruited (or “mobilised” as Ferguson would say) in Scotland during the war. This is presumably where Devine gets his 557,000 figure. If anyone knows differently, please let me know.  

So where does Professor Devine get 26.4% from? If you compare the figure of 147,000 - which was the total number of WW1 dead recorded in the rolls in the Scottish National War Memorial (SNWM) in the 1990s - against 557,000, you get 26.39%, or rounded up, 26.4%.

This SNWM total will also give you Ferguson’s figure:

Total number of Scots killed (147,000) as a percentage of those who mobilised (557,618) equals 26.36%, rounded up to 26.4%

Two eminent historians, two ostensibly collaborating statistics and both complete tosh. We can discount the statistics from both men because:

  1. Both professors have derived their figures from the same data. Devine’s statistics do not prove Ferguson’s are true and vice-versa.
  2. The Scottish National War Memorial figure of 147,000 includes many non-Scots serving in Scottish regiments and the double and triple counting of entries. We’ve covered this subject in a bit more detail before in another Blog post.  The gist of it is this; the number of Scottish war dead is likely to be nearer 100,000 - 110,000 than 150,000. One hundred thousand Scottish war dead is the figure Trevor Royle used in his Flowers of the Forest (published 2006) and was also used by Doctor Catriona M.M. McDonald and Professor Elaine W. McFarland in their publication Scotland And The Great War (published 1998).
  3. 557,618 is the total number of Scotsmen and women recruited by the British Army – from 1914 to 1918. On page 740 of Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire During the Great War 1914-1920 it clearly states at the top of the list (e) that the figures represent “The provision of men for the armed Forces of the Crown (as far as the Army is concerned)”. It does not include tens of thousands of pre-war Scottish recruits to the regular army, the reserve and the Territorial Force, which is only given as a UK-wide total at the top of the table. It also does not include the Scots who served in the Royal Navy and later the Royal Air Force. It is also missing the Scotsmen in the armed services of the Dominions – Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and India. Trevor Royle in A Military History of Scotland (2012) says that 690,235 Scots had been mobilised in the First World War but does not give any detail on where he got this figure. I think it’s safe to assume this figure is for Scots in UK forces only and does not include the Scottish diaspora's service. 

So if Devine and Ferguson are wrong and 26.4% of Scots mobilised didn’t die during the First World War, what is the correct number?

Using Royle’s figures of c.100,000 dead and 690,235 served, gives a percentage of 14.4%. Still higher than 11.8%, but nowhere close to 26.4%. 14.4% also compares a total of the dead which includes the Scots diaspora serving in Dominion and Imperial units against a mobilised total for UK units.

If the mobilised figure includes the Scots who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Australian Imperial Force and other overseas forces, the total number of Scots who served in the Great War might be as high as 800k. This would give us a Scottish dead compared to mobilised percentage of 12.5% - less than half Ferguson and Devine’s statistic and much closer to the UK total of 11.8%. It’s worth remembering at this point that the 11.8% doesn’t include English, Welsh and Irish diaspora numbers, so by factoring that in would there actually be any difference between Scottish and UK war dead percentages? Personally, I doubt it.

As a founder member of the Scottish War Memorial Project I have seen thousands of war memorials over the last few years and take a close interest in memorials wherever I go. If I’m in Caithness the First World War memorials certainly don’t have twice as many names as ones I see on memorials in similar sized towns and villages in Cumberland, Carmarthenshire, or County Down.

Devine and Ferguson’s calculations don’t stand up to scrutiny, and they certainly don’t add up when you are standing in front of any tragically long list of names carved in stone.


  1. The war memorial in Newmilns, Ayrshire has 138 names inscribed on it. The 1911 census says the population was 4806. That gives 28.75%

  2. are you serious, firstly its 2.8%
    secondly the population is everyone not service personell
    thirdly the population area used for the memorial isn't the same as that
    for the census.
    fourthly taking a random town in England ( Yarm) and correcting for the approx 13% of population that served ( 13%) gives 22% Newmilns and 30% Yarm showing the low value of this as a source.
    And finally the above article seems well researched, well written and draws a much more plausible conclusion than the one it refutes. Incidentally the erroneous figure is quoted in Gordon Browns recent book. Be interesting to see how long it takes to work it's way out of the academic canon.

  3. Hello found this here

    a posting by Martin G contained the following
    ".... the data is interesting and does not support any view that battalions from any country were harder fought than others. For what it is worth here it is.: (colour coded for ease) British Army Infantry Regiments: Casualties (fatalities) per Battalion* 1914-1918. [Source: Brig E A James " British Regiments 1914-1918" Table B and page 136]

    Scottish Battalions (143)..... 583 fatalities per battalion*.... which suggest fatalities per battalion only 1.9% greater than English battalions.
    Irish Battalions (56) ..............592 fatalities per battalion*.....which suggest fatalities per battalion only 3.5% greater than English battalions
    Welsh Battalions (66)...........410 fatalities per battalion*
    English Battalions (776)......572 fatalities per battalion*

    It is worth noting that the Scottish fatalities per battalion* are heavily distorted by the Scots Guards. If this regiment was stripped out, then the average fatalities per Scottish battalion* drops to 571. If anyone had an axe to grind it would be the Scots Guards rather than the Scottish population. If the Guards Regiments are stripped out the ratio for the remaining Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English battalions* drops to 571, 572, 403 and 567 respectively. The Scottish battalions*' fatalities per battalion* being 0.7% greater than the English battalions*."

    best wishes