Monthly Archives: August 2012

Should he stay or should he go: London’s Military Service Tribunals

In 1916, British men were conscripted for military service for the first time in modern history.  It was not all done by a faceless bureaucratic machine, though. Those who felt they or their employees should not serve were able to appeal to Military Service Tribunals – and many did.

The Military Service Act (MSA) of 1916 – and other Acts with the same name following it – made all British men liable to be called up for compulsory military service. At first the law applied only to unmarried men and those who had ‘attested their willingness to serve’ under the Derby Scheme – a form of voluntary conscription – but soon it was extended to all men of military age. Most men who joined the armed forces after March 1916, when conscription came into force, were in one of these groups: Derby men and conscripts.

British troops by Riqueval Bridge, 1918. By this point many of the soldiers on the front line were conscripts.

The Derby Scheme had led to the formation of thousands of local tribunals, which were to assess men’s appeals against being called up. With the new Military Service Act, the tribunals took on a wider role in dealing also with men who were to be conscripted.

A total of 2,086 local Military Service Tribunals were formed across Britain (not the UK because conscription was never used in Ireland), along with 83 county appeal tribunals at which the decisions of the local bodies could be challenged. A Central Tribunal in London dealt with the toughest cases, particularly those that set precedent for others to follow.

The men (and it was almost entirely men) who staffed these tribunals did so free of charge. Mayors and chairmen of local councils were asked to form the tribunals and mostly chaired them. These chairmen were asked to identify men of good character and judgement to form tribunals of at least five members, with three as the quorum. Most tribunal members were local councillors, but there were also labour (in urban areas) and agricultural (in rural areas) representatives on most.

The final regular attendee was the Military Representative, whose job was to advocate for the military – primarily to argue that each man should be conscripted.  Although their popular image after the war was as Colonel-Blimp types, belligerent and out of touch, most military representatives were actually local men (many were also lawyers, with a good understanding of the laws they were dealing with). The tribunals would hear the case put by the man against his conscription and the case put on behalf of the military; they would then decide whether to exempt the man from military service.

Exemptions could be asked for on the basis of medical unfitness, exceptional business or personal circumstances (such as the potential collapse of their business, or that they were vital in caring for elderly relatives), work of national importance, and conscientious objection. They could be granted absolute, conditional, temporary or -in cases of conscience – for non-combatant service, or the appeal could be rejected and the man would remain liable to serve. Cases could also be referred to the appeal tribunal,  by the local (borough) tribunal or when either the Military Representative or applicant wanted to challenge the tribunal’s decision.

Tribunals are mainly remembered today (if they are remembered at all) for the harsh treatment accorded to Conscientious Objectors (COs). It is true that many genuine conscience cases were unfairly dismissed by tribunals across the country and the applicants mocked and verbally assaulted, but many were also granted non-combatant roles – especially when this was viewed as the only exemption option open to tribunals, due to a badly-worded piece of legislation.

It is important to note that very very few of the cases heard by local tribunals were on brought on the basis of conscience. Roughly 2% of appeals nationwide were COs; although this was probably higher in London, as they were more frequent in urban areas, it would still have been a small proportion of appeals. These cases were prominent at the time because people were interested in them – in much the same way that they remained prominent after the war because people wrote and bought books about COs and opposition to the war.

As an example of the workload faced by tribunals in their first months, this is the breakdown of cases recorded in Ilford up to the end of March 1916 – after a month of conscription and three months of Derby Scheme hearings (Ilford Recorder 21/4/1916):

  • Applications received: Derby cases 371, potential MSA conscripts 37: total 408
  • Applications assented to by the Military Representative: 130 (i.e. the MR agreed that the man should not be conscripted in these cases), of which 128 confirmed by tribunal without a hearing, 2 ‘decided by tribunal’
  • Adjudicated by the Tribunal: 225 – another 39 were adjourned and 14 withdrawn
  • Results: Absolute exceptions 6; conditionals 15; Non-Combatant Corps 12 (i.e. CO cases given exemption from fighting but not from military service); temporary exemption 106; exemption not granted 84; cases under consideration at central tribunal: 3
  • Grounds: Domestic 73; business 42; domestic and business 9; conscience 12; medical 4
  • Appeals against the tribunal’s decision: by Military Representative 3, by applicant 9 (a total of 12)
  • Decided by appeal tribunal – 10 confirmed, 2 amended

We can see from this that over a third of appeals were granted without a hearing at the tribunal; of those the tribunal heard over half were given exemptions from military service (i.e. over two thirds of applications were successful to some degree). In general, across the country, very few ‘absolute’ exemptions were granted, which makes sense given that conditional and temporary exemptions meant that if the man’s circumstances changed (for example a change of job, recovery from illness, or the end of a commitment to care for a relative) they could be called up or reconsidered by the tribunal.

Note that all 12 conscience cases resulted in NCC service (and were only 3% of the 408 applications received). This usually meant that the tribunal thought that there was a genuine conscientious case being put, but that that men should still make a sacrifice. This early on, it might also have been that the tribunal members were unaware that they could grant absolute or conditional exemptions to COs. At the same time, tribunals may have used this option simply to get rid of applicants whose moral stance on the war they simply could not understand. Of course the NCC option was unacceptable to some COs, who objected to any form of military service.

On August 4th, it was reported that the Ilford Tribunal had so far heard 1,896 cases, in addition to considering the positions hundreds in certified occupations (i.e. men whose jobs kept them out of the military). They had been holding three meetings per week, with around 200 applications received each week and 350 still to be heard. By the end of June 1916, 748,587 men had applied to tribunals across Britain. Over the same period around 770,000 men joined the army, suggesting that more men appealed against serving than went without an appeal (if we assume that some of those new soldiers had failed in applications to tribunals).

The tribunals did a great deal of work during the latter half of the war, trying to weigh up the needs of the military and the needs of communities and families in Britain. They were civilians who performed a vital job in keeping Britain going in wartime and deserve to be remembered for their hard work – not just their often harsh treatment of those who opposed the war.


Read more:

James McDermott – British Military Service Tribunals (a book on Northamptonshire’s tribunals)

Adrian Gregory – Adrian Gregory, ‘Military Service Tribunals: civil society in action’, in Jose Harris, Civil Society in British History (Oxford: 2003), pp. 177-191.


Posted by on 31 August 2012 in Military Service Tribunal, People, Recruitment


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A submarine in the Thames

Submarines were a potent symbol of German ‘frightfulness’ in the Great War. They were tools in the Kaiser’s attempt to starve out the British population by blockade in 1915 and again in 1917.  In 1916, one of these monstrous machines appeared in London for the public to visit.

In 1915, the German Government declared that from 1915 the waters around the UK were to be subject to unrestricted submarine warfare – that no warning would be given to ships before they were attacked. The fact that this was in response to the British blockade of Germany was either ignored or deemed irrelevant by Britons, who saw German submarine attacks (along with Zeppelin raids) as barbarous acts reinforcing the righeousness of Britain’s part in the war.

One of the submarines (the phrase ‘U-boat’ was more common in the Second World War than the First) in the German fleet in 1915 was UC5 launched in 1915, under the command of Oberleutenant Herbert Pustkuchen. Led by Pustkuchen and his successor Ulrich Mohrbutter, UC5 sunk 30 ships and damaged 7 more before running aground on sandbanks off the Suffolk coast in April 1916. It was captured by the British and towed to Harwich for repairs.

Submarine UC5 in British hands

Soon afterwards, the submarine was moved to London for public display.  Moored in the Thames – at Temple Pier – it became a tourist attraction.

On 1 August 1916, Major-General Sir Sam Hughes – the Canadian minister for Militia and Defence – paid a visit to the submarine and was greeted by cheering crowds.

“I only wish we had a thousand of them” – Maj-Gen Hughes climbing out of UC5 (Daily Mirror, 2/8/16)

Maj-Gen Hughes at Temple Pier, with UC5 visible in the background. (Daily Mirror 2/8/16)

Hughes was enthusiastic about the use of captured enemy submarines to promote the good work of the Royal Navy. “I think that whenever and wherever practicable the public should be given such first-hand opportunities as this for appreciating the wonderful work of Britain’s silent sentinels on the seas.”

The submarine was later sent on to the USA and was displayed in Central Park as an advert for Liberty Bonds.

UC5 on display in Central Park, New York City


Daily Mirror, 2/8/16 – from pages on the ship and this article


Posted by on 27 August 2012 in Events, Famous People, People, Places


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The Big Push on the Big Screen

This week in 1916 a blockbuster film had its first general release in London’s cinemas. The film went on to be the most popular film in British cinemas until 1977.  It showed genuine footage of men in battle on the Western Front in the Battle of the Somme.

The film was made by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, who mixed short sections of mocked up battle scenes with plenty of genuine footage of guns firing, troops moving around in the trenches, men attacking over no-man’s land, the wounded and the explosion of the mine under Hawthorn Ridge (on top of which was a german redoubt).


After a few private showings, the Battle of the Somme film opened in 34 cinemas across London on 21 August 1916. The next day, the Times reported that:

Never before has there been so large a demand for a long film. Managers of cinema houses have to make their arrangements many months ahead, and  in order to show the war pictures they have had to cut out of their programmes films rented many months ago for exhibition this week. […] The early arrangement of programmes has in some cases had the unfortunate effect of associating the war pictures with fimls of a light and trivial character, but this could hardly be avoided. One cannot imagine, however, that an audience which has seen men “go over” the parapet, and tumble back dead or wounded into the trench, can afterwards have the heart to laugh at picture theatre inanities.

A week later it was released across the country. Every copy of the film was reportedly in use that week. By the first week of Setember, the film was showing in more than 1000 ‘picture theatres’ across the UK.

Advert for the Somme film at the Philharmonic (Times 25.9.1916)

Famously, 20 million tickets for the film were sold in its first six weeks (in a nation of 45 million people). The next film to sell so many tickets was Star Wars in 1977 – more than 60 years later!

Most other films shown at the time were short pieces or serial shows – much more like TV programmes (soaps, news, dramas, comedies, etc) than what we see in the cinema today. The most popular of these attracted audiences of 10 million each week for their installments, which means that the success of The Battle of the Somme was as much in the continued demand for it (presumably more than 20 million tickets were sold over the month or so it was on, probably including many repeat attendances) as in the numbers watching in any one week – although the demand in late August was clearly vast. The film provided people in London and across the UK with a view of the battlefields like they had never had before. It interested millions and shocked a great number of them.

Frances Stevenson (Lloyd George’s secretary) wrote in her diary after a private showing on 4 August:

We went on Wednesday night to a private view of the ‘Some films’ i.e. the pictures taken during the recent fighting. To say that one enjoyed them would be untrue; but I am glad I went. I am glad I have seen the sort of thing our men have to go through, even to the sortie from the trench, and the falling in the barbed wire. There were pictures too of the battlefield after the fight, & of our gallant men lying all crumpled up & helpless. There were pictures of men mortally wounded being carried out of the communication trenches, with the look of agony on their faces.

A photograph taken while filming. The caption in the film reads “British Tommies rescuing a comrade under shell fire. (This man died 30 minutes after reaching the trenches.)”

Similar films made in 1917 were nowhere near as successful, and people drifted back to the usual serial or comedy films (such as those of Charlie Chaplin). The Battle of the Somme was the great success in the war-documentary genre in the Great War. It was shown at a point when the images it showed were new and shocking, but (perhaps) before the failure of the Allies to win in 1916 made the war seem to grind on interminably.



The Times


Nicholas Hiley, ‘ ‘At the Picture Palace’: The British Cinema Audience, 1895-1920’, John Fullerton (ed.), Celebrating 1895: the centenary of cinema

Nicholas Hiley, ‘Introduction’ in Geoffrey H Malins, How I Filmed the War

Nicholas Reeves, ‘Cinema, spectatorship and propaganda: ‘Battle of the Somme’ (1916) and its contemporary audience’ in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 1.

Rachel Low (ed), History of British Film, Vol 3 (1914-1918).

Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War


Posted by on 24 August 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners


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RA Savory: death reports exaggerated

Last week we saw how men’s families searched for news when were reported missing. Other men were falsely reported dead, like Second-Lieutenant Reginald Savory.

Reginald Arthur Savory was born in London in 1894. He was commissioned as an officer in the 14th Sikhs in 1914. He served with them in Gallipoli in 1915 and wrote regular and interesting letters back home to his parents near Earls Court (the letters are now held at the National Army Museum). He complained to them about the idiocy of the Generals, his disgust at the way the battle was being reported back home, and this attempts to grow a beard.  His commanding officer did not approve of his officers having beards even though, as Savory pointed out in May 1915, a white officer without a beard tended to stand out among his bearded Sikh sepoys.

Men of the 14th Sikhs in a trench at Gallipoli

On June 4th,, the battalion was engaged in the Third Battle of Krithia. Savory gave an account of it (quoted on

“On 3rd June we received orders for general assault all along the line next day. The orders were short and clear. At 11 am on 4th June all the guns were to bombard the enemy’s front line trenches for twenty minutes. Then for ten minutes they were to stop while the infantry were to cheer and wave their bayonets. The object of this was to persuade the enemy to man their parapets. Then the bombardment was to come down again. At noon we were to advance. It all sounded simple enough. The 14th Sikhs were to attack astride the Gully Ravine.

“The 4th of June was a beautiful summer day. Our guns started registering at 8 am and even before the bombardment began it must have been clear to the enemy that something was about to happen.

“It was now 11.30 am and time for the cheering to start; but the noise was so great that we could hardly hear it even in our own trench. And then- twelve noon – blew the whistle – and we were away. From that moment I lost all control of the fighting. The roar of musketry drowned every other sound, except that of the guns. To try to give an order was useless. The nearest man was only a yard or two away but I couldn’t see him. Soon I found myself running on alone, except for my little bugler, a young, handsome boy, just out of his teens, who came paddling along behind me to act as a runner and carry messages. Poor little chap.

“During the first few minutes, I was knocked out, lying on the parapet with two Turks using my body as a rest over which to shoot at our second line coming forward. When I fully recovered consciousness, the Turks had gone. I looked around and saw my little bugler lying dead, brutally mutilated. I could see no one else, stumbled back as best I could, my head was bleeding and I was dazed and then, Udai Singh, a great burly Sikh with a fair beard who was one of our battalion wrestlers, came out of the reserve trenches, picked me up, slung me over his shoulder, and brought me to safety; and all the time we were being shot at.”

A few weeks later he got an unexpected letter from his father, as described by a website about Sikhs in the Great War:

“Second-Lieutenant Savory was sitting at Battalion Headquarters when he received a letter in his father’s handwriting, with thick black around the edge of the envelope, addressed to the Officer Commanding 14th Sikhs. He opened it and found that his father had heard that he had been killed in action and was asking for details as to how he had met his untimely death, and also requesting the Officer Commanding to send him his sword and field-glasses. This was too good a chance to miss, so he went back to Brigade Headquarters and had an official letter typed to his father saying that he had been reliably informed that his son, Second-Lieutenant Savory, was still alive and was, in fact, in command of his regiment. He then signed the letter “I have the honour to be, Sir, Your obedient servant, R. A. Savory, 2nd Lt., O.C. 14th K.G.O. Sikhs.”

Savory clearly found this all rather entertaining, Likewise, he enjoyed reading the stack of condolence letters his parents had received, which they sent out to him. He wrote to his mother that he hadn’t realised he was such a jolly fine fellow until he read what people had written about him.

R.A. Savory’s death reported in the Times, 12 June 1915

It can’t have been much fun for Mr and Mrs Savory to hear that their 21-year-old son had been killed, though; although the relief when they heard from him must have been immense.  This story was not unique to them, across the country people heard contradictory information about their missing relatives, often from well-meaning comrades who did not want to leave them without hope of the missing man’s return.

Reginald Savory was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in Gallipoli and went on to have an illustrious career as an officer in the Indian Army. This included commanding a Brigade in North Africa in 1940-41, followed by command of the Indian Forces fighting in Eritrea in 1941 and a stint as Adjutant-General of India (his good reputation suggests he was more successful than the generals he criticised 30 years earlier in Gallipoli).  He died as Lieutenant-General Sir Reginald Savory  KCIE, CB, DSO, MC in 1980 – a far cry from his reported death in battle 65 years earlier.

1973 painting of Reginald Savory by Garth Tapper




National Army Museum archives 1976-03-93-9 (part of a large set of his papers and photos)

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Posted by on 18 August 2012 in Famous People, People


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Cricketers at war

Today, England and South Africa start their pivotal third Test match, which will decide which is the world’s number one team. London’s two county cricket teams (Surrey and Middlesex) are also playing each other at the Oval.  In 1914, cricket was one of the sports whose players were called upon to join up for the duration of the war. By December 1914, cricketers form the England, South Africa, Middlesex and Surrey teams had joined up.

The war disrupted the cricket season, leading to its abandonment and the enlistment of many cricketers – both amateurs and professionals. On 11 December 1914, the Times published a list of players who were serving in the armed forces. The Surrey and Middlesex names on the list were:



These include England players like the legendary ‘Plum’ Warner and Percy Fender, as well as a few players from the Dominions – including Londoner Reggie Schwarz, who played cricket for South Africa and rugby for England.

‘Plum’ Warner at the crease, 1910. (c) ESPNcricinfo

Several of these men were Londoners whose stories may well appear in future blog posts.

The full list of players from all the counties (click to enlarge).

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Posted by on 16 August 2012 in Famous People, Ordinary Londoners, People


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Some of the Missing of the Somme

The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval is one of the most memorial memorials on the Western Front battlefields of the Great War. But what did it mean to be missing?

Those ‘missing’ during and after the war were separate but overlapping groups. After the war, those commemorated were the men whose bodies had never been found, or were found and could not be identified (either because they were so badly damaged or because their ID discs were missing), or those who whose graves had been lost in subsequent fighting.

During the war, the ‘missing’ were the men about whom there was no certain information. They might have been killed, severely wounded, or taken prisoner. Not knowing what had happened to them caused anguish to  these men’s families.

The large overlap between these two categories during major battles is shown by the group of ‘missing’ published in the Daily Sketch in August 1916:

An appeal for information in the Daily Sketch, 4/8/1916 (thanks to Historic Newspapers for sending me this paper)

These men’s families were desperate for information. Their photos and details were published along with the addresses of those seeking information – two of the six addresses here were in Clapham, one from Seven Kings, and the others elsewhere in the UK.

All six were killed on 1st July 1916, at the start of the Battle of the Somme, meaning that these pictures were published over a month later. If there was no firm news, it would be months later that they were officially assumed to have been killed.

  • 2nd Lt Aubrey White from Dublin – 1 July 1916 aged 20 – Lonsdale Cemetery, Authuille
  • 2nd Lt William Henry Ratcliffe from Nottingham – 1 July 1916 aged 19 – Dantzig Alley cemetery, Mametz
  • Cpl Thomas Edward Dicks from Clapham (59 Leppoc Road) – 1 July 1916 aged 21 – Thiepval Memorial
  • Rfm James Britten from Clapham (4 Bewick Road) – 1 July 1916 – Serre Road Cemetery
  • Sgt Lionel Robert Last from Clacton, Essex – 1 July 1916 aged 20 – Thiepval Memorial
  • Rfm Clifford Hugh Butcher from Leyton (about whom V.W. Parrish in Seven Kings sought information) – 1 July 1916 aged 18 – Thiepval Memorial

All of these men were aged between 18 and 21 (I think Britten was 19, but am not certain). In Clapham, Seven Kings, Clacton, Nottingham and Dublin, there were men and women hoping that they had survived, or at least that they had died painlessly.

Three of them were buried in cemeteries, so one would hope that news of this burial reached home before too long. The other three remained ‘missing’ for ever, commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.

Unveiling the Menin Gate in 1927 (the equivalent monument for Ypres), General Plumer attempted to assuage the grief of the families of the missing:

“Now it can be said of each one in whose honour we are assembled here today: ‘He is not missing; he is here’.”


A national war shrine

Today is the anniversary of Britain’s entry into the Great War. I have written before of the scenes in London in early August 1914, so will today turn to the scenes four years later, when a national war shrine was unveiled in Hyde Park.

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Prince’s skating rink: from Olympics to wartime

This year’s Olympic Games is not the first to be held in London. One was held here in the wake of the Second World War in 1948 but the first was a few years before the Great War, in 1908. Many of the people and places involved were also involved in the war.  One of these was the Princes Ice Skating Rink in Knightsbridge, where the figure skating was held.

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Posted by on 3 August 2012 in Places


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