Origins and Definitions of Civil Defence

  • Lawrence J. Vale


While the term ‘civil defence’ seems to be a twentieth-century coinage, its origins can be traced back to the beginning of urban history. A large part of the original conception of the city is based upon the joint provision of physical shelter and political protection for the citizens who dwelt within the city walls. It was largely through providing protection against the potential assaults of enemies that the rulers of the city gained their legitimacy. For centuries, according to the urban historian Lewis Mumford:

The wall… served as both a military device and an agent of effective command over the urban population. Aesthetically it made a clean break between city and countryside; while socially it emphasised the difference between the insider and outsider, between the open field, subject to the depredations of wild animals, nomadic robbers, invading armies, and the fully enclosed city, where one could work and sleep with a sense of utter security, even in times of military peril. With a sufficient supply of water within, and a sufficient amount of stored grain in bins and granaries, that security would seem absolute.1

Until the fourteenth-century invention of gunpowder, the walled city with its moat could provide a very effective form of defence for the civilian population within.2


Nuclear Weapon Civilian Population Civil Defence City Wall Passive Defence 
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  1. 1.
    Lewis Mumford, The City in History (London: Secker & Warburg, 1961), p. 82.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Bernard and Fawn M. Brodie, From Crossbow to H-Bomb (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1973), p. 31.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, translated by Thomas Hobbes as The Citizen: Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society (1651), in Bernard Gert (ed.), Man and Citizen (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1978), part XIII, section 2, p. 258.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    Reprinted in full in Adam Roberts and Richard Guelff (eds), Documents on the Laws of War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    Ibid., p. 423. A detailed analysis of the Geneva Protocol provisions concludes that this list was ‘considered to be “exhaustive” rather than “illustrative”‘. (Michael Bothe, Karl Josef Partsch and Waldemar A. Solf, New Rules for Victims of Armed Conflicts (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1982), p. 394. See alsoGoogle Scholar
  6. Bosko Jakovljevic, The New International Status of Civil Defence (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1982).Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    See, for example, Adam Roberts (ed.), The Strategy of Civilian Defence (London: Faber & Faber, 1967).Google Scholar

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© Lawrence J. Vale 1987

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  • Lawrence J. Vale

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