The truth about British casualties in Iraq

Iraq is becoming less dangerous for British troops - and the IRA killed twice as many soldiers in one year as Iraqi insurgents have killed in three. Breaking down the stats.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Following the tragic deaths of five British soldiers in a helicopter crash in Basra, media reports have claimed that Iraq is becoming more and more dangerous for the Britons stationed there. ‘Troops in trouble’, said one headline; Basra has turned into a ‘lethal danger zone’ said another. In fact, the reason we seem shocked by the loss of five British lives is because such incidents remain relatively rare. A breakdown of the available British casualty stats reveals that:

  • Iraq is becoming less dangerous for British troops – the number of British fatalities has fallen year-on-year since the war and occupation began in March 2003.
  • There is an almost even split between the number of British troops killed in combat situations and the number killed in non-combat situations – that is, in accidents, friendly fire incidents or from natural causes.
  • The IRA killed almost twice the number of British soldiers in one year (1972) as Iraqi insurgents have killed over more than three years.
  • On some occasions, more American soldiers have died in a single month in Iraq than British soldiers have died during three years of operations.

And yet, as the danger posed to British lives appears to have decreased, we continue to be told that Iraq is becoming more lethal. Meanwhile, military families are stepping up their campaigns to have ‘Our Boys’ brought home from what they claim is an unacceptably risky venture. This reflects a moral uncertainty and confusion about the war more than it does the reality of danger on the ground.

Iraq is getting safer for British troops

Iraq seems to be getting less dangerous for British soldiers there. There are around 8,000 British military personnel in Iraq. In total, 109 British servicemen and women have died since coalition forces invaded in March 2003.

In the first year of war and occupation, from March 2003 through to the end of March 2004, 59 Britons died.

In the second year, from April 2004 through to the end of March 2005, 27 Britons died.

In the third year, from April 2005 to the end of March 2006, 17 Britons died.

In the fourth year thus far, beginning in April 2006, 6 Britons have died, including the five killed in a helicopter crash in Basra over the weekend.

This shows that the number of British fatalities has steadily declined over the past three years, even as Iraq has remained highly unstable and has become, according to many accounts, more dangerous since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in May 2003 than it had been during the phase of major combat operations from March to May 2003.

If you average out the number of British fatalities over a single year, then in the first year of war and occupation there was on average one British fatality every six days; in the second year there was on average one British fatality every 14 days; and in the third year there was on average one British fatality every 21 days.

From the first year of British operations to the third year, there has been more than a 60 per cent drop in the number of British soldiers dying.

British deaths in combat and non-combat situations

British soldiers seem to face an equal risk of dying in tragic accidents in Iraq as they do being killed by Iraqi insurgents or protesters. Of the 109 who have died, 54 have died in combat situations and 49 in non-combat situations, including accidents, friendly fire incidents and natural deaths.

This leaves six deaths unaccounted for. There are the five who died in Basra over the weekend, where it is widely assumed that they were shot down by enemy fire, though that still needs officially to be confirmed. And there was one death in April 2003 where it is difficult to determine whether it was accidental or the result of hostile action: a soldier was killed in an explosion in southern Iraq, but the cause of the explosion has not been made public.

If, as widely expected, the inquiry into the Basra crash confirms that the helicopter was shot down by enemy fire, then there will have been 49 non-combat deaths and 59 combat deaths. If, however, the inquiry determines that it was an accidental crash, then there will be an even split between combat deaths and non-combat deaths – 54 of each.

In the first year of war and occupation, more British soldiers actually died in accidents than in combat operations: of the 59 deaths in the first year, 20 were killed in action with Iraqi forces and 38 died in helicopter crashes, friendly fire incidents and other accidents (the other one was the death in April 2003, the cause of which is difficult to determine).

Of the 27 British deaths in the second year, 19 died as a result of attacks by Iraqis and 8 died in non-combat situations.

Of the 17 British deaths in the third year, 14 died as a result of attacks by Iraqis and 3 died in non-combat situations.

Of the 49 non-combat deaths over the past three years, 17 Britons died in helicopter accidents and 12 in road traffic accidents. Other incidents include:

  • suicides;
  • friendly fire;
  • the death of a British soldier who dug his trench too deep and was buried alive;
  • a soldier shooting himself in the head while trying to unjam a machine gun.

Breaking down the combat stats

Strikingly, even the majority of combat deaths seem to have occurred while British soldiers were carrying out everyday operations. That is, most of these deaths did not take place in traditional hand-to-hand combat or engagement with enemy forces, but were the result of guerrilla-style attacks on unsuspecting British troops who were manning checkpoints or making deliveries.

Of the 54 British deaths by Iraqi action, it appears that 13 occurred in heated situations in which enemy forces or protesters were directly being engaged: 1 of these was during an assault on an enemy trench in the first phase of the war; 4 were deaths in action during the first phase of the war; 7 took place while British troops were trying to quell riots; and 1 was in a gunfight with insurgents.

Of the other 41 British deaths caused by Iraqi action, most were killed unsuspectingly during ‘peacekeeping’ operations rather than in actual declared combat. A majority were killed in roadside bombs: 15 Britons have been killed by roadside explosions while travelling from one part of Iraq to another.

A further 6 were killed by other kinds of bombs, including suicide bombs.

10 have been killed in helicopter crashes caused by enemy fire (not including the five who died in a helicopter crash in Basra over the weekend).

7 have been killed after their vehicles were ambushed during normally routine operations.

And 3 were killed by hostile, probably sniper fire.

This suggests that British troops are not necessarily engaging in risky combat operations, but rather face a fairly low-level terrorist-style threat during everyday operations – a threat that it is virtually impossible to guard against, unless troops remain in barracks all day and night.

Some historical comparisons

Compared with earlier British military interventions, the number of British casualties in Iraq remains relatively low. During the Falklands War of 1982, which lasted for three months, 255 Britons were killed by enemy action compared with 54 killed by enemy action in Iraq.

During the conflict in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1997, between the British Army and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), 763 British military personnel died. On top of that, over 300 of the British Army’s allies in Northern Ireland – the Royal Ulster Constabulary police force – were killed.

In the space of one year – 1972, at the height of ‘the Troubles’ – the IRA killed more than twice the number of British military and police personnel as Iraqis have killed over three years. The IRA killed 103 British Army personnel, as well as 43 of Britain’s local allied forces in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment. That makes a total of 146 military or police personnel killed by enemy action in one year in Northern Ireland compared with 54 killed by enemy action in Iraq in more than three years.

And yet, most British ministers and much of the media refused even to call the conflict in Northern Ireland a war. Certainly there were few demands among opposition politicians and journalists for the troops to be withdrawn from Northern Ireland, and military families did not petition or visit Downing Street demanding that the engagement in Northern Ireland be brought to an end.

This shows that the impact of casualty figures on the public consciousness is shaped more by moral and political factors than by the real facts and figures of war. So a higher number of fatalities in Northern Ireland in 1972 had a less demoralising effect on military families and the British public than has a relatively small number of deaths in Iraq over a period of three years. The truth seems to be that, for British soldiers, Iraq today, rather than being a peculiarly deadly war, is like a less dangerous version of Northern Ireland.

American casualties and British casualties

Finally, the number of British deaths in Iraq remains overshadowed by the number of American deaths. Where 109 Britons have died, 2,426 Americans have died.

Over the past three years, there have been two separate months in which more Americans have died than Britons have died in more than three years.

In April 2004, 135 Americans died.

In November 2004, 137 Americans died.


It seems that the fewer British casualties there are in Iraq, the louder that bereaved families and various journalists argue against the war on the basis that it poses a deadly danger to Our Boys. The more the British death toll falls, the more that each individual British death seems to become the subject of handwringing and expressions of doubt and frustration.

Every death in Iraq is of course a tragedy. But this is clearly about more than the body count. Rather, it reflects a widespread loss of belief in the British venture in Iraq and uncertainty about what the war was for. In past wars, bereaved families took comfort in the belief that their son or daughter died for some greater cause – traditional notions of honour, patriotism and duty would have given their loved one’s death on the battlefield some meaning. Now, families have few ways to make sense of deaths in Iraq. The casus belli that their sons and daughters gave their lives for turned out to be false, and even the authors of the war in the Bush administration and the Blair government seem embarrassed by the Iraqi debacle, wishing it would go away. In such circumstances, the deaths of loved ones must appear as meaningless as if they had died in a car accident (and many actually did) or in a brawl outside a pub.

Another reason why British deaths have become a bigger issue even as there has been relatively fewer of them is that sections of the anti-war movement and anti-war commentators have cynically politicised these deaths. Anti-war activists have pushed military families to the forefront of their campaigns while commentators cite every death as an argument against the war. This is an anti-war position that substitutes emotional blackmail for convincing political arguments. Instead of challenging the war on principled political grounds too many are effectively marching the dead, and the families of the dead, to do their dirty work for them.

There are many good arguments against the war in Iraq. But using British deaths as the clinching argument can only intensify families’ grief – and contribute to the exaggerated view of how deadly and dangerous Iraq is for the Britons stationed there.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

For the most thorough list of British casualties in Iraq, see the regularly updated article British military casualties in Iraq, BBC News, 8 May 2006.

For a month-by-month breakdown of both American casualties and British casualties, see Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.

The number of British military casualties in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1997 is taken from The Military in Northern Ireland: Fact Sheet, published by the Ministry of Defence in February 2005 [pdf format]

The number of British military personnel killed by the Irish Republican Army in 1972 is taken from Annual Deaths in Northern Ireland by Status of Person Killed, August 1969 to December 1995, published on the University of Ulster’s CAIN website.

The number of British casualties in the Falklands War is taken from The Official History of the Falklands Campaign: The 1982 Falklands War and its Aftermath, by Lawrence Freedman, Cabinet Office Series of Official Histories, 2005.

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Topics Politics


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