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Bring Out Your Dead? Dealing with the Fallen in Future Conflict

In light of increased international tensions, UK Defence is increasingly planning for great power war. New procurement programs and organisational reforms are ongoing across the armed forces. When it comes to dealing with the dead, it has not renewed its capacity to handle mass casualties and deaths in the event of conflict. This poses a major issue which deserves closer examination. 

In this article, we will look at a capability abandoned at the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, the Army’s War Graves Registration Service. We begin with a look at its birth during the First World War and the onward development of the Service. We then consider whether the lack of a Service, Regular, Reservist, or contractorized capability will affect future capacity in this field, before presenting various contemporary models. 

Current debates about the degree to which it is appropriate for the uniformed force to be involved in every aspect of defence tends to forget Defence’s long history of collaboration with, and temporary absorption of, allied and civilian enterprises in wartime.  The task of clearing and processing those who have died during operations at home or overseas is a case in point. During recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the British worked closely with their American equivalents to provide a military ‘Mortuary Affairs’ service and the ongoing pandemic has seen the British Army cooperate with voluntary and veteran-run organisations such as RE:ACT Disaster Response (formerly Team Rubicon) to provide services in preparedness for the transportation of the bodies of the recently deceased. In high-intensity war, can the Army depend on independent and civilian organisations to fulfil this role? If it cannot, should it try to reinvigorate what remains of its organisational memory in this respect? 

David et al.’s observation that the British Army suffers ‘a cognitive dissonance between concepts and strategy, which is rooted in a lack of foundational theories’ is instructive here: the British Army is not the learning organisation it claims to be, but rather one which re-learns once it’s memory is painfully jogged, only to forget again with remarkable alacrity; it has certainly forgotten how to deal with mass casualties and may have difficulty regaining that knowledge. The recent alteration to the infantry training syllabus, effectively excluding the burial and care of the Fallen, combined with the disbandment of the Army War Graves Service under the Army 2020 (Refine) has removed corporate memory and experience. This suggests that public and political expectations of the treatment of the dead may no longer be feasible in a mass casualty situation without the sustained support of a partner organisation or military.

Debate about the future character of war aside, there is a political and cultural imperative, and an operational and civic duty, to identify, recover, and bury soldiers during and following war. The First World War transformed societal expectations with regards to the treatment of the remains of soldiers killed in service. Current civilian expectations are largely shaped by the treatment of military remains during and following the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, with each body returned to the United Kingdom transported in a flag draped coffin – occasions which typically received a significant amount of public sympathy and media coverage in the U.K. This attitude, embedded in British culture for more than a century, and the focus of national Remembrance is likely to be persistent. In short, we may wish to push the issue into the long grass, but it will not go away, our society demands it. 

Mass Casualties and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The First World War was the first war where all governments accepted a national responsibility to provide and maintain graves for all soldiers killed in battle, regardless of rank, having previously deferred such tasks and associated costs to families. From the outbreak of the war, individual units were responsible for the burial of their own dead and, in keeping with the 1906 Geneva Convention, victory in battle came with a responsibility to deal with the remains of the enemy. Only weeks into the war, flaws in this system were exposed by the character of the conflict – siege and persistent engagement – with corpses lying unburied across the battlefields. The wartime restructuring of the field hospitals, and the creation of associated burial zones, helped with the keeping of organised records, but this was not enough to remedy the ever-growing problem. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) simply did not possess the required administrative structure nor operational knowledge required to respond whilst simultaneously focused on fighting the ongoing war. 

Sir Fabian Ware’s voluntary organisation, the precursor of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), was raised as a solution to the problem of the care of the war dead. Incorporated into the British Army, staff received military ranks, although from 1916, the administration was performed by civilians in a London office. Ware’s undertaking provided a sympathetic communication service for individuals or families enquiring about the fate of a soldier, removing a heavy administrative burden from the fighting Army. Ware recognised the political significance of the military response to those who had lost their lives and the need to respond to the public mood in order to maintain support for the war, particularly following the introduction of conscription in 1916.

Sir Fabian Ware : London Remembers, Aiming to capture all memorials in London
London Remembers, 2021. Sir Fabian Ware.

Ware was both a former colonial administrator working on the reform of education in South Africa and a former newspaper editor. These experiences provided him with the skills to effectively respond to the needs of various groups living or moving within the same space, and more crucially, administrate a large and complex system and promote it to a rather dissatisfied audience. The argument for a visible national attempt to do everything possible to ensure that the fate of every soldier was recorded, and confirm that the utmost had been done to treat their remains with respect is a common theme in Ware’s letters to senior military and political figures during the War. Following the First World War, the IWGC, later the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), separated from the Army, who retained the responsibility for the post-war clearance of the battlefields. 

The most visible legacy of Ware’s work was the creation of the beautifully manicured cemeteries which can be found dotted around the world. The cemeteries and the memorials to the missing have been a central focus of commemorative events during the centenary of the First World War. It might seem an obvious suggestion to hand mass casualty clearing to the CWGC, but this is problematic in a modern context for two reasons:  First, the CWGC is financed by the former imperial dominions as well as the United Kingdom and may very well, and understandably, object to shouldering a burden to which they are not party. Second, and most importantly, the CWGC in its current format is responsible purely for the commemoration of the soldiers of the two World Wars; like the Army, it has no experience or corporate memory of the practicalities of mass-casualty handling. 

While the Ministry of Defence has a team dedicated to casualty clearance, the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Cell, based near Gloucester, it is designed for small scale casualties. Its systems, so familiar to us in recent years, could not flex to deal with hundreds or thousands of dead. The precedent, set for military planners in the First World War is that the operational response to mass casualties is expected to be run by an external partner. The British Army must ensure that it, or a nominated partner, is prepared to deal with large numbers of deaths in future wars. Moreover, it must also be prepared to manage the public response to wars conducted in real time on social media and television. 

The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars – A Model for the Future?

In 2018, Abigail Watson described how the UK involvement in the Iraq War had led to a breakdown in trust between the Government and the British public and parliament. This year, Watson, Delina Goxho, and Ewan Lawson revisited this subject to review the lessons which could be learned from Iraq ahead of the deployment of 250 additional UK soldiers to Mali, to support the UN Integrated Stabilization Mission for Mali (MINUSMA), in what could be the most dangerous mission for the British forces since Afghanistan. The authors highlight that the risks of such a deployment have not been properly discussed by the Government, with minimal parliamentary or public debate on the matter. The occurrence of high numbers of UK casualties on such a mission could have the consequence of inflaming public debate, not only with regards to the role of the UK armed forces in UN missions and other deployments of choice, but also concerning the efficiency of mass casualty handling over sustained periods of time, further eroding public confidence in, and support for, the armed forces. 

Iraq and Afghanistan heightened public expectations around the treatment of the Fallen. Soldiers killed in action were repatriated to Britain under Op Pabbay, transported by 99 Squadron RAF to a reception airfield where the family had the opportunity to observe the arrival of the flag draped coffin. The ‘nationalised’ grief observed following the First World War, and the desire to honour the ‘glorious dead’ returned during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars give Defence a conundrum: how to cope with much larger numbers of casualties in a more intense conflict. Though these historical expectations continue to shape our present, plans for future wars should also consider the UK’s culture of mourning and how interruptions to these traditions might be mitigated during and following future conflicts. 

It would be a mistake for future war planning to predict casualties based on the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan. These conflicts were predominately low-intensity counterinsurgencies. In a conventional peer on peer war, or perhaps where the UK armed forces were at a disadvantage, the effect of weapon systems would be far more lethal, creating not wounded personnel but war dead. Medicine may have proved it’s worth since 9/11, but it is highly dependent on effective and agile casualty evacuation which may not be the case in future. Though it is not possible to predict the nature, location or duration of future wars, we can be sure that the public will be consistent in their demands for transparent and timely information and the provision of a respectful, military funeral with full honours, given the precedent set by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Future large-scale conventional conflicts would in all likelihood see a return to the burial traditions of the World Wars, with a temporary ban on repatriation to ensure equality of treatment, and the use of temporary burials until formal cemeteries could be established. Such work necessitates huge administrative networks, and the procurement of staff with a broad range of administrative and communicative skills to meet its demands. Should the occasion arise where the U.K. cannot work in partnership with the US Army to provide mortuary services, it may be necessary to consider an appropriate partner to provide supportive services. As discussed previously, the CWGC in its current format is not designed to provide war grave registration services and so potential alternatives should be considered as part of routine planning for future conflicts, should our forces feel there is a risk of being unable to fulfil the respectful treatment expected by the civilian public. 

Covid-19 Response – A Model?

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Zoe Sayers, 2021. RE:ACT team members assisting in COVID response.

In 2017 Heather Draper and Simon Jenkins highlighted that ‘very little literature exists exploring the ethical challenges experienced by humanitarian workers, and even less is known about the experiences of the medical military employed in an humanitarian capacity’. Though some work exists on this theme within academia, it is not always accessible or directly relevant to contemporary soldiering, with historical case studies reflecting different battle conditions. Yet little has been done since to increase our understanding of these experiences, within both the military and academic sectors. The participation of the Armed Forces in the COVID-19 response allows us to interrogate the relevance of existing Army training, and to learn from new partnerships with humanitarian organisations, such as RE:ACT Disaster Response (formerly known as Team Rubicon UK).

RE:ACT is an emergency and crisis response charity, which operates in the UK and overseas. The charity has around 900 permanent volunteers, the majority of whom are veterans. In April, RE:ACT appealed for 40,000 veterans to volunteer to assist with the COVID-19 response. Initially, their volunteers were dispatched to Peterborough City Hospital, but they have also provided pods providing decontamination in healthcare facilities . Working in collaboration with the NHS and the British Army, along with other charities, RE:ACT volunteers have helped to facilitate Covid tests, provided support to NHS hospitals, distributed millions of units of PPE and helped to deliver huge quantities of meals and food products across the UK. At the peak of the military response, 20,000 UK troops were at readiness to respond to the pandemic, with more than 4,000 deployed at any time. Since March, a number of hospitals have been constructed, with the Royal Engineers receiving praise for their work during the construction of the NHS Nightingale Hospital in Exeter. These facilities are now on standby,and are no longer admitting patients. Thousands of Armed Forces personnel have been deployed to provide coronavirus testing units, with nearly 400 personnel providing support to ambulance services, as just one example of the support provided. Military medics could still provide further support, should there be a further spike of the virus during the winter. 

Given the quasi-military structure and culture of RE:ACT, they have proved a good cultural fit with the official military response. In theory, this experience means that there is now a broad range of personnel with recent experience in military work associated with death and mortuary services who may be willing to return to service in the event of a future war. Access to such a unique workforce may provide the opportunity for the MoD to conduct interviews as part of research projects to interrogate the required costs for psychological support required for such work, or to identify any potential areas for improvement for implementation into future practice. Both the military response to Covid, and the partnership with RE:ACT to provide many of the support services, are likely to reveal a number of lessons relating to the logistics of death, and managing public expectations which may prove useful for strategic leaders.


Notwithstanding the recently announced financial package for Defence, procurement black holes and government demands for conceptual and physical modernisation will almost inevitably lead to further slicing of military capabilities. The lesson from previous reviews is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To stretch a metaphor, if it must go, make sure the capability goes to a foster home where it will be cared for and nurtured. In this our recent experience of Covid-19 is illustrative, the assistance given by a civilian organisation like Re:ACT pointing the way to an effective model for future utility in conventional war. Not every aspect of defence must be uniformed, but every aspect of defence must be prepared to be operationalized. To paraphrase  Sir Michael Howard, Defence doesn’t have to be on the money about what future war will look like – but we do have to be close enough. 

Paul Barnes

Paul Barnes is a serving Warrant Officer in the British Army. He is currently a Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point, a Chief of the General Staff’s Fellow, and a Chief of the Air Staff’s Fellow. He was the first non-commissioned soldier to be a Fellow at RUSI and is a member of its Military Science Advisory Board. He has been published in the UK, Australia, and the United States and at HQ Army in Andover. He is currently employed as SO2 Warfare with the Land Warfare Centre.

Sarah Ashbridge

Sarah Ashbridge is a PhD candidate at the Universities of Huddersfield and Bradford, funded by the AHRC Heritage Consortium. Sarah’s interdisciplinary research focuses on the development of British identity discs, and the recovery of soldiers remains located during archaeological works. She volunteers with Operation Nightingale and Breaking Ground Heritage, and has completed placements with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Ruben Willaert (Belgium), and Dig Hill 80. Sarah is the Public Engagement and Communications Officer for the British Commission for Military History, and the founder of the Modern Conflict Research Symposium event series. 

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