On 5 August 1914, the day after Britain declared war on Germany, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener – a national hero of the Sudan and South African campaigns – accepted the vacant post of Secretary of State for War. Kitchener was one of the few leading British soldiers or statesmen to predict a long and costly war and to foresee that the existing British army of six infantry divisions and four cavalry brigades would be far too small to play an influential part in a major European conflict. He therefore decided to raise, by traditional voluntary means, a series of ‘New Armies’, The first appeal for volunteers was issued on 7 August. He also permitted the part-time Territorial Force – originally intended primarily for home defence – to expand and to volunteer for active service overseas.

After a relatively slow start, there was a sudden surge in recruiting in late August and early September 1914. In all, 478,893 men joined the army between 4 August and 12 September, including 33,204 on 3 September alone – the highest daily total of the war and more than the average annual intake in the years immediately before 1914.

Apart from a bedrock of patriotism and a widespread collective sense of duty to King and Empire, two factors, in particular, helped to generate this boom in enlistment. One was the formation on 31 August of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (PRC), which placed at the disposal of the War Office the entire network of local party political organisations. The assistance which the PRC provided included the issue of a series of memorable recruiting posters designed by leading graphic artists of the day.

Another key factor in stimulating enlistment was the granting of permission to committees of municipal officials, industrialists and other dignitaries, especially in northern England, to organise locally-raised ‘Pals’ battalions, which men from the same community or workplace were encouraged to join on the understanding that they would train and, eventually, fight together. Many other men, however, enlisted for adventure or to escape from an arduous, dangerous or humdrum job.

It must be pointed out, moreover, that the iconic image designed by Alfred Leete (see right) did not appear in poster form until the end of September 1914, by which time voluntary enlistments had already passed their peak. The supposed influence on recruiting of what is arguably the best-known poster of all time is therefore probably something of a myth.

Kitchener poster

Recruitment in Numbers

At the beginning of 1914 the British Army had a reported a strength of 710,000 men including reserves, of which around 80,000 were regular troops ready for war.

Recruitment stats

2,466,719 men joined the British army voluntarily between August 1914 and December 1915. However, even this enormous total was insufficient to maintain the army at a strength which would enable it to fight a modern industrialised war involving mass conscript armies.

By the end of World War I almost 1 in 4 of the total male population of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had joined up, over five million men.

Of these men, 2.67 million joined as Volunteers and 2.77 million as conscripts (although some volunteered after conscription was introduced and would most likely have been conscripted anyway).
Women and Recruitment

Women played an important role in persuading men to join the army. In August 1914, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather. This organisation encouraged women to give out white feathers to young men who had not joined the army.

After war was declared, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced that it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities. Some leaders of the WSPU such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney played an important role as speakers at meetings to recruit young men into the army. Others like Sylvia Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence were opposed to the war and refused to carry out this role. These women used their efforts to bring an end to the war and played an active role in organisations such as the Women’s Peace Party.

The British Army began publishing posters urging men to become soldiers. Some of these posters were aimed at women. One poster said: “Is your Best Boy wearing khaki? If not, don’t you think he should be?” Another poster read: “If you cannot persuade him to answer his country’s call and protect you now, discharge him as unfit.”

The Mothers’ Union also published a poster. It urged its members to tell their sons: “My boy, I don’t want you to go, but if I were you I should go.” The poster added: “On his return, hearts would beat high with thankfulness and pride.”

Go it's your duty poster

Baroness Emma Orczy founded the Active Service League, an organisation that urged women to sign the following pledge: “At this hour of England’s grave peril and desperate need I do hereby pledge myself most solemnly in the name of my King and Country to persuade every man I know to offer his services to the country, and I also pledge myself never to be seen in public with any man who, being in every way fit and free for service, has refused to respond to his country’s call.”

women of britain poster


Reserved Occupations

In November 1915 four lists of occupations scheduled as vitally important for war work and other essential requirements were published.

  1. Occupations required for production or transport of munitions supplied by the Ministry of Munitions

 Coal Mining

 Agricultural Occupations

Certain occupations in mining, other than coal.

Railway Servants employed in the manipulation of traffic and in the maintenance of the lines and rolling stock

 2. List of Occupations (Reserved Occupations) of cardinal importance for the maintenance of some other branches of trade and industry

Each of these lists had a detailed description of the occupations included, which were subject to revision as the industrial situation of the country demanded. More occupations in Food and Clothing were added in December 1915.

In April 1917 the third version of the Military Service Act was passed and a revised list of reserved occupations was published. A fourth version of the Act was passed in January 1918.  This enabled the government to quash all exemptions from military service on occupational grounds at its own discretion; and where exemptions from service had been withdrawn the standard two month grace period was abolished. 


The Military Service Act 1916

The Military Service Act of 27 January 1916 brought conscription into effect for the first time in the war. Along with the Defence of the Realm Act, it was possibly the most important piece of legislation in placing Britain onto a “total war” footing.

Every British male subject who

  • on 15 August 1915 was ordinarily resident in Great Britain and who had attained the age of 19 but was not yet 41, and
  • on 2 November 1915 was unmarried or a widower without dependent children

unless he met certain exceptions or had met the age of 41 before the appointed date, was deemed to have enlisted for general service with the colours or in the reserve and was forthwith transferred to the reserve. He now came under the controls specified in the Army Act. This was as of Thursday 2 March 1916.

Provision was made under Section 20 of the Reserve Forces Act 1882, for information being obtained from the man with regard to his preference for service in the Navy. The Admiralty had the first right of call on men who expressed this preference.

Men were encouraged to voluntarily enlist before the Act came into place.

Schedule of Exceptions

  1. Men ordinarily resident in the Dominions abroad, or resident in Britain only for the purpose of their education or some other special purpose.
  2. Existing members of the regular or reserve forces or of the Territorial Force who are liable for foreign service or who are, in the opinion of the Army Council, not suitable for foreign service.
  3. Men serving in the Navy or Royal Marines or who are recommended for exception by the Admiralty.
  4. Men in Holy Orders or regular ministers of any religious denomination.
  5. Men who had served with the military or Navy and been discharged on grounds of ill-health or termination of service.
  6. Men who hold a certificate of exemption or who have offered themselves for enlistment since 4 August 1914 but been rejected.

single men poster

Claiming exemption from military service

An application may be made before the appointed date to a Local Tribunal for the issue of a certificate of exemption.

There were four grounds for exemption:

  • if it is expedient in the national interests that he should be engaged in other work, or, if he is being educated or trained for any other work, that he should continue; or
  • if serious hardship would ensue owing to his exceptional financial or business obligations or domestic position; or
  • ill health or infirmity; or
  • conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service.

Certificates of exemption could also be granted by any Government department to men or classes or bodies of men in their employ, where it appears more convenient for this to take place than by individual application to Local Tribunal.

A certificate could be absolute, conditional or temporary. Exemptions for continued education or training and those on financial hardship grounds could only be temporary. If the conditions under which an exemption was granted changed, it was the duty of the person to inform the authorities. A fine of up to £50 could be applied if he did not do so. False statements or misrepresentation at time of application for exemption could lead to imprisonment with hard labour for up to six months.

Reserved occupation

A duplicate certificate could be issued on payment of one shilling.

A system of Local, Appeal and Central Tribunals was arranged. Each registration district as defined in the National Registration Act 1915 would have a Local Tribunal or Tribunals, consisting of between 5 and 25 members each. A Tribunal could work through a committee that it could appoint. There would also be Appeal and Central Tribunals with members appointed by the Crown. Any person aggrieved by the decision of a Local Tribunal could make an appeal.

Army Council Instruction 386 (19 February 1916) made it clear that official War Service badges issued to those on War Office, Admiralty or Ministry of Munitions work before 1 March 1916 would count as though they were a certificate of exemption.


Men were allocated into a Class, which was connected with the year of their birth, and were notified that they would be called up by Class. Class 1 was for those born in 1897. They were 18 years old. They were told they would not be called up until they were aged 19. Class 2 was for those born in 1896, Class 3 for 1895 and so on up to Class 23 for those born in 1875.

A Public Proclamation was placed in prominent spots, advising the public the date on which a particular Class would begin call up. This was deemed to be sufficient notice, but in additional generally each man received an individual notice. It was the individual’s responsibility to be alert to such notices and to report himself for duty. There were penalties for not reporting and for inducing or assisting a reservist to absent himself.

Revisions 1916-1918

 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.

In April 1917 the Act was modified once more.  Home Service Territorials were to be examined with a view to drafting such men into service abroad.  Men who had left military service on account of wounds or ill-health were to be re-examined to determine whether they were fit to resume service; and a revised list of reserved occupations was published.

With the demand for human war material apparently insatiable a fourth version of the Act was passed in January 1918.  This enabled the government to quash all exemptions from military service on occupational grounds at its own discretion; and where exemptions from service had been withdrawn the standard two month grace period was abolished.

Three months later, in April 1918 – at the height of the great German Spring offensive on the Western Front – a fifth version of the Act was published.  Its most notable provision extended age eligibility so that men aged from 17 to 51 could be called up.  In addition the act was, for the first time, to be applied to men in Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (although the policy was never actually implemented in Ireland).

Between August 1914 and the introduction of the first Military Service Act almost 2.5 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.

Conscientious  Objectors

A conscientious objector (CO or ‘Conchie’) is an “individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service” on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, and/or religion. In general, conscientious objector status is only considered in the context of military conscription and is not applicable to volunteer military forces.

Some were pacifists who were against war in general.

  • Some were political objectors who did not consider the government of Germany to be their enemy
  • Some were religious objectors who believed that war and fighting was against their religion. Groups in this section were the Quakers and Jehovah Witnesses.
  • A combination of any of the above groups.

The UK recognized the right not to fight in the 18th century following problems with attempting to force Quakers into military service. The Militia Ballot Act of 1757 allowed Quakers to be excluded from military service. It then ceased to be a major issue, since Britain’s armed forces were generally all-volunteer.

A more general right to refuse military service was not introduced until during the First World War, when Britain introduced conscription with the Military Service Act of March 1916. The Act allowed for objectors to be absolutely exempted, to perform alternative civilian service, or to serve as a non-combatant in the army, according to the extent to which they could convince a Military Service Tribunal of the quality of their objection.

daddy poster

Around 16,000 men were recorded as conscientious objectors, with Quakers, traditionally pacifist, playing a large role: 4500 objectors were sent to do ‘work of national importance’ such as farming, 7000 were ordered non-combatant duties, but 6000 were forced into the army, and when they refused orders, they were sent to prison. When the well-known pacifist and religious writer Stephen Henry Hobhouse was drafted in 1916, he and many other Quaker activists took the unconditionalist stand, refusing both military and alternative service—and these men too were sent to prison. Cases regarding conscientious objectors formed only a tiny proportion of Military Service Tribunals’ cases, estimated at 2%; in the first six months of following the Military Service Act, tribunals heard 750,000 cases, of which 16,000 (the total number of conscience cases for 1916–18) is 2.13%. Tribunals were notoriously harsh towards conscientious objectors, reflecting widespread public opinion that they were lazy, degenerate, ungrateful ‘shirkers’ seeking to benefit from the sacrifices of others.

Thirty-five objectors were taken to France and formally sentenced to death but immediately reprieved to ten years in prison; conditions were made very hard for conscientious objector prisoners — ten died in prison, and around seventy died elsewhere as a result of their treatment. Many objectors accepted non-combatant service, for example working in the dangerous role of stretcher-bearers. Conscientious objectors who were deemed not to have made any useful contribution were disfranchised (deprived of their right to vote) for five years after the war, but there was no administrative machinery to enforce such disfranchisement.

Some conscientious objectors did not want to fight but were keen to ‘do their bit’. These people were willing to help in weapons factories and some went to the trenches to become stretcher bearers etc., though not to fight. Other CO’s refused to do anything that involved the war – these were known as ‘absolutists’.

The Friends Ambulance Unit worked under the Red Cross to help those injured in the fighting in France on the Ambulance Train

Ambulance train

The inside of an ambulance train, used to ferry wounded soldiers away from the front

ambulance train inside


Hard Labour for Conscientious Objectors

These men were held in a hard labour camp in Scotland

hard labour

Conscientious objectors at Princetown Prison worked on a scheme to use several hundred acres of Dartmoor to grow food


The Order of the White Feather

Women played an important role in persuading men to join the army.

white feather 1

In August 1914, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather. This organisation encouraged women to give out white feathers to young men who had not joined the army as a sign of their “cowardice”.

 white feather 2   white feather 3


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.