When war broke out, the British army was professional but small. The government desperately needed a lot more troops, and they turned their heads straight to recruitment. Britain was very different to its allies in recruitment; they started the war recruiting volunteers. The Government believed that as tradition, they should not force any men into conflict; they had never done, and believed they never would. Volunteering was a British thing to do; using posters, and leaflets, they thought would get enough soldiers to volunteer.
The Government assumed that many soldiers would come forward as patriots and out of honour, for generations men’s predecessors had fought in civil war, Lord Kitchener and the PM Asquith supposed men had to maintain the loyalty. Those who wanted to join the army, joined out of excitement, the thrill of killing, and a break from normal life. They thought that the war was going to be a short, easy war which they would not be a major part of, as they had been reassured that the Naval power would wipe out supplies of food, and arms.
These troops would have been highly motivated and ready for whatever was to come at them (or so they thought). Propaganda was a factor in men volunteering; a number of the male citizens were genuinely persuaded by the propaganda and believed what it told them. The Government realised that all men who volunteered were going to train harder, and in the long term where going to be superior soldiers, even if there was a smaller number of them. Women, older men (who had fought in civil wars before them) pressured young men who had not enlisted, also their friends, and relatives were joining.
In theatres, actresses interrupted performances to call men up onto the stage and sign up. Those men who were watching the play felt embarrassed, also as if everyone was watching them and urging them to sign up. The Government encouraged this in homes, and although it was an illegitimate way of getting men to join, it was very useful, and many of those who were put under such pressure, crumbled and enlisted. The figures of unemployed men in Britain were rising, and the amount of jobs for these men was decreasing, as they didn’t have the necessary skills to acquire a job that paid good money.
Prime Minister Asquith seized upon this opportunity to give these unemployed a ‘future’ in the army. The unemployed had to accept the opportunity, as it paid good money, it was an exciting experience and that they simply they had no where else to go. The men were happy to receive this break away from their dirty, shabby lifestyle. Asquith, and Kitchener exaggerated this prospect, and the unemployed believed that this was easy money, and a gateway to a new life. Men who volunteered into the army where grouped in accordance of what area they came from.
Theoretically this was a good idea, but in practice demonstrated a fatal blunder. ‘Pals Battalions’ as these neighbouring units were named, were awfully effective in making each soldier feel at home, and able to settle in to army life. At the front though it was a different story, as each Pals Battalion went ‘over the top’ it was usually on the first day of a major battle, which resulted in 70% or more of their men killed or seriously wounded. Local areas in England wit a small population lost many of its younger men in a short space of time.
The rest of the male population who did not volunteer chose not to for various reasons. Some men decided not to enlist on occupational grounds. Men who worked in vital industries such as mining felt it was there duty to stay home and continue their essential job. However, this was not the only reason on work-related grounds that people did not volunteer. Some men did not want to fight because they had a well paid job and good career prospects, whilst others left the rest of the population to volunteer because they thought that the war would not last long.
They assumed that if they joined the army they would die, they were scared of dying and losing everything that they had worked for. This fear of dying was made a great deal worse when rumours of the conditions on the front line filtered through to the public. They were told of the huge numbers of deaths and casualties that the British were taking. Other chose not to volunteer on the moral or religious grounds. The Quakers did not volunteer because they did not believe the war was the answer.
Many other men refused to ‘play God’, ad take away another mans life. Some men refused to volunteer because they had people at home depending on them, and they were the main breadwinner of the family, for example children and wives or elderly relatives. The Government thought that the war would be over by Christmas, and this small army would do fine, because the Navy would be the major battle point in the war, where the ships would create blockages, and starve them to surrender.
Conscription being introduced from 1914 would have caused pandemonium in Britain, for the fact that the public would have realised that this war was going to be a long and drawn out war. Asquith did not want to cause any panic, and wanted to carry out ‘business as usual’, one of his idea’s to keep Britain an active and calm country to live in still, although the war was only overseas, but as many exports and imports happened overseas, and where transported into foreign countries, ‘business as usual’ could not happen.
Also the government didn’t introduce compulsory military service because they trusted the public to volunteer, as it was a change, it was supposedly ‘exciting’, and the thought of becoming a hero was a chance to be loved by your friends, but most importantly, the whole country. Lord Kitchener and Asquith were spot on; by the end of August in 1914 300,000 more soldiers had enlisted. In September of 1914, 462,901 out of 600,000 volunteers stepped up to support the war efforts. The aim for the end of December was an army of 4 million (which even for the ‘Supreme British’, I believe was a long shot).
Conscription would have faced a battering by civil rights activists if introduced in 1914, as conscription was anti-liberal, and a breach of civil rights and individual freedom. In hindsight, with all the protesters, volunteering was an easier way of recruiting without hassle. Another aggravation of conscription was the cost of it. It was considered that conscription would be a waste of needed money and resources. All of the eligible men must be registered in a system, not all men would turn up to register, resulting in wasted time, which could be used to produce posters to round up troops for volunteering.
However by 1915 not enough soldiers were being recruited, and drastic measures hadto be taken to gather enough soldiers to compete with the large German army. In 1916 there was a change in Government. Lloyd George became the new Prime Minister, he was determined to win this war, and his practical mind led to the introduction of conscription. The Government primarily thought that they would recruit enough soldiers without moving to conscription, but they were very wrong. The German land forces were huge, and the previous Prime Minister (Asquith) believed this war would be won by Britain’s naval supremacy.
Again, they were wrong, the trenches was where the major fighting was taking place, thousands of deaths happened each day at the front. As the war dragged on and on, fewer and fewer amounts of men were enlisting to fight, this was mainly due to leaks from the front of the poor conditions, and high amount of deaths were published by the media. As the numbers of deaths on the front grew, the Government started to ban the lists of deaths. This was due to ‘over the top’ tactics’ as men were old to walk in lines, shooting to gain breach the trenches of the German’s.
As the deaths increased men became more wary of what was really happening in the war, and some men began to see through the lies of propaganda. But deaths were not the only reason why men weren’t signing up; the wages at home were increasing while unemployment was decreasing, resulting in men taking the chance of staying at home rather than fighting for the army, which at that time had very low pay. The army was made up of lots of previously unemployed men, but as many of those had already enlisted, there was a shortage of men that wanted to sign up.
As volunteers piled through in the early months of the war, the Government believed the army was going to have enough men to win this war, on foot and on sea. But as the number of volunteers each month declined, women of husbands who had volunteered, and the general public (except most younger men) began to complain that it was unfair that some men had volunteered and others had not. There had to be a fairer system, those who had not volunteered were getting away lightly. The only way to improve this system was to introduce conscription.
Not only were there thousands of deaths occurring on the front every day, but men did not receive the right, or enough ammunition to compete with the constant bombardment of shells, and the onslaught of machine gun bullets ripping through the British defence, it s men. This was called the Shell Scandal. The reason for the shortage of ammunition was due to the amount of workers that had joined up to the army from indispensable war industries. Factories that made shells, bullets, and armour where literally deserted.
The pay was substantially higher in the army, it was an exciting prospect and a change for the men that work the same shift, producing the same goods all day. The press began campaigning to introduce conscription, because they knew the real deaths that were taking place at the front, given that the government banned them from publishing the amount of deceased. Bearing in mind that the newspapers had a major influence over the public then, (and still do now) it started to persuade (using propaganda) the public that conscription was acceptable, and the right way forward.
The general public began to succumb to the idea, and by the end of the campaigning the national Service league (NSL) demanded the change from the new government. Lloyd George, as a practical man realised that this was the only way to win the war. Conscription commenced in January 1916, but a long time before that there was talk on how the government would assemble all of the eligible men for active military service, and the restrictions they would put on those that could be exempt from military service.
They started the process by creating a National Register, which collected together every citizens details from the age of 15 to 65 e. g. name, age, marital status, occupation and skills. All of the data was collected together. It allowed the government to calculate how many men were of military age, and those who would be in the future, but also those who were in reserved occupations, which means those jobs that are essential to the war effort e. g. industry and agriculture.
The National register not only provided the government with information, but also opened the door for new ideas. One of these ideas was the Derby Recruiting Scheme. It was named after Lord Derby the Director of Recruiting, as he was the one who manipulated the information from the National Register to his advantage. He asked all British men aged between 18 and 41 if they would be disposed to serve in the army. Although you may have thought like the propaganda posters, the personal, frontal approach would have worked, it didn’t.
The results were disappointing. Firstly, those who were not in reserved occupation did not like the idea of fighting in the war, those would did want to fight were summoned with two weeks notice and secondly, a plus can be drawn from this, this was the first time an actual system had been put in place for conscription, so things could only get better. After the poor response from all those who were not exempt from the war, there was only one way to get men to fight, that was to force them.
Four months after The Derby Recruiting scheme the conscription came in form of the Military Service Act, which required all unmarried men, and widowers without children or dependents e. g. sick mother, between the age of 18 and 41 to join the army. Unmarried men in reserved occupations were exempt from duty, as well as those who were breadwinners or sole supporters in their household, those who had medical disabilities and finally conscientious objectors. But as the National Register was unreliable, needed soldiers were not raced. The change from total volunteering to conscription happened in a short space of time, only four months.
Compulsion did not just stop at exempting men, it became universal, on May 3rd 1916 all men despite any circumstances between 18 and 41 were forced into battle. Universal Conscription was now introduced and there was no going back. As soldiers died and needed soldiers were untraceable due to poor organisation, the government looked overseas to all British born people, and for Allied citizens living over here to fight for their natural country. This was another Military Service Act to boost friendship with their Allies. It gave each side more men to fight but mustn’t have gone down well with those who tried to flee the country.
In two years the British public had gone from hating the idea of conscription to deeming it as acceptable. The newspaper’s had much to do with bringing the country round to believing the Government, but the Government wanted everyone involved. In November 1917, the Ministry of National Service was formed; the power given to them was unbelievable. They could cancel all exemptions on occupational grounds; almost playing God with people’s lives, as they well knew that 70% of these men would die or become seriously injured, before the war had ended.
The government began to keep on rising the age limits, and the limits on who should fight, they were becoming desperate; the age limit was raised to 50, and if deaths were on high occurrence then it would be a staggering 56! Even Ireland was made to abide by the same rules of compulsion that was already in place in England. The British Army wanted to out number the Germans, but in the end they had a lot of soldiers at the front unwilling to fight, even those who had volunteered were becoming reluctant to fight.
By the end of the war the British realised that they no longer needed so many men, as they were slowing crushing Germany, and the Minimum age of exemption was 23. Men under that age were considered too weak. Slowly but surely the Government extended the restrictions on compulsion. If there hadn’t been a change in government then I believe compulsion would have been introduced at a much later stage, because Asquith was against the idea of forcing men to fight; it was a breach of civil rights.