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Disease, accidents, suicides: 78 years of military deaths have little to do with combat

UK’s army is ‘too small’ says Tobias Ellwood

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has disclosed the number, location, and cause of all British military deaths since 1945, revealing the assumed threats to life in modern war are entirely misguided. Armed Forces fatalities are a fraction of what they once were, to the point where tri-service personnel — those in the army, navy, and air force — currently enjoy a lower mortality rate than the general population. Most deaths now have nothing to do with hostile action. But there is one source of death that is a major and growing concern among military ranks: suicide.

Armed Forces in Afghanistan

The Armed Forces were in Afghanistan for two decades, pulling out in August 2021 (Image: PA)


Since September 3, 1945 – the day after World War 2 ended – a total of 7,192 UK Armed Forces personnel died in medal-earning operations around the world. While each loss of life is a tragedy, in the context of the past century this figure is extremely low. 

Three times this many soldiers were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme – the First World War claiming 880,000 British infantrymen in total. During World War 2, 384,000 servicemen and women died – roughly five times the headcount of today’s territorial army. The overwhelming toll exacted by these global conflicts, coupled with the demise of the British Empire, greatly reduced the political need and public appetite for warfare.

Armed Forces numbers peaked at just under five million in 1945. By the time National Service was abolished in 1960 this had been cut tenfold to 500,000, and by 2022 it was down to roughly 150,000. Defence spending as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) mirrored this trend, going from around seven percent in 1960 to 2.2 percent today.

A UK Parliament paper noted back in 2012: “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, means the threshold for future interventions will be high.”


British forces have been involved in 32 theatres of war since 1945, either unilaterally or as part of UN or NATO operations. Repelling the occupying Argentine troops from the Falkland Islands in 1982 cost the lives of 255 personnel. The invasion of Iraq claimed 179 between March 2003 and February 2009, while two decades of deployment in Afghanistan killed 457.

Household names these bloody conflicts may be, they are far from the bloodiest. That desperate title goes to the 1948 to 1960 Malayan Emergency, during which 1,442 lives were lost as the Empire unsuccessfully attempted to thwart a communist insurgency in modern-day Malaysia. 

The second-largest number of Armed Forces fatalities occurred far closer to home. Initially assisting the Royal Ulster Constabulary amid increasing violence between unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland, 1,441 British soldiers had been killed on UK soil by the time they left.

Spanning from August 1969 to July 2007, the Northern Ireland deployment also revealed a curious shift in modern conflict: more than half of all deaths were not the result of hostile action, but things like accidents and assaults. 

The Malayan Emergency

The Scots Guards fought a guerrilla war against the Malayan National Liberation Army and lost (Image: GETTY)


Iain Overton, executive director of the charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) told Express.co.uk: “The truth is that, in the modern world, soldiers are increasingly distanced from the maul of war – bayonet charges and over-the-top forays are no longer standard.”

Over the past ten years – between 2013 and 2022 – there have been 676 deaths of Armed Forces personnel, both in warzones and at home, on and off-duty. Just 12 were attributable to an enemy — barely two percent of the total.

“Most soldiers can go through their career and never see an enemy in person. Drones have often replaced pilots. And increasingly soldiers are distanced from the battlefield with the deployment of long-range artillery and other sea-autonomous robotic systems,” Mr Overton added.

Combat was found to be only the eighth-most likely reason for death. Cancer was the most common –  responsible for 165 fatalities, just under a quarter (24 percent) of the total. With the chance of dying in battle reduced so dramatically, the UK’s regular military is at a statistically lower risk of death than the civilian population. 

This is down to what is known as the “healthy worker effect” from the military’s selective employment of able-bodied people without illness, who also tend to have higher levels of fitness. According to the MoD, Armed Forces personnel had a 77 percent lower risk of dying as a result of a disease-related condition in 2022, although their exposure to road traffic accidents was higher. 

But there is an elephant in the room. The data shows that young men in the British Army have significantly higher rates of suicide. Throughout the last decade, 131 servicemen (the vast majority men) took their own lives, making suicide the second-most common cause of death – responsible for 19 percent of the total and over ten times more than hostile action.

Mr Overton said: “The biggest threat, at least in the last two decades, to soldiers has either been their own demons (suicidal thoughts) or the widespread use of the Improvised Explosive Device (IED).” According to AOAV research, more British service personnel have killed themselves than have died in combat since 1984. “The former might also be fuelled by the terror and anxiety imposed by the latter,” he added.

The rate of suicides has risen substantially in the past five years. Rising from eight per 100,000 in 2016 to 12 in 2020. Not a single member of the Armed Forces died as a result of hostile action in 2022, yet there were seven suicides. However, this number may well double given the 25 pending inquests into deaths where the mechanism of injury suggests possible suicide.

All of last year’s coroner-confirmed cases related to British Army personnel. Only one was female, in line with the long-term trend. Male suicide rates in the Armed Forces had been in decline since the Nineties and were consistently lower than the UK general population over the last 35 years. The increase since 2017 has been driven by young Army males.

The suicide rate among that cohort, males aged 20 to 24, came to 13.54 per 100,000 from 2003 to 2022, significantly higher than the general population where males aged 45 to 54 had the highest rates of suicide, with the risk peaking at age 44. 

Clare Stevens, a partner at JMW Solicitors that specialise in Armed Forces claims, told Express.co.uk: “Any death is a tragedy, but when we’re seeing increasing rates of suicide from serving soldiers, questions need to be asked.

“Quite rightly, we’ve recently heard a lot about veterans’ mental health with initiatives such as Operation Courage but it can’t be an ‘either-or’ situation, particularly when suicide rates among young men in the army are now higher than the rates in the general population and the rates for women have increased in the last 5 years.”

Technological enhancements in the equipment used on the battlefield – from bulletproof helmets to minesweepers – as well as improved health and safety procedures during the operation of weaponry have contributed to the falling annual tally of casualties. The fact that fewer troops are deployed overseas also helps, with 96 percent of all regular Armed Forces personnel stationed in the UK as of April 2022.

Since the early Noughties, land transport accidents (LTAs) have also been one of the largest causes of death – accounting for 17 percent of all fatalities in 2022. However, the advancement of vehicle safety systems and road safety campaigns run by the MoD have seen this decline as a factor.

Improvements in the mental health arena have been more difficult to tackle. According to AOAV, the proportion of discharges from the Armed Forces for mental health concerns rose by 245 percent in a decade.

The King’s Centre for Military Health Research (KCMHR) is the leading independent organisation in the field. Their latest report noted the harmful consequences of “moral injury” often experienced by soldiers, referring to the “psychological distress [often guilt, anger, shame or disgust] experienced after events which violate one’s moral or ethical code.” Such instances were found to be significantly associated with probable PTSD and suicidal ideation.

Despite being acutely exposed to morally injurious acts, military personnel are especially unlikely to seek professional help. On the one hand, Ms Stevens suggests this is likely due to the stigma attached, as “personnel remain reluctant to raise mental health concerns for fear of being labelled and possible repercussions.” However, KCMHR claims a preference for Armed Forces members to “deal with their own problems themselves is a bigger barrier to care.”

British military training Ukrainians

The British military are currently training Ukrainian forces in Dorset (Image: PA)

KCMHR’s report also notes that “self-harm in service personnel appears mainly impulsive, is not associated with deployment and is a poor predictor of subsequent increased suicide risk.” Indeed, all figures presented here related to serving members, suicide rates among veterans are a significant but separate concern.

The UK’s leading veterans’ mental health charity, Combat Stress, told Express.co.uk: “We know that whilst a small but significant minority of servicemen and women develop mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, many don’t seek help until after they have left the military.

“Left untreated, mental health problems can become more complex and have a devastating impact on those with the condition, as well as their loved ones.”

An MoD spokesperson said: “Any death by suicide is a tragedy, and our sympathies are with families and friends of those affected.

“Even though suicide remains rare in the Armed Forces, we are absolutely committed to supporting the mental health and well-being of our Armed Forces and offer health and welfare support, tools and mandatory training, along with a 24-hour mental health helpline.”

Combat Stress provides mental health support to serving personnel via a 24/7 helpline which can be called on 0800 323 4444. Samaritans are also here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at jo@samaritans.org, or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch. Anyone in an emergency situation should call 999 first.


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