100 Years ago this month conscription was introduced for the very first time. Winston Churchill was an early advocate of introducing a form of conscription in 1914 but it wasn’t until January 1916 that the British government introduced the first of a series of Military Service Acts which set out call-up regulations.
The introduction of the bill comprised a tacit acceptance on the part of the government that the previous approach to military service – the voluntary registration Derby Scheme – had failed to generate sufficient new recruits to stem the flow of losses on the various British battlefronts around the world.
In the face of opposition from such groups as the No-Conscription Fellowship – which actively encouraged men of service age to reject military service – the Act of January 1916 specified that men from the ages of 18 to 41 were liable to be called-up for service unless they were married (or widowed with children), or else served in one of a number of reserved professions (usually industrial but which also included clergymen).
Within four months a revised version of the Act was passed; this enabled the War Office in London to extend the service of time-expired servicemen and brought within the terms of the Act all men – regardless of marital status – from the ages of 18 to 41. The government also gained the right to re-examine men previously declared medically unfit for service.
Between August 1914 and the introduction of the first Military Service Act as many as three million men volunteered for military service. From January 1916 until the close of the war a further 2.3 million men were formally conscripted into service.
Men who could demonstrate genuine conscientious objection to wartime participation – COs as they were termed – could feasibly escape front-line service, although most were expected to serve in non-combatant positions (which included such highly dangerous posts as front-line stretcher bearers).
Men who could not satisfactorily demonstrate a conscientious objection, and who persisted in their refusal to serve (the ‘absolutists’), suffered financial penalties, with many men also sent to prison