Recruitment to the British Army during the First World War
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At the beginning of 1914 the British Army had a reported a strength of 710,000 men including reserves, of which around 80,000 were regular troops ready for war. By the end of World War I almost 1 in 4 of the total male population of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had joined up, over five million men. Of these men, 2.67 million joined as Volunteers and 2.77 million as conscripts (although some volunteered after conscription was introduced and would most likely have been conscripted anyway). Monthly recruiting rates for the army varied dramatically.
For a century, British governmental policy and public opinion was against conscription for foreign wars. At the start of World War I, the British Army consisted of six divisions and one cavalry division in the United Kingdom, and four divisions overseas. 14 Territorial Army divisions also existed, and 300,000 in the Reserve Army. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, considered the Territorial Army untrained and useless. He believed that the regular army must not be wasted in immediate battle, but instead used to help train a new army with 70 divisions—the size of the French and German armies—that he foresaw would be needed to fight a war lasting many years.
Volunteer Army, 1914-15
The traditional image of recruitment in 1914 is of an initial wave of enthusiasm and volunteering greeting the outbreak of war. At the beginning of August 1914, Parliament issued a call for an extra 100,000 soldiers. Recruitment in the first few weeks of war was high, but the real 'recruiting boom' began in the last week of August, when news of the British retreat following the Battle of Mons reached Britain. Recruiting peaked in the first week of September.
By the end of September, over 750,000 men had enlisted; by January 1915, a million. The reasons for their enlistment cannot be pinned down to a single factor; enthusiasm and a war spirit certainly drove some, while for others unemployment prompted enlistment. Some employers forced men to join up, while occasionally Poor Law Guardians would also refuse to pay support for fit military-aged men. The timing of the recruiting boom in the wake of the news from Mons, though, suggests that men joined knowing that the war was dangerous and indeed many joined precisely because it seemed to be a threat to their home, district and country.
One early peculiarity was the formation of "Pals battalions": groups of men from the same factory, football team, bank or similar, joining and fighting together. The idea was first suggested at a public meeting by Lord Derby. Within three days, he oversaw enough volunteers sufficient for three battalions. Lord Kitchener gave official approval for the measure almost instantly and the response was impressive. Manchester raised fifteen specific 'Pals' battalions; one of the smallest was Accrington, in Lancashire, which raised one. The drawback of 'Pals' battalions was that a whole town could lose its military-aged menfolk in a single day.
The government demand for men continued unabated, and after the first call in August for 500,000 men; a further 3.5 million were called-for before the year ended. The pre-war calculations had supposed that the British Expeditionary Force would lose around 40% of its manpower in the first six months of fighting. Kitchener's predictions of three years fighting and a million men needed was regarded as incredible. The seven divisions of the BEF, totalling 85,000 men, had been landed in France at the outbreak of war; casualties in the first three months totalled almost 90,000. By mid-1915, this total had risen to around 375,000 even before the autumn offensives and the rate of recruitment was falling off, for a number of reasons.
In 1915 the total available number of men of military age was 5.5 million, with around 500,000 more reaching the age each year. By late September, 2.25 million men had been enlisted and 1.5 million were in reserved occupations. Of the rest, the recruiters had uncovered a dismaying fact — almost two in every five volunteers were entirely unsuitable for military service on the grounds of health. When volunteer numbers fell to around 80,000 a month after the Dardanelles Expedition, the government felt forced to intervene, although they initially avoided conscription. A National Registration Act in 1915 created a register that revealed the number of men still available and they were targeted in a number of ways. The skills of advertising were brought to bear with posters, public meetings, tales of German atrocities, and the threat of shame. The 'Derby Scheme' used door-to-door visits to gather men to 'attest' to serve if needed, with a promise that bachelors would be called up before married men.
Many public institutions of all sorts mobilized to help recruit for the war. The women's suffrage movement was sharply divided, the slight majority becoming very enthusiastic patriots and asking their members to give white feathers (the sign of the coward) in the streets to men who appeared to be of military age to shame them into service. After assaults became prevalent the Silver War Badge was issued to men who were not eligible or discharged.
The popular music hall artistes of the time worked enthusiastically for recruitment. Harry Lauder toured the music halls, recruiting young soldiers on stage in front of the audience, often offering 'ten pounds for the first recruit tonight'. Marie Lloyd sang a recruiting song I didn't like you much before you joined the army, John, but I do like you, cockie, now you've got yer khaki on (1914). Vesta Tilley sang The Army of Today's alright.
With insufficient numbers of bachelors attesting for the Derby Scheme to be workable, and the French Army in dire need of relief, a Military Service Bill was introduced in January 1916, providing for the conscription of single men aged 18–41; in May conscription was extended to married men. Calculating for the whole of the war, conscripts made up a majority of British serving soldiers. The government pledged not to send teenagers to serve in the front line. Ireland, (which was part of the United Kingdom at the time), was excluded from the scheme (later proposals to introduce conscription in Ireland led to widespread support for Sinn Féin and independence). Conscription, however, had little impact on enlistment. The number continued to decline towards 40,000 a month, as essential men were needed for war work and the poor health of many others remained, even as the requirements were progressively reduced. From 1.28 million enlisting in 1915, this had fallen to 1.19 million for 1916 and fell to around 820,000 for 1917. The healthy manpower was simply not there — in 1917–18 only 36% of men examined were suitable for full military duties, 40% were either totally unfit or were classified as unable to undergo physical exertion. In 1918, the British Army was actually smaller than in 1917 (3.84 million to 3.9 million) and almost half the infantry was nineteen or younger.
Men who were due to be called up for military service were able to appeal against their conscription; they or their employers could appeal to a local Military Service Tribunal in their town or district. These appeals could be made on the grounds of work of national importance, business or domestic hardship, medical unfitness, and conscientious objection. A very large number of men appealed: by the end of June 1916, 748,587 men had appealed to tribunals. Over the same period around 770,000 men joined the army. Most men were given some kind of exemption, usually temporary (between a few weeks and six months) or conditional on their situation at work or home remaining serious enough to warrant their retention at home. In October 1.12 million men nationally held tribunal exemption or had cases pending, by May 1917 this had fallen to 780,000 exempt and 110,000 pending. At this point there were also 1.8 million men with exemptions granted by the government (for example, those working in war industries); combined these exemptions covered more men than were serving overseas with the British Army. Some men gained exemption on the condition that they joined the Volunteer Training Corps for part-time training and home defence duties; by February 1918, 101,000 men had been directed to the Corps by the tribunals.
Although it has been the focus of the tribunals' image since the war, only around 2% of those appealing were Conscientious Objectors. Around 7,000 men were granted non-combatant duties, while a further 3,000 ended up in special work camps. 6,000 were imprisoned. Some forty-two were sent to France to potentially face the threat of a firing squad. This threat was more real to thirty five who were formally sentenced to death, but immediately reprieved, with ten years penal servitude substituted.
- Tuchman, Barbara (1962). The Guns of August. New York: Random House. pp. 231–233.
- Peter Simkins, Kitchener's Army: The Raising of the New Armies 1914-1916 (Manchester, Manchester University Press: 1988
- Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2007)
- J.E. Edmonds, Military Operations: France and Belgium: 1916, vol. i (London: 1932), p152.
- The National Archives, CAB 17/158, Derby scheme: Statement of the War Committee, 24/10/1916
- Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War. 1914-1920 (London: 1922).
- I. F. Ian Frederick William Beckett (1985). A Nation in Arms: A Social Study of the British Army in the First World War. Manchester University Press. p. 31. ISBN 978-0-7190-1737-7.