Managing 'Civilian Deaths Due to War Operations': Julie Rugg Reports on Recent Research Done into Official Attitudes towards Burial during the Blitz

By Rugg, Julie | History Today, February 2005 | Go to article overview

Managing 'Civilian Deaths Due to War Operations': Julie Rugg Reports on Recent Research Done into Official Attitudes towards Burial during the Blitz


Rugg, Julie, History Today


WITH A EUROPEAN WAR IMMINENT, on February 28th, 1939, the Ministry of Health published Circular 1779 to all local authorities with responsibility for implementing Air Raid Precaution (ARP) measures. The Circular alerted them to set in train a strategy for dealing with the bodies of victims of enemy action. After the Zeppelin attacks on London during the First World War, it was thought that the next war would be fought in the air and that massive fatalities would be a consequence. In its planning for that eventuality, the Ministry gave extensive consideration to measures for dealing with the dead. It was acknowledged that poorly considered arrangements would adversely impact on morale. The issue was certainly the subject of 'whispers': in 1940, Frances Partridge records in her diary hearing that the ARP authorities were expecting '70,000 deaths in the first raid on London', and that sufficient papier mache coffins had been prepared.

In February 1939, the ARP authorities were instructed to set up mortuary and burial arrangements in advance of the expected conflict. Buildings earmarked for emergency mortuary use included swimming pools, cattle markets and race-course stables. Facilities such as tables for laying out bodies, stretcher racks and the stationery to deal with the extensive paperwork associated with death were prepared. A mortuary superintendent was employed: usually the local cemetery manager or a leading local funeral director filled this role. In addition, local authorities were instructed to calculate how much space they had available for interment in cemeteries and churchyards and to begin advance preparation of graves.

Further guidance came through, detailing more contentious recommendations. It was anticipated that where bodies had not been claimed by relatives, 'they will be wrapped ill sheets and interred ill mass graves'. This raised substantial objections. The primary professional organization associated with cemeteries--the National Association of Cemetery and Crematorium Superintendents--thought that the use of shrouds would lead to 'considerable feeling' shown by the public, and the task of later disinterment (for reburial in family or individual graves) would be all the more difficult. The Association tried to set up an internal trade in coffins, but this was scuppered by the State which threatened to restrict timber supplies to the coffin-makers. Plans to begin preparation of individual graves were also undermined by the Ministry simply refusing grant-aid. Thus York, for example, was unable to complete a plan to dig a series of family graves, and was instead ordered to prepare two adjacent communal, brick-lined vaults, capable of taking eighty bodies.

As the war progressed, policy became framed by expediency. At the height of the Blitz, some areas were hard pressed to implement even basic emergency measures, and local morale suffered substantially. The task of recognising individual sets of remains was given a high priority even in extreme crisis, although in some circumstances the principle was abandoned. In Coventry, the bereaved were denied the chance even of identifying the bodies: which were so mangled that mourners were 'begged to remember their dead as they had last seen them'. Hull bad a better degree of success with regard to identifying remains, although contemporary documentation reveals the grimness of the task. However; here, the hope of using a series of small graves was simply overtaken by the incidence of continuous attack. From March to September, 1941, 920 citizens lost their lives. …

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