War history: How the Military Service Act on 1916 impacted on the men of Suffolk

Not-so-subtle psychology was used to push men into putting on a uniform for their country

Not-so-subtle psychology was used to push men into putting on a uniform for their country - Credit: Archant

Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, looks at how Britain got to grips with the realities of compulsory military service/

Men were urged to join the war effort

Men were urged to join the war effort - Credit: Archant

The passing by Parliament of the Military Service Act on January 27, 1916, had an immediate and dramatic effect on society. The Act specified that all single men between the ages of 18 and 41 would be liable for compulsory military service. The Government’s intent was not just to ensure the Army and Royal Navy were supplied with a steady and adequate flow of manpower; it was also intended to prevent the drain of skilled manpower away from the factories, shipyards and mines that were a vital component of the war effort.

Mass registration of the male population began in January and conscription officially began on March 2, 1916. The Act did include provision for exemption from service. There were medical categories, and exceptions could be made for widowed men with children or ministers of the church.

However, once registered there was little room to manoeuvre. Individuals were automatically transferred into the Military Reserve. Those preferring service in the Royal Navy could state a preference and the Admiralty had first call on these individuals.

Another avenue open to any man wishing to be exempted was an application to a local appeal, or possibly a central tribunal. These bodies could in certain cases issue a certificate of exemption.


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Each registration district, as defined in the National Registration Act 1915, would have a local tribunal or tribunals, consisting of between five and 25 members each. The new tribunals normally worked through an appointed committee. There were also appeal and central tribunals with members appointed by the Crown. Any person aggrieved by the decision of a local tribunal could appeal against its decision.

The tribunals were allowed to exempt men from service on four grounds. The first was linked to the industrial needs of the ever-expanding war effort. Tribunals had fairly broad parameters: They could issue a certificate 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”.

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Alternatively, an exemption could be issued if serious hardship would ensue, owing to exceptional financial or business obligations or domestic position. In other words, if the man was the sole provider, looking after a large family with a sick wife.

Ill health or infirmity was an obvious reason for exemption when supported by a doctor. The fourth class, and possibly the most contentious, was that of conscientious objection.

The Government retained primacy over the entire process and retained the right for any Government department to grant exemption to what were termed as men or classes or bodies of men in their employ.

Even as the Act was being introduced, the Government was concerned about the possibility of munitions workers being conscripted. To prevent confusion, The Army Council issued an instruction making it clear official War Service badges issued to those on War Office, Admiralty or Ministry of Munitions work before March 1, 1916, would equate to a certificate of exemption.

In many cases an exemption certificate was permanent or absolute. There were also conditional and temporary certificates issued in the case of potential financial difficulties in the absence of a family breadwinner.

Another common reason for temporary exemption was the completion of education. Once in possession of his certificate, the exempted man was legally bound to inform the authorities of any changes to his circumstances. Failure would result in a £50 fine – a significant amount in 1916. If the man was found to have made false statements or misrepresentation at the time of application it could lead to imprisonment with hard labour for up to six months.

The introduction of conscription was a milestone. It marked the transition of Britain to a true war footing, where every part of the nation was under centralised control and direction.

While the Military Service Act served its purpose, it was not popular. There are many documented cases of hardship being inflicted by what was by nature a blunt instrument of Government.

There were significant regional variations in the way local tribunals applied the compulsion remit. This led to some very well publicised cases of hardship; an example of which took place in November, 1917, when a widow had to go in front of the Croydon Military Tribunal to plead to be allowed to keep her 11th son, to look after her. The other 10 were all serving in the forces.

A man from Barking asked for his ninth son to be exempted as his eight other sons were already in the Army. The son was given three months’ exemption.

The tribunals were, like conscription, unpopular, but they were considered a necessary evil in wartime.

Not everybody was willing to be conscripted and 16,000 men registered as conscientious objectors. The vast majority believed themselves to be pacifists and refused to take part in combat. Some, however, were willing to play a part in the war in a non-combat role; 7,000 bravely served in the frontline as stretcher bearers.

The most ardent of the objectors were known as absolutists; they totalled in the region of 1,500 in number. We will return to their story in coming weeks.

n Galloway have a fully-guided day excursion to the Western Front on Friday, May 13. Visit their website to find out more.You can also follow a battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles and find battlefield tour reports on the Galloway Travel Facebook page.

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