War history: 1916 - Britian was short of men in the factories and on the frontline

A First World War poster urging Britain's men to unite for their country

A First World War poster urging Britain's men to unite for their country - Credit: Archant

January, 1916, and the UK finds itself facing the realities of conscription. Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, examines this controversial move some opponents even deemed un-British

On January 5, 1916, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith submitted the Military Service Act to the House of Commons. It...

On January 5, 1916, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith submitted the Military Service Act to the House of Commons. It specified that all single men between the ages of 18 and 41 would be liable for compulsory service. - Credit: Archant

A hundred years ago this week the talk in almost every household in East Anglia was about the impending introduction of military conscription. The war was entering its third calendar year and there was still no end in sight. The fighting that had engulfed Europe had now spread far beyond the battlefields of Belgium and France.

By the end of 1915, British, Commonwealth and Empire troops were also campaigning far away from the Western Front. The stalemate in Flanders continued to frustrate allied commanders and their political masters. This led to the deployment of British armies outside Europe.

This was not an entirely new strategy. Soon after the declaration of war, Commonwealth and Dominion troops launched attacks against German territories as far afield as the Pacific and Southern Africa. However, these were small-scale campaigns aimed at securing local gains by annexing vulnerable German colonies and possessions. The battle to stem the German tide in north-west Europe and then to secure a decisive victory over the invader remained at the centre of the Western allied strategy throughout 1914 and into 1915. The deadlock of trench warfare and its increasing rate of attrition created a desire among some allied planners to look for easier alternatives away from the protracted and costly battles in Flanders.

While this strategy made sense to some, the majority of allied generals opposed it. They stridently advocated defeating Germany in the main theatre of war ? France. With 10% of metropolitan France under German occupation, and the English Channel ports within reach of the German army, it was a powerful argument.


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Regardless, several attempts at outflanking and undermining the German war effort were made elsewhere. Success remained elusive for a variety of reasons, not least an unwillingness to strip the Western Front of men and guns.

This was compounded by a critical shortage of enough ammunition to sustain the artillery in Europe, let alone any additional theatres of war. Nevertheless, alternative campaigns were launched, with mixed results.

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A century ago today, allied commanders looked optimistically into the New Year and planned huge offensives in France; they waited impatiently for spring to arrive and the ground to dry out sufficiently underfoot for their horses and men to advance. In January, 1916, those who argued in 1915 for a “Western Front only” strategy felt justifiably vindicated. Even a cursory consideration of the situation beyond France made depressing reading.

On January 8, 1916, the last British troops were evacuated from Gallipoli, bringing the flawed attempt to capture the Dardanelles to an ignominious and costly end. Further east in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), things were not much better. British and Indian troops were cut off and encircled by Turkish forces in Kut Al Amara.

In addition, an Anglo-French expedition had been landed at Salonika in Greece with the intention of supporting the beleaguered Serbian army against the Austro-Hungarian armies. A combination of poor planning, inadequate logistics, political disunity and atrocious weather had hamstrung the under-resourced operation from the outset. The Salonika expedition stagnated due to a combination of poor leadership, a lack of clear objectives and the absence of military punch. The troops were bogged down in Greece with no chance of success and unfairly nicknamed the Gardeners of Salonika.

Meanwhile, the Western Front had taken a remorseless toll on British and Commonwealth forces. Casualties mounted at an unprecedented rate throughout 1915. A sobering metric is the 60,000 officers listed as casualties in 1915. Even though almost three million men had enlisted since August, 1914, yet more were needed to replace casualties and expand the army to a scale where it could hold its own.

The Government wrestled with the problems of shifting industry at home onto a war footing while also expanding the army. The problems were linked: both industry and the armed forces were desperate for manpower. That manpower was being drawn from the same source – the civil population.

An added complication was the constant drain of skilled men who felt duty-bound to leave their employment to join the military. As well as soldiers and sailors, the Government desperately needed munitions workers, coal miners, ship workers and other specialised tradesmen to sustain the war effort.

Many men had already left their jobs to enlist, leaving industries short of manpower. This, combined with the unpredictable surges and dips in recruiting figures, was becoming increasingly difficult to manage. If Britain was to fight what would later be known as a “Total War”, something had to be done. The solution was dramatic ? many even thought un-British. The introduction of what had until 1916 been unpalatable: compulsory military service.

On January 5, 1916, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith submitted the Military Service Act to the House of Commons. It specified that all single men between the ages of 18 and 41 would be liable for compulsory service. Exceptions would be made for those widowed with children, or ministers of the church. In spite of opposition, notably from the Labour Party, the Act was passed on January 27, 1916. Conscription began in Britain on March 2, 1916.

Galloway have a fully-guided day excursion to the Western Front on Friday, May 13. Visit their website to find out more.

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