The Military Conscription Acts of January and February, 1916 were a response to the falling numbers of voluntary recruits.
But it was also part of the government’s perceived need to ‘manage’ the available workforce to meet the needs of the munitions industry upon which the successful prosecution of the war clearly depended.
Initially only single men would be subject to compulsory enlistment into the army, and following the registration of the entire male and female population under the National Registration Act of 1915, details of all eligible men had been categorised by age and occupation.
Married men would be brought within the scheme in May 1916 when a further act of parliament made all men aged 18 to 42 eligible for call-up, with a number of categories for exemption and an appeals process for those who felt they should be given either a deferral or permanent exclusion from liability to serve in the armed forces.
It is commonly thought that vast numbers tried to avoid service on grounds of genuine or feigned reasons of conscience.
In reality only 16,000 men would refuse to take any part in activity directly or indirectly supportive of the nation’s military effort.
These were principally those with political views which saw the war in terms of class distinctions and holding the war to be against the common interests of the working classes across the continent.
More commonly the refusal to serve was based upon religious beliefs, particularly amongst the Society of Friends (Quakers) and some of the smaller non-conformist groups.
Even amongst these latter groups many would agree to carry out humanitarian work out at the front in medical and welfare services.
The Quakers organised the Friends Ambulance Unit, a number of whose serving members made the ultimate sacrifice themselves in seeking to help the injured at the front in combat situations.
However, the majority of those who did not wish to be enlisted cited economic and personal circumstances which they argued prevented their joining the army or that they were engaged in work supportive of the war effort.
In addition many appeals were motivated by employers who claimed that earlier voluntary enlistment or conscription of their workforce posed a threat to the continuance of their particular business.
Local tribunals were established to hear appeals against conscription and in many cases it was the man’s employer who appeared to argue the necessity to exempt him from conscription, either temporarily or totally.
The appeal tribunals were made up of local ‘worthies’ in the district who would be expected to consider and rule on each appeal.
The military were represented by an officer keen to see the number of successful appeals kept to a minimum.
The early results of the project’s research into local appeals, from the first reports in late March to 1916 through to June that year, show more than 400 appeals.
Over the coming weeks the project will report on the reasons for and success or failure of these appeals as it makes an interesting aspect of the war as the duration of the conflict came to be viewed as likely to be prolonged and extremely costly in terms of life and limb.
Throughout the war, 2.4 million men volunteered to serve but 2.6 million would be conscripted.
The conscripts have been almost totally ignored in the history of the war yet they became the bulk of the available fighting men as the war progressed.
The project’s information centre in Front Street, Tynemouth, (adjacent to the library) will re-open over the Easter and school holidays and at weekends, thereafter for the spring and summer.
A number of small exhibitions of the project’s work and publications can be viewed and purchased.
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.
The address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.