Military conscription not accepted willingly by all

By mid-1915 it was becoming increasingly clear that the army could not be sustained by the flow of volunteer recruits into Kitchener’s New Armies.

The losses at the second battle of Ypres in April 1915 signalled the end of any rose-tinted view of the war and an early end to the fighting.

In mid-year the National Registration Act was imposed to secure for the government at least an idea of the disposition of the population by age and occupation in order that proper planning of the military munitions economy might be possible.

Lord Derby’s scheme to encourage men to present themselves for attestation into the army and then await the call to report for training and service was still insufficient to meet the forecast needs of the army.

So in January 1916 a Military Service Act was passed empowering the government to forcibly recruit single men; and in May 1916 married men were also included in forcible conscription.

The lack of a large standing army and the amassing of reserves from forced military conscription of all young men, common on the continent, meant Britain, with its tiny regular army could not look to any significant numbers of men with prior military experience when it became necessary to vastly expand its land forces.

An army, which in 1914 was little more than a colonial gendarmerie, could only muster around 700,000 men including territorials and ex-regulars serving out a period on the reserves after full-time service.

Calls for ‘national service’ had been frequent in the years before the war but always resisted as being alien to an island nation which saw its defence firmly based on maritime power.

So the forced introduction of military conscription without choice was not met with universal agreement.

Small businesses saw their workforce at risk of call-up with no prospect of finding replacements.

To counter objections to this blanket system, all men had been placed into certain categories and those in trades vital to the war effort were exempt from service as ‘starred men’, so called from the star endorsed on their records with the military tribunals.

However, the numbers of men who appealed to the military service tribunals for exemption from call-up were significant, and from the outset the local tribunals were kept busy hearing appeals from those who, either on grounds of conscience or the supposed vital nature of their work, were seeking deferral or total exemption from military service.

The Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project is now examining the press reports of the tribunals which were busy from the outset of conscription. In the coming weeks we will look at the many and varied arguments put forward by those keen to avoid service in the army.

The project’s new exhibition featuring the story of the Tyneside Irish Brigade is now installed at The Low Lights Tavern in Brewhouse Bank, Fish Quay, North Shields, and can be viewed during normal hours at the pub.

It tells the story of the local men of Irish extraction and others who served in the brigade, which saw some of the hardest fighting at the Somme on July 1, 1916.

The project will be present at the Sainsbury’s School Games Tyne and Wear finals at the Parks Leisure Centre on Wednesday, March 25, from 11.30am to 3pm.

Pupils from across the area will be competing to go forward to the national finals.

There will be an opportunity to meet project members and bring along any items of interest that you might wish to have identified.

The North East War Memorials project will also be in attendance and can help with information about family members mentioned on memorials across the region.

Anyone with information about anyone who was killed or died as a result of the war is asked to contact the project.

The project workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone interested to learn more about the project or how to get involved.

The address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.