From 1916, all British men of military age could be called up for military service unless they had an official exemption. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some tried to get them through unofficial means. A trial at Old Street Police Court in 1918 highlighted the scale of the problem in Stepney and resulted in one young lady being sentenced to prison.
While a huge proportion of the male population was in the armed forces (as we have seen before, by 1918 nearly half of London’s male voters were in the services), military service was not universal. Men were able to remain at home because their employment was important for the war effort, because they were unfit, because their personal situation (such as urgent family or business needs) meant that leaving would cause undue hardship, or (for a small number) because they held a conscientious objection to military service.
In April 1917, there were 3.6 million men in the British Army, including 2 million actually serving overseas, while another 2.74 million military aged men had exemptions from service. Of the latter, 1.8m (66%) held exemptions due to being in ‘protected’ industries, half of those in Government factories. Another 779,900 held exemptions granted by the military service tribunals – which included 373,000 in ‘reserved occupations’ but not granted Government exemptions. In October 1918, 2.57 million men were working in reserved industries, including one million in munitions works, 500,000 coal miners and 400,000 in railways and other transport roles (compared with 2.1 million in the army overseas, 1.6 million of whom were on the Western Front).
For those who were not automatically exempted because of their jobs, or who were young and liable to be ‘combed out’ of protected jobs when lower age limits for exemptions were raised, getting an exemption from the local tribunal could be vital if they were to avoid military service.
In Stepney (and, presumably, elsewhere as well), some men were willing to resort to corruption. An investigation by the police found that of the 8,000 men they detained and questioned about their exemptions from military service there (albeit not all of them were Stepney residents):
- 30% held exemptions (presumably Government exemptions)
- 20% were exempt on the basis of hardship or running a one-man business (presumably granted by the tribunal)
- 10% were Russians (whose military service was dealt with by a different body)
- 12% or 960 held ‘legitimate exemptions’ (this term is not defined in the description)
- 8% or 640 had forged exemption papers
- 5% or 400 had papers stolen from the tribunal
The Old Street trial focussed on the office of Robert Abrabrelton, clerk to the Stepney tribunal, where his two assistants Miss Carter and Miss Terleshky were alleged to have given papers to men who were not eligible for exemption. The Old Street trial in August 1918 focussed on Ida Lilian Carter, a 19-year-old (in 1918) clerk in Abrabrelton’s office from summer 1916 to July 1918. She was the daughter of an engineering clerk and grew up in Poplar; in August 1918, her address was given as Marsala Road, Lewisham.
The trial focused on papers given to men who had received exemptions in the past and were applying for renewal. It was the young ladies’ duty to look after these forms, which were prepared in advance by using stamps bearing Mr Abrabeltron’s signature and the address of the tribunal. It turns out that no record was kept of the number of forms issued each day and very little control was maintained over the signature-stamp (at one point it was kept in a locked draw, but apparently it was still accessible without the key).
According to the Times’s report:
Mr Abrabrelton and his assistance being engaged upstairs, the young women [Carter and Terleshky] and their young male friends had the office more or less to themselves. The defendant in a statement said:-“I must admit that I have been asked as has Miss Terleshky, on many occasions, by young men of military age attending the tribunal, to get them a form which would keep them out of the Army. These young men have given us money to buy chocolates and sweets, the usual sum being 2s 6d. When they met us in the streets they would buy us ices and sweets.”
Counsel for the defence noted that “Both she and Miss Terleshky were good looking young girls and they had been flattered and cajoled by the young men who came to the offices and who wished to dodge the Army.” Carter had also, apparently, sent a fake exemption certificate to her brother “for the purposes of a joke he wished to play on another member of his orchestra” in Brighton. The brother was arrested, sentenced to a month’s imprisonment and then drafted into the army.
The matter seems to have come to a head at the point at which Carter was sacked by the Tribunal anyway. She had already left their employ before the trial, apparently on the basis of “irregular attendance”. Abrabrelton told the court that “He had warned the defendant about accepting chocolates and sweets. She was told she would be dismissed, but her parents had intervened, and as he had a great respect for her father he had kept her on.” This rather makes it sound like he suspected that something dodgy was going on, but hoped that Mr and Mrs Carter would be able to get their daughter into line.
Defence counsel appealed for lenience on the grounds of ‘her youth and respectability’, but the magistrate “said that the charge was very serious. There had been very serious results, and it was impossible to pass over the matter by a fine” and Carter was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment.
Many men hoped to avoid military service during the Great War. While most sought out protected jobs or went through the official tribunal procedures, clearly some were inclined towards corruption to keep themselves out of khaki and blue. Apparently, all it cost in Stepney in 1918 was 2s 6d, some sweets and a bit of flattery.
- Times reports of the trial
- Statistics of the Military Effort