Conscription Pt. 1



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode 37, Conscription of an Empire. Last year I started doing some research into the attempts by the British government to extend conscription into Ireland in 1918. I ran into that topic while doing some research into the Easter Rising way back in 2016 and it ended up on my “look into this a bit more” list. Then, when I revisited the topic for a Patreon episode I realized that the conversation about conscription in the British empire is bigger than just Ireland. In the British Isles, including Ireland, and in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia the people prided themselves on their patriotism, volunteerism, and freedom. With so many other countries in Europe and around the world resorting to mandatory military service and large conscript armies the members of the Empire saw their lack of that institution as a huge source of pride. When the war started this meant a huge focus on volunteerism, but with the a war that was beyond the scope of anything that anybody imagined volunteerism would only take the armies of the empire so far. To put it simply, they were losing more soldiers than they were gaining in volunteers, and so eventually the math did not add up and something different had to happen. When these changes were called for by the army, and then enacted by the governments, it in some ways fundamentally changed the societies because it altered the relationship between the government and its citizens. Suddenly young male citizens had a whole new host of obligations to the state, and they sacrificed some of their freedom because of it. They did not really have much of a choice in this sacrifice, but it forced on them. In this episode we are going to look at the attempts of the British government in London to extend conscription to England, Scotland, and Wales then we will discuss the efforts of the Canadian and Australian governments to also implement conscription. In all three of these areas the path that conscription took was very different and each government had its own problems to deal with when it came time to make the decision on whether or not to push it forward. Next episode we will focus almost entirely on Ireland, where the conscription debate would have far greater effects than in any of the areas that we will discuss today. In Ireland conscription would be added as just another in the long list of grievances that would eventually lead to independence.

When the war started the British army was very small by European standards, and this was because it was a professional army, not one made up of citizen conscripts. It was entirely volunteer based, and there was no framework in place to extend it into an army based on conscription. The British government and the people of the country just assumed that the war would be business as usual, the army would call for more soldiers and there would be a large influx of volunteers that would be enough to sustain the war effort. This was not a problem in the opening months of the war, because the number of men who wanted to volunteer was simply too many. The initial rush of volunteers began on the very first morning after Britain entered the war. Over the course of the month of August 75,000 men would volunteer every week. This was far more than what the army was prepared to deal with, but they did not want to simply close down the ability of men to volunteer, out of fear that this would have lasting negative consequences. Instead of just shutting down the recruiting offices they instead decided to raise requirements. Both the minimum height and minimum chest size were raised to a point where the number of volunteers who were accepted was brought down to an acceptable level. While this did stem the tide for a few weeks, it was almost immediately reversed because after the initial rush of volunteers was over numbers dropped rapidly. After 75,000 volunteered every week in August just 1116,000 volunteers appeared in the entire month of September. In October the minimum height was lowered to below pre-war levels, and the age limits were also extended. Even with these changes, due to the number of casualties that were suffered by the BEF, and with the war looking to enter into 1915 with no end in sight, the British Army would be 300,000 men short of where it wanted to be at the end of 1914.

With numbers falling so far short the government began its official recruitment campaigns. These campaigns were full of what would become very standard propaganda fair for 20th century democracies. this included what is probably the more famous recruiting poster of all time, or at least it is when you include the very derivative Uncle Sam poster from the United States, I am of course referring to the “You Country Needs You” poster featuring Kitchener pointing at the reader. This was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to British recruiting efforts, and all of it was coordinated directly from the the national government, with the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee created to get as many men into uniform as possible. Over the course of the war the committee would oversee the creation of 50 million mailings and posters. In many ways these efforts worked, and by July 1915 volunteer numbers reached the 2 million mark since the beginning of the war, although that number includes volunteers from all over the empire. This would still not be enough though, and so around the government whispers of conscription started to be heard. At this point it was still far too early for such a drastic step to be taken, things were not yet desperate enough. However, the first step was taken, and in july parliament created the National Registration Act which, while not involving actual conscription did require all males of a certain age to register with the government.

With the recruiting efforts not meeting their numbers, Lord Derby was brought in by Kitchener to head up the recruiting office, and he had a new idea. First of all, it should be said that Derby was a conscriptionist, fully supporting the implementation of conscription which he believed to be completely necessary. He would also have, according to his private remarks, little actual faith that the program that would bear his name as the Derby Scheme would actually work, or at least work as well as the situation required. The Derby scheme worked as a form of direct peer pressure on every man of military age in Britain. Essentially ever single man who registered under the registration act was asked to attest that he would volunteer if he was directly called upon by the government. If he agreed to this attestation he would receive 2 shillings and a special armband that he could wear around that said he would eventually be called to service. There were all kinds of caveats and guarantees that went along with this program. For example the men would all have 2 weeks notice before they were called up, and every single man would be called up before any married men were. There were also exceptions for those men involved in the war industries, these men were even given their own special armbands that signified that they were contributing to the war in the way that their country needed them to. This scheme was presented to the government and was accepted, although Bonar Law and the Tories, who were all strong conscriptionists, made it clear that they only supported it with the understanding that if it failed conscription must follow. For his part, Derby was not exactly confident in the scheme, and after it was enacted in mid-October he told Asquith that he should probably keep working on a conscription bill so that it would be ready. While the official numbers were not released until November, Derby was already seeing somewhat disappointing returns just a few weeks into the Scheme, and he would write that “any idea about that recruits are coming in so well that no further exertions are necessary. That is not so. The numbers are decidedly better than they were but nothing like what I shall require to make it a success.” On November 11th Derbey wold the press that, since men were not attesting in sufficient numbers, the government might soon have to take further steps to make sure that the army was supplied with the men it needed for the war. He did not say it at the time, but it was understood that these further steps could only be conscription. At roughly the same time the end date for the scheme was extended to December 11th, at which point it would end, and it would be quite disappointing. In total 38% of single and 54% of married men refused to attest to service, which was far higher than was thought to be acceptable. It might have been possible to use those who had attested to meet the numbers in the short term, if every single attester was called up, but this ran into a sticky situation around that married versus nonmarried guarantee. In 1915 and into early 1916 there was still a lot of resistance to calling up married men for service, since the pool of unmarried men had not been totally tapped. Derby would take note of this fact in his final report on the scheme saying “I am very distinctly of opinion that in order to redeem the pledge mentioned above it will not be possible to hold married men to their attestation unless and until the services of single men have been obtained by other means, the present system having failed to bring them to the colors.”

These other means that Derby spoke of would eventually result in the first Military Service Bill, or as some would call it the Bachelor’s Bill. While the Derby Scheme had been active the government had never really stopped working on conscription, and during November Asquith had been quietly drafting a conscription bill that on December 29th would be considered by the cabinet. It would be introduced to parliament on January 5th, and when he introduced it Asquith would say “The bill that I am about to ask leave to introduce is one, I think, which can be sincerely supported by those who, either on principle or, as my case, on grounds of expediency, are opposed to what is commonly called conscription.” This would be the first of several Military Service Bills that would pass through parliament during the war, this would would go through with a vote of 403 to 105. This was the next step towards full conscription. This bill setup conscription for all unmarried men or widowed men without dependent children. All of the men who fell into these categories were ‘deemed as of August 1915 to have been duly enlisted in His Majesty’s regular forces.’ There were still many exemptions that the new recruits could seek to gain, around employment, health, or as a conscientious objector. Another exemption, and this is one I found quite interesting, is that there was an exemption added, which the government was basically forced to do by the labor union. This exemption meant workers who only exemption was due to their employment would have a 2 month window in which to find another job that was exempt if they lost employment. this was added almost solely to prevent employers from having the power to basically say ‘do what we want or get sent to the front’, which would be a huge concern work workers for the rest of the war. While the first Military Service Bill was an important step, it would also prove to once again be insufficient to meet the needs of the army. Married men were not yet eligible and unmarried men were flocking to any kind of employment that would make them exempt from service. Due to these reasons in early may a new bill was introduced, this extended conscription to all men between the ages of 18 and 41 regardless of marital status while also reducing the number of men who qualified for exemptions. This would be the first of several small and large adjustments to conscription that was focused on getting more men to the army.

While the various Military Service Bills would take care of the problem for the most part, for the rest of the war there were still other discussions that needed to happen. In 1917 the government moved from military conscription and onto a far more controversial topic, civilian conscription. The war was taxing the industrial power of Britain in ways that nobody had anticipated, and to make the economy as efficient as possible it had to be organized. This meant, at times, people doing things that they may not want to do. This was the starting point for discussions about a civil service conscription bill. Labour was strongly against such a scheme, and they were already very concerned about all of the various privileges that workers had already lost due to various war time legislation. This worker anxiety would come to a head in May 1917 when strikes would sweep through the factories. The fierceness of these strikes delayed the possible implementation of civilian conscription, although it was not completely ruled out. The opinion of the goverment was that it should just be tabled for the moment until the people could be fully convinced that it was necessary. In 1918, with the manpower situation reaching a new level of seriousness another Military Service Bill was introduced, this one removed many of the remaining exemptions based on occupation while also removing that 2 month buffer for men no longer employed in war related industries that Labour had fought so hard for back in 1915. In April yet another revision was made that once again reduced the remaining exemptions, a measure forced upon the government by the German Spring offensives. However, the provisions from both of these new bills remained mostly in a sort of unenforced limbo throughout the summer due resistance to them from labour groups. Fortunately, the war would be over before the situation was pushed any further.

The debate over conscription would come a bit later in Canada than it had in London. It would not be until late 1916 and early 1917 that it would really start to heat up. The starting point for these discussions would come after Prime Minister Borden returned to Canada from a meeting in London to discuss war policy. At that meeting he would report that “Conscription has been and remains an unhappy word. No farmer, laborer, or student, no husband, father, or brother, will ever by pleased to be taken from his family or livelihood, exposed to dangers and discomforts far from home, and then, if he has survived the vicissitudes of war, demobilized with little compensation.” With the Canadian divisions needing more men, and volunteers drying up, the Canadian leaders were also forced into doing something, much like they had been in London. This first resulted in the introduction of registration requirements in early 1917. Borden would then head to London again in May 1917, and when he returned he had decided that conscription was necessary. It would take about a month to get a bill drafted and introduced. This bill would make all male British subjects between the ages of 20 and 45 eligible to be brought into the service. It also setup exemption tribunals that could exempt anyone, or no one, there were not really limits on them.

One of the concerns of the Conservatives, who were in control of the government at this point and who also fully supported conscription, was that there was going to be an election in Canada in late 1917. They were concerned about this election due to the unpopularity of the conscription bill that they had just introduced, and in many ways the election would function as a referendum on conscription. To try and get around the small little problem of voter opinions, they introduced the War Time Elections Bill. This bill would allow mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of soldiers to vote in federal elections but it did not extend suffrage to all women. In this way, by only allowing certain women to vote, and it was of course the women who were most likely to agree with conscription, the Conservatives were able to sort of stuff the ballot box. They also worked with the British government and General Haig to make sure that every single Canadian unit was given time out of the line to vote since roughly 92% of the soldiers in Europe supported conscription. With so much working going into keeping the Conservatives in control of the government, they were successful. However, there was still some problems with the conscription bill that had passed, and the biggest problem was with the exemption structure. Essentially it allowed for local exemption tribunals, not national ones, and this meant that in areas that were strongly against conscription huge percentages of people who asked for also received an exemption. All around Canada, but especially in Quebec, more than 90% of those that were conscripted would ask for exemption, and a huge percentage would get it. During 1917 of the 380,000 men who asked for exemption, 278,000 would receive it. This greatly increased the number of men who were actually brought into the army through conscription.

While large numbers of men would seek to gain, and would obtain, exemptions all over Canada, in Quebec it was higher than anywhere else in Canada. There had been initial support for the war in 1914 among the French-Canadian citizens of Quebec. However, by the end of 1916 the official efforts of the French-Canadians had changed to be obstruction of government efforts to increase Canadaian contributions to the war. There was no greater increase in contribution than the introduction of conscription. To the people of Quebec conscription was just an attempt to impose the Conquest again, even though from the English perspective it was just an effort to share the burden of the war more equally. While this made sense to people outside of the Quebec those within it were no swayed. Most of the men who were conscription in the province just did not show and when called to report to military authorities. Local police forces then resisted calls to go round them up. All of this resistance came to a head in early 1917. Over Easter Weekend over 3,000 would attend speeches, generally anti-conscription speeches. In this kind of environment the situation was always tense, and things would get out of control, eventually military police units would fire on and kill four civilians. Over the next several weeks the violence would escalate, mobs would move through the streets and vandalize those businesses that supported the government policies and violence would continue throughout the summer months.

Quebec was the stronghold for anti-conscriptionists but it was not the only area where there was concerted resistance to conscription. This resistance would redouble when the government tried to fix what they saw as the biggest problem with the current law, which was the exemptions. Their attempt was to remove almost every single source of exemptions, leaving only the exemption for family members of those soldiers that were already overseas. This change was made through an order of council and not as a proper law that moved through parliament. When it was put into effect it was almost instantly challenged through the courts because it was believed that it overstepped the authorities of the cabinet. As courts started to rule against the new changes it quickly moved up through the courts. In Alberta the courts asked an officer of the militia to appear, however his commanders confined him to barracks. When the court issued an order for his arrest, the military then posted guards and machine guns around the barracks to prevent civilian authorities from entering. Eventually the law would be supported by the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the government. It would still prove to be a very unpopular change.

We now shift to the land down under. I believe that Australia has the ability to claim that it was the only country during the war to put conscription up for a vote of the people. The Canadian election in late 1917 in some ways functioned as a referendum on conscription, but in Australia there was an actual referendum on conscription and whether or not soldiers could be sent overseas. They not only voted on it once, but actually twice, once in 1916 and once in 1917. This type of referendum was something that oppositional parties in other countries tried to make happen, but it was always fiercely resisted by conscriptionists because they feared that they would lose, which is almost certainly correct. Due to the failure of the referendums, Australia would never use conscription and their forces in Europe and around the world would be solely made up of volunteers If you ever forget this fact, do not worry, every Australian you meet with remind you of it if you discuss any aspect of the war with them. Don’t worry Australians, you are great and I still love you.

Due to how unique these referenda on conscription were, lets talk about them a bit. The Australian government was quite divided on conscription in 1916, and that made it difficult for any legislation on the subject to get through. After the vote had failed a few times it was referred to a committee, which would eventually result in the referendum. A key point of the referendum is that it was not a constitutional question that required the referendum, the government had the ability to enact legislation around conscription. It was also not a referendum on universal service, because that had been in place in Australia since 1909 which is the year that all military age men in Australia started to receive military training and then spent some amount of time in the army. The key part that was missing from the Defense Act of 1909 is that it very explicitly stated that the men could not be used outside of Australia unless they volunteered for overseas service. The referendum was therefore about amending the Defense Act so that these troops could be shipped out, mostly to Europe. There was widespread and diverse opposition to this referendum, and due to that reason it would fail, although it would be a close run thing. After the defeat of the first referedum the supporters of conscription case around for people to blame for the failure. One of the targets that would get blamed was the Catholic Church, and espeically the Irish Catholic voters of Australia which made up roughly 22 percent of the total vote count. After the vote Hughes would become somewhat obsessed with the part played by the Catholic Church in the vote, however but singling out this specific group Hughes was mostly just looking for a scapegoat. There was much larger opposition to conscription among the working class in Australia, which were primarily Protestant. The labor unions and workers groups were very good at organizing and motivating these workers and it is the primary reason that the referencum failed. Not to be done with it though, after the government fell and was replaced in 1917 there was another vote, and this time it failed by an even greater margin, there would not be a third attempt.

One other area that introduced conscription was New Zealand. Here the government would pass its over version of the Military Service Bill in May 1916 and it would experience little resistance. The government would still go to great lengths to encourage volunteers, but on a monthly basis it would conscript the number that was necessary to meet the quota designed to fulfill the needs of the overseas army.