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Perth Digger

The Vanished on the Western Front

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Perth Digger

I've been playing around with some of the data in the Official History of the Medical Services (1st published 1931), using its figures on the Missing to set up the tables below. In order to ensure that there is no confusion with any data on the Memorials to the Missing (Menin Gate, Thiepval etc), I have called my groups The Vanished. They are the officers and men who had to be "presumed dead" because there was insufficient official evidence to confirm their deaths.

The 1918 stats on Other Ranks are an eye-opener, as is the 1914 figure for officers who vanished. I presume that most of the 1918 ORs vanished during the German offences in the spring.

Mike

 

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ss002d6252

The war of movement that ceased in 1914 and resumed, to a degree, in 1918 certainly seems to tie in when compared to the % of vanished v. deaths.


Craig

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Perth Digger

Yes, it does, Craig. I thought that there may be a link with retreats (1914 and 1918), but having located about 95% of the officers who disappeared in 1914, I found that only 35 (14%) of them died in August. 

 

It also occurred to me that Table 2 for ORs suggests that recording and reportage may have improved year by year, but collapsed in 1918.

 

Mike

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phil andrade

Mike,

That 14% for August 1914 reflects the overall numbers of 1914 BEF casualties that can be attributed to August.  Being the month that we associate with the Great Retreat, we might have assumed a disproportionately higher ratio of missing : on the other hand, it transpires that an enormous proportion of British casualties that month were registered as POWs , which differentiated them from the vanished.  The desperate see saw fighting of First Ypres entailed a disproportionately high ratio of missing, which reflected the prolonged intensity of that battle.

 

What I find striking in the stats is the more conspicuous fate of the officers, who were more likely to have their death confirmed.

 

Phil

 

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Perth Digger

Hi Phil (I thought this might tempt you!)

I agree on both points. Re the officers being more likely to be identified, different uniforms helped when ground searches were made, but I think more effort was made to find them by their units. There is a class element here. Certainly, with the unofficial information that came from the wounded or POWs, ORs were more likely to have seen what happened to officers because they were looking for/at them during the fighting. They were natural rallying points.

 

Re 1914, the figures for vanished officers are: 39 September, 108 October (most 29-31st), 36 November and 25 December.

 

Mike

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phil andrade
Posted (edited)

Mike,

 

A useful way to interpret these figures is to assess the number of the " vanished" against that of the registered PoWs.

 

Here the differential between the mobile fighting of 1914 and 1918 is in stark contrast with the static years of 1915, 16 and 17.

 

If we conflate the numbers of missing/PoW, by aggregating the known prisoners with the vanished, we see that in 1914, three quarters of them were prisoners, and one quarter were unaccounted for and subsequently presumed dead.  In 1918, the respective figures were 63%  and 37% : the difference being explained that a large part of the 1918 casualties were sustained in the triumphant period from mid July onwards, when relatively few British troops were captured. I expect the period March to June would reveal proportions more redolent of August to November 1914.

 

These ratios were pretty well reversed in the 1915-16-17 fighting : 61% of them being " vanished" and 39% being confirmed PoWs.

 

By triangulating the sources from SMEBE, the Medical Statistics and the CWGC, I find a degree of harmony : there are differences, but the overall effect is remarkably solid.

 

There is surely scope here to investigate the officer to ORs ratio, in terms of the proportion of prisoners to vanished.

 

Here is my interpretation, citing the Medical stats for France and Flanders, 1914-18 :

 

Overall …..Officers, 6,648 prisoners ; 4,265 vanished , or 1.56 to one.

                  Men , 168,278 prisoners, 140,633 vanished, or 1.2 to one. 

 

Here again, the officers who were posted as missing/PoW were more likely to have their fate recorded as taken prisoner ; the men they led were more likely to be unaccounted for and subsequently declared dead. Rank conferred the advantage of more certainty in recording what happened.

 

By year, the ratios are :

 

1914 : Officers, 2.1 prisoners for every one vanished ; men, 3 to one ( different from what I had expected )

1915 : Officers, virtually equal ; men, 1 prisoner to every 1.9 vanished

1916 ; Officers, 1 to 1.2 ; men , 1 to 1.85

1917 ; Officers, 1 to 1.15 ; men , 1 to 1.33 ( closest to parity of any year)

1918 ; Officers, 2.85 to 1 ; men, 1.7 to 1.

 

I wonder if this might assist in how we interpret the figures.

 

Editing here : reflecting on that anomalous 1914 ratio.....might it be that the officer cohort of 1914 exemplified the most determination to adhere to a code of honour, and exhibited an extreme reluctance to be taken prisoner ?

 

Phil

Edited by phil andrade

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Perth Digger

Phil

I know of two 1914 vanished officers who were reported to have been shot for refusing to give up their revolvers when captured. A lot has been written about the hidebound nature of the 1914 officer class (and refusing to give up one's revolver does seem rather futile), but it is the downside of the ferocious tenacity instilled by the regimental system that allowed them to hang on at Ypres. My impression is that very few POW officers of 1914 were unwounded.

 

Cox & CO's List of British officers taken prisoner during the war (reprinted by N & M Press) gives the dates of capture, so it is feasible to plot the trends and compare the timings of Vanished and POWs.

 

The ratios for both officers and ORs of 1914 might be distorted by the number of prisoners taken when whole battalions were surrounded and cut off during the retreat. Presumably a similar distortion might have occurred in the spring of 1918.

 

I have gone through a couple of thousand pages of Effects data to find the officers recorded as Presumed Dead for 1914 and 1915 (the numbers on my lists conform very well to the numbers "missing" in Medical Services). I don't think my eyes could stand the strain of doing the same for the rest of the war.

 

Mike 

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phil andrade

Mike,

 

You have established a superb extrapolative method here.

 

I’m more than impressed by the diligence of your survey.

 

Thank you for sharing it.

 

Phil

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Perth Digger

Thanks, Phil. I blame my interest in simple statistics and lists on my fascination with cricket statistics and the game "Howzat" when a schoolboy in the early 1960s!

 

I've found the source of one of the officers who refused to give up his revolver. It's a little book called 'Missing' written by Angus Macnaughten in 1970. He was the son of Lt Angus Macnaughten, 3rd Black Watch, who joined the 1st Battalion on 5th September 1914 and went missing on 29-30 October. There is a letter from Capt Fortune to an unnamed Major dated 2 November: "From what men say who got away {Macnaughten} was shot in the thigh by a German officer as he wouldn't give up his revolver ...".

 

Mike

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phil andrade
Posted (edited)

sMike,

 

In the early 1960s I was a  kid, but old enough to be very aware of the centennial of the American Civil War, which fired a lifelong interest, and became conflated with the fiftieth anniversary of the Great War : aided and abetted by the BBC Documentary and some very lurid bubble gum cards depicting gruesome events on the battlefields of the American conflict.

The father of a friend was an expert statistician, and he was keen to point out the awful arithmetic of both those wars, and made me aware of statistical ramifications : the impact of his comments stay with me.

 

Phil

 

 

Edited by phil andrade

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Perth Digger

My favourite film is still The Dambusters, Phil. 

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