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Dead Man’s Victory



“War is hell,” said the American general William Sherman, who fought for the Union in the American Civil War. He was right. Wars kill both directly and indirectly. Some die on the battlefield of their wounds, some of starvation or disease, when people flee for sanctuary and food supplies are disrupted.

And war has the power to reach out from the distant past and intrude into the present day. The British Isles have been lucky and experienced no major battles on their soil for centuries, but from time to time a mass grave will be discovered containing the bones of soldiers who died in battle, whether it was in the English Civil War or during Roman times. The bones will often display horrific wounds from swords, spears and arrows. Sometimes there will be severed heads or limbs in the grave.

But as the technology of war advanced, so did the severity of wounds. A cannon-ball can tear bodies to fragments and explosives can leave nothing at all for burial. Actual fighting can sometimes be the easier part of a soldier’s job. The noise and fury of combat leaves no time for thought and reflection. It’s afterwards that the trauma can begin. And one of the most harrowing and disturbing jobs for a soldier can be collecting bodies for burial after combat is over.

Sometimes the bodies will be those of civilians. Modern war can affect anyone, because all regions of a country are vulnerable to air attacks or long-range missiles and artillery. Sometimes one or both sides in a war will employ terrorism, deliberately targeting civilians with bombs or gun-attacks. Dealing with the aftermath of an aerial bombing or terrorist attack can inflict lasting psychological harm on even the toughest and best-trained soldiers.

As Sherman said: War is hell. It may sometimes be impossible to avoid going to war, but all good generals want to win as quickly as possible and with as little bloodshed as possible. That’s why spying and military intelligence are so important. Knowing the enemy’s plans enables one to attack or defend with maximum efficiency and chance of success. But sometimes the key to victory is not knowledge but deception. If you can fool the enemy about your plans, you gain a big and often decisive advantage.

One of the cleverest – and most gruesome – acts of deception was carried out by the Allies during the Second World War. In Operation Mincemeat, they took the body of an unknown civilian, dressed it in military uniform and chained a briefcase with apparently secret documents to its wrist. Then they dropped the corpse into the sea and allowed it to float ashore on a Spanish beach. They wanted the Spanish government to think that it was the drowned body of a high-ranking British courier who had crashed at sea en route to a military conference.

If the plan worked, the Spanish, who were sympathetic to the German side during the war, would give copies of the secret documents to German intelligence. The documents seemed to contain details of an upcoming Allied invasion of Greece, but the Allies were really planning to invade Sicily. If the Germans were fooled by the plot, they would strengthen their defences at the wrong point and give the real invasion a much greater chance of success.

That is exactly what happened. Operation Mincemeat fooled the German military completely. By his death, the unknown civilian whose corpse was used in the deception helped shorten the war and save countless other lives.

National Federation of Funeral Directors