A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Britain introduces conscription when the appeal to patriotic sentiment was no longer enough

As frontline losses grew, it became clear that only forced recruitment would keep the war effort going


By 1916, the British public were accustomed to seeing posters everywhere exhorting them to come to the aid of the war effort, but the slogan that suddenly appeared on notice boards outside public buildings, and even at the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, will have mystified those who had not kept up with the news. It said: “Single Men! Will You March Too or Wait Till March 2?”

The posters came down on 2 March 1916, and men who had been prevaricating over whether to volunteer to fight suddenly found that the decision had been made for them. Conscription had arrived across Great Britain, for the first time in history.

Henry Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, had not wanted this. Compulsion ran against the instincts of the Liberal Party, but he had given in to pressure from the War Secretary, Lord Kitchener, from leading Conservatives such as Lord Curzon and, most significantly, from David Lloyd George, the newly appointed Minister for Munitions.


For 18 months, the government had relied on an intensive recruitment campaign to summon up enough volunteers to serve the war machine. The results were impressive: more than a million men had signed up, but that was not enough, given the fearful casualty figures. The Battle of Loos, in September and October, had cost 50,000 men. The aborted Gallipoli campaign had cost the UK more than 120,000 killed, wounded or captured. The army wanted a million more men – volunteers where possible, conscripts where necessary.

The government tried a compromise called the Derby Scheme, which called upon all men aged between 19 and 41 who were physically fit for service to put their names forward, under a promise that they would not be conscripted unless absolutely necessary and that, if they were, married men would not be called up until the supply of unmarried young men had been exhausted.

The response was again remarkable, considering what the men were being asked to volunteer for. About three million men let the authorities know that they were available, and 275,000 signed up; but Lord Derby’s staff did the sums and deduced that there were 651,000 men who were keeping their heads down, hoping the recruitment would pass them by.

This presented the Prime Minister with a cruel dilemma. He did not want to be at the head of a government that sent call-up papers to married men with young families, while men with no dependants escaped the call-up by avoiding contact with the authorities. Reluctantly, he introduced the Military Service Act, which made criminals of those unmarried men who were evading war service. On 2 March 1916, every unmarried man in Great Britain between the ages of 19 and 41 woke to a world in which he was deemed to have volunteered, and – provided he was physically fit, was not a conscientious objector, and did not belong to certain exempted professions, such as the clergy, or workers in armaments factories – was liable to be called up at any time. The call-up was extended to married men, and 18-year-olds, on 25 May. The Act went through Parliament over the objections of one cabinet minister, Sir John Simon, who resigned, and about 40 Liberal and Labour MPs, including Ramsay Macdonald and Philip Snowden, who voted against.

The military had got their way, but at a cost. One of the immediate effects of conscription was to set off the biggest protest demonstration the country had seen since the outbreak of war. Thousands marched from London’s East End to Trafalgar Square, where the size of the crowd has been variously estimated at 20,000 and 200,000. There they listened to speeches from Sylvia Pankhurst, who had parted company politically from her more conservative mother and sisters, and from a Glasgow councillor who reported that engineers had come out on strike along the Clyde.

The event culminated in violence, as a group of soldiers and sailors – Australians, according to one report – charged the crowd, ripped their banners and threw red and yellow dye in their faces. Some of the assailants were arrested, but Bow Street magistrates let them off with nominal fines and a warning to “leave these idiots alone in future”.

As a Liberal, Henry Asquith respected genuine conscientious objectors, but his tolerant view was not shared by everyone. His announcement in the Commons that those with genuine religious or political objections would not be compelled to fight was answered by shouts of protest.

Hostility to the “conchies” increased as tribunals were choked up with 748,587 individual cases of men claiming to be exempt, in addition to the 1,433,827 who already qualified because of their occupations or their state of heath. The police had their work cut out hunting another 93,000 men who simply failed to turn up when summoned. Just 43,000 conscripts reported for duty on the right day, a far cry from the million men the army claimed to need.

Soon, Parliament was hearing from Labour MPs about the treatment meted out to conscientious objectors. There was D S Parkes, who was put through a mock execution. A young Quaker teacher, Rendel Wyatt, was locked in a dark cell in irons in a military prison in Harwich and fed on bread and water. Norman Gaudie was taken to Richmond Castle, stripped naked and forced to wear khaki. Oscar Ricketts, who had volunteered to serve in any capacity that did not offend his religious beliefs, was paraded in handcuffs through the streets of Felixstowe and locked away on a diet of biscuits and water.

When these cases were brought up, Asquith and his minister professed to know nothing about them. Thousands of families were mourning their dead or crippled sons. Some rough treatment of a few stubborn Quakers and the like was not going to set public opinion alight. Exasperated by the barrage of complaints, the War Office minister, Harold Tennant, told MPs: “I am asking the House not to believe all this tittle-tattle.”

Tomorrow: Brighton’s  limbless hospital’

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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