Recruitment to the British army during the First World War

As part of the First World War themed month here at WUHstry, I will be exploring recruitment to the British army during the First World War. The British army at the outbreak of the war numbered 700,000 whereas the German wartime army was over 3.7 million strong. To fight such a large-scale modern war Britain needed more men to stand and fight on the frontline and it was through recruitment that this was achieved. This post will explore the different methods of recruitment and ask why it appealed to so many on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

The first method of recruitment to the British army in the early months of the war was through voluntary recruitment. Many who volunteered saw it as their duty to enlist and defend the nation against the threat of invasion. This belief originated in the 19th century when the threat of invasion was present and volunteer forces were formed as home defence forces, ready to be mobilised at seconds notice. These home defence groups were primarily filled by middle-class men who were part of local groups and lived in the same counties. It was not just those in the volunteer forces that enlisted but also the general public. Between August 1914 and December 1915 over 2,400,000 men had voluntarily enlisted in the army. There were many reasons why so many men, both young and old joined the armed forces. Firstly, there was a degree of patriotic optimism that made many believe that the war would be over by Christmas and that they would be doing their duty for King and Country. Service in the army also brought new opportunities for those volunteering such regular pay, military standard living quarters and new travel experiences.

It was not just men aged between 19 and 65 that signed up to the army, indeed many under-aged boys also were recruited to the army. 250,000 young men volunteered for army service, all under the legal age of 19, this being the minimum age that a man could serve abroad. They joined for many of the same reasons that the rest of the volunteer forces did and in many cases they were allowed to do their patriotic duty. The boys would also lie about their age and recruitment officers did not always check for identification. Increasingly age checks were ignored as recruitment officers were paid based on how many men they recruited and many in British society were willing to allow the boys to fight and not stand in their way of doing their duty. The assumption was that the war would be over before any of them were to be sent into combat. It wasn’t until 1916 that the government allowed boys to come home if the parents proved that their son was under the age of 19.

However, by the beginning of 1915 the realities of war were setting in and the notion of total war was being applied to the conflict in Europe. As trench-based warfare turned the war into a conflict of attrition, the numbers of volunteers began to decline. Though the recruiting numbers were not what they were in 1914, just 100,000 recruits up till April 1915, conscription was still an idea that many, both politicians and the public did not want to see. Volunteering was still the main input into the army and continued through 1915 though with increasing calls for compulsive service as losses on the battlefield mounted up. Whilst the patriotic optimism present from the war’s outset was disappearing, peer pressure and patriotic posters and media continued to drive men to recruit. The various posters that were produced to get men to sign up both enforced their patriotic duty and made them question why they had not already volunteered.

As the war raged on, conscription increasingly began to be called for. The Derby Scheme in autumn 1915 was the last attempt to make recruitment to the armed forces voluntary. However, in July 1915 the wheels were already beginning to turn in conscription favour as the National Register revealed that 5,000,000 men aged between 15 and 65 were not in the forces, of which over 2,000,000 were single. By the end of the Derby Scheme the majority of single men had not signed up voluntarily to the armed forces making conscription inevitable. The Military Service Bill for compulsive service was passed through government on March 1916 allowing for conscription across the country. This first bill was aimed at single men aged between 18 and 41 though in May 1916 married men between the same ages were also conscripted to fight. Between March 1916 and March 1917 some 350,000 men were conscripted to the army and over 770,000 were granted exemption from conscription. Those exempted from service included those unfit for military service, the clergy, teachers and those working in heavy industry jobs. A man could also be exempt for moral reasons though they could be put in non-combat roles on the front line to deal with this. In total over 2,500,000 men had been conscripted to the army by the time of the end of the war, many never returning home.

Therefore, recruitment to the British Army for the frontline in Europe came in two stages, the voluntary period (1914-1916) and the conscription period (1916-1920). For many, military service was a new chapter in their lives though as most came to realise, war was not entirely about duty and patriotism but also death and destruction. Though conscription was brought in, both those who volunteered and those who were conscripted fought for our future and that is something that we should all be thankful for.

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