Category Archives: Recruitment

The Derby Scheme: Voluntary Conscription

The creation of a vast volunteer army in Britain in 1914 and 1915 was an impressive achievement, with two million men joining up in 12 months, but by the end of 1914 there were fears that the numbers coming forward were too small. Through 1915, calls for conscription increased and in October the last gasp of ‘voluntaryism’ was launched: the Derby Scheme.

Military aged men were asked to ‘attest their willingness to serve’, in other words to volunteer to be called up when they were needed. The Derby Scheme concluded in mid-December with what the press depicted as another ‘rush to the colours’ akin to that of September 1914, but it did not save the voluntary recruiting system.

Some London Derby Scheme attestees and staff, with standard headline about a rush to join the army (Daily Mirror, 10 December 1915)

Some London Derby Scheme attestees and staff, with standard headline about a “race” to join the army – arguably it was a race to stay out of the army (Daily Mirror, 10 December 1915)

The Scheme in action

The ever-useful Long, Long Trail website describes what the scheme entailed administratively:

“Men who attested under the Derby Scheme, who were accepted for service and chose to defer it were classified as being in “Class A”. Those who agreed to immediate service were “Class B”. The Class A men were paid a day’s army pay [2 shillings and 9 pence] for the day they attested; were given a grey armband with a red crown as a sign that they had so volunteered; were officially transferred into Section B Army Reserve; and were sent back to their homes and jobs until they were called up.”

'Armlet' given to Derby attestees in 1915

‘Armlet’ given to Derby attestees in 1915

In essence there were two prongs to the so-called ‘Derby Scheme’: the first was a systematic survey of all military-aged men on the National Register who were not in ‘starred’ employment (i.e. war-related work). This meant sending canvassers out again to the houses of men on the register.

This was not pleasant work. Researching the Great War in Essex, I found a few signs of the unpopularity of canvassing for attestees in the diary of Revd Andrew Clark: William Brown, in Great Leighs, was reluctantly involved and told Clark that it was “the most unpleasant job he ever took on, to recruit your neighbours’ sons, your neighbours’ men, your own men, but no one else would touch it.”’ The appearance of posters in Chelmsford advertising for Derby canvassers suggest that townspeople were also reluctant to undertake the role. [Bodleian Library, Clark diaries, 7/12/1915 and 3/11/1915]. Still millions of men were asked to attest their willingness to serve.

National Registration card

National Registration card of Thomas Gorman, showing that he attested under the Derby Scheme on 11 December 1915


The other prong to the campaign was a renewal of the general recruiting campaign but calling for men to sign up either as new recruits for immediate enlistment or as attestees willing to go when called. Again recruiting meetings were held and posters went up across the country; now the threat of conscription was greater than ever as a back-drop to these meetings.

As part of the campaign, the Government stressed two things: first, that men would be able to appeal against their call up, with the strong implication that men who had not attested would be unable to appeal against their later conscription. It was stressed that men should leave the decision over whether their personal or work situation meant they should stay or go to the local tribunal. This was important for many men who joined up, since it meant that they could attest on the assumption that their circumstances would keep them out of the army – they would appear patriotic but not actually have to fight. It probably also increased the number of ‘starred’ men attesting.

The second strong message was even more important: the single men would go first. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith made an explicit pledge to married men to this extent: On 2 November, he told the House of Commons:

“I am told by Lord Derby and others that there is some doubt among married men who are now being asked to enlist whether, having enlisted, or promised to enlist, they may not be called upon to serve, while younger and unmarried men are holding back and not doing their duty. Let them at once disabuse themselves of that notion. So far as I am concerned, I should certainly say the obligation of the married man to serve ought not to be enforced or held binding upon him unless and until – I hope by voluntary effort, but if it be needed in the last resort by other means – the unmarried men are dealt with.”

The official nature of this promise is emphasised in this recruiting poster produced by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, which cries out: “MARRIED MEN! ENLIST NOW (sic). YOU HAVE THE PRIME MINISTER’S PLEDGE THAT YOU WILL NOT BE CALLED UPON TO SERVE UNTIL THE YOUNG UNMARRIED MEN HAVE BEEN SUMMONED TO THE COLOURS.”

Official recruiting poster including Asquith's pledge to married men. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5062)

Official recruiting poster including Asquith’s pledge to married men. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5062)


Like the potential for exemption, the promise that men could patriotically attest without actually having to serve (at least until the single men had gone) may have allowed men to attest on the assumption that they would not actually have to serve.

In honour of this tendency, the East Ham Collegian magazine satirically defined the attestee’s armlet as ‘A badge worn by married men […] to show their sympathy with the principle of “Single Men First”.’ (quoted in East Ham Echo, 29/12/1915)

A proud Derby attestee (Daily Mirror, 30 November 1915)

A proud Derby attestee (Daily Mirror, 30 November 1915)

The pledge to the married men was to become very important in early 1916, as we shall see.

In December, Lord Derby reported to Parliament that 2,950,514 men had attested, enlisted or come forwards and been rejected on medical grounds from 23 October to 19 December 2015, out of 5 million men of military age. He revealed that 2,246,630 had attested, with another 275,031 enlisting and 428,853 being rejected (although whether from attesting or enlisting it is not clear).

He gave figures broken down into categories for the men who had come forward from 23 October-15 December, with an estimated breakdown between married and single men: (or image from Cmd paper)

Single Men

  • Total 2,179,231, of which starred 690,138
  • Number who enlisted 103,000
  • Number who attested 840,000
  • Number rejected 207,000
  • Total men who attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 1,150,000
  • Total men who had not attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 1,029,231

 Married men

  • Total 2,832,210, of which starred 915,491
  • Number who enlisted 112,431
  • Number who attested 1,344,979
  • Number rejected 221,853
  • Total men who attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 1,679,263
  • Total men who had not attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 1,152,947

Total figures

  • Total men available for enlistment 5,011,441
  • Total men who attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 2,829,263
  • Total men who had not attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 2,182,178

Lord Derby stressed that “the men in the married groups can only be assumed to be available if the Prime Minister’s pledge to them has been redeemed by the single men attesting in such numbers as to leave only a negligible quantity unaccounted for.”

A more positive aspect of the figures that he noted was the vast numbers of men who came forward to attest in the last few days of the scheme. A total of 1,070,478 men attested on the four days starting Friday 10 December, with over 325,000 coming forward on both the Saturday and the Sunday. Somewhat predictably this was compared to the rush to enlist in the late summer of 1914, when over 30,000 men had come forward on each of four days in early September. Clearly far more men ‘attested their willingness to serve’ in 1915 than enlisted in those days, the key differences being, of course, that the 1915 men did not have to go off immediately to serve their King and Country and – as noted above – many will have come forward on the assumption that they would not have to serve.

Attestation section of army service papers for Henry George Jesse Peavot, a librarian for London Zoo. It shows that he attested on 9 December 1915 and was called up (to the Honourable Artillery Company) on 6 December 1916

Attestation section of army service papers for Henry George Jesse Peavot, a married librarian for London Zoo. It shows that he attested on 9 December 1915 and was called up (to the Honourable Artillery Company) on 6 December 1916. He was killed in action in 1917.

The start of the call-up and conscription

Overall, the Scheme was deemed a failure. It can be seen either as the last attempt by a Liberal-led government to retain the voluntary principle. But it can just as well be seen as a cynical effort to hasten the demise of ‘voluntaryism’ but demonstrating it’s inability to bring in the numbers of men needed. Either way, January 1916 brought the Military Service Act, which made all single men of military age liable to being called up.

Alongside the Derby Scheme the Government asked all local authorities to create tribunals to hear the appeals of men against their call up. We have seen in a previous post how these tribunals worked, hearing appeals from both Derby attestees and conscripts under the Military Service Acts of 1916.

In theory the only difference in the right to appeal was that while both attested men and conscripts could appeal 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), and work of national importance, only conscripts could appeal on the basis of conscientious objection. This was logical since attested men had sworn that they were willing to serve, but since men had been told  (at least implicitly) that military service could only be avoided by attesting and going to the tribunals, it is not surprising that some attested despite being being conscientious objectors or being so unwilling to serve that they felt it better to be tarred with the label of ‘conchy’ than to join up.

Also of interest in relation to the Derby Scheme is the tribunals’ attitude early on, as the first groups and classes were being called up and made their appeals (the classes being the MSA equivalent of the Derby Scheme Groups: classes 1-23 for single and, later, 24-46 for married men). The expectation had been that the groups and classes would be called up only gradually, as Londoner Georgina Lee wrote of attested men in the diary she kept for her infant son on 11 December: “Of course they will not all be required for a long time, as they will be called up in groups and the single ones go first.”

In fact on 20 December 1915 it was announced that the first four groups (2-5, since group 1 were too young) would be called on 20 January 1916. By 16 February the call-up dates for all the higher-numbered single groups had been announced, all to begin by 18 March (group 1 were then to follow at the end of March). The records of the early tribunal meetings show how unexpected this was, with many men being put back by a set number of groups (say from group 6 to group 16, in reality a three week reprieve) rather than a set number of months as became the practice for the rest of the war.

In March, the married men were called for. There was uproar (from the married men at least) that Asquith’s pledge had not been fulfilled and there were still large numbers of single men who were not serving. What was more, those ‘unpatriotic’ married men who had not attested were not to be called up at all. The obvious point that the attested men had attested their willingness to serve and shouldn’t have done if they were not actually willing to serve did not sway the campaigners. A second Military Service Act was passed, extending conscription to married men. I can’t tell whether the ‘married men’ dispute was an error on the government’s part or a brilliant scheme to get a result that would have been thought impossible 18 months: compulsory service for married men. Either way, full conscription was the result

Success or failure?

So, how many Derby men ended up joining up?  As we have seen, there were some 2.25 million attested men by mid December 1915. The scheme was reopened in the new year until 1 March 1916 (leading to the ‘Will you March Too, or Wait till March 2’ poster campaign), so the intake would actually have been greater.

Topical humour from Punch, 3 March 1916

Topical humour from Punch, 3 March 1916


The Statistics of the Military Effort in the Great War tell us that between January 1916 and March 1917 recruiting figures were:

  • Volunteers:                                196,725
  • Groups and Classes:               1,309,799
    • Of which Derby men:   849,454
    • And Conscripted men: 457,345

These statistics tell us two things about the Derby Scheme. First, that less than two in every five attested men joined the army in the first 15 months of the Scheme’s operation. At the same time, Derby attestees made up the largest group of recruits in that period (after which no distinction is made in the official statistics). Despite the ‘failure’ of the scheme, with only 56% of available men attesting or enlisting, the Scheme probably brought in more recruits than did the Military Service Act and the last tailing off of voluntary recruitment during the year in which all three routes into the armed forces were open (March 1916-March 1917 – the figures of volunteers and attested men above, of course start in January 1916) – with volunteers probably including some Derby men and likely conscripts who wanted to join particular regiments or avoid the stigma of conscription.

Similarly, we see that most of the men seen by the tribunals were Derby attestees in 1916: Chingford tribunal, for example, heard 200 cases from attested men, compared with 154 from conscripts. (Walthamstow Guardian 5/1/1917). Middlesex Appeal Tribunals, which heard cases where men or the military appealed against the decision of the local tribunals in the county, heard 8,791 original appeals between March 1916 and November 1918 (another 2,000 applications were presumably repeat applications), of which 4,090 were attested men and 4,701 under the MSA. Given that the Derby Scheme closed in March 1916, it is impressive that the figures are so similar. (National Archives MH 47/5/7, Minute book)

Was the Derby Scheme a failure? It depends what the objective was. If it aimed to save ‘voluntaryism’, it failed. If it aimed to make conscription more palatable by showing up the limits of voluntary recruiting and persuading men to volunteer to be conscripted, then it was surely a success. Either way, it was certainly a bizarre transitional period in recruitment in Great War Britain.





Posted by on 10 December 2015 in Military Service Tribunal, Recruitment


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Stepney conscription exemptions scandal

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.

Early 1916 poster instructing single men to apply for exemption or face being called up. (From US Library of Congress website)

Early 1916 poster instructing single men to apply for exemption or face being called up. (From US Library of Congress website)

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).

Example of an exemption certificate stamped rather than signed (from Peace Pledge Union website)

Example of an exemption certificate stamped rather than signed (from Peace Pledge Union website)

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

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The National Register: the beginning of the end of voluntary recruitment

August 1915 brought Britain a “Registration Day”, an extraordinary census on 15 August recording information about every man and woman between 15 and 65 for a new National Register. Its purpose was to find out how many men of military age were still civilians, how many could be spared for war work and, more pressingly, how many could join the armed forces.

During the first year of the war two million men had joined Britain’s army and navy (the air force was not formed until 1918). Hundreds of thousands were also serving as regulars, reservists or territorial force men, having joined up before August 1914. By February 1915, 15% of London’s male industrial workforce, and probably more of its service sector employees, were serving. (This was roughly in line with the national picture for industrial employees, but London’s large service sector bumped up London’s level of war service).

By early 1915, the numbers joining up each month had levelled out at around 110,000 and the authorities were worried that not enough men were coming forward to build up an army (and replace its casualties) to win the war. The Government wanted to know how many eligible men were still available. The National Registration Act 1915 was passed by Parliament on 15 July 1915, paving the way for the creation of the register a month later on August 15th. While the register did not in itself make men liable to serve, the responsible minister (Walter Long) said that ‘it will compel them to declare that they are doing nothing to help their country in her hour of crisis.’

Preamble and first clause of the National Registration Act 1915 (from

Preamble and first clause of the National Registration Act 1915 (from

The Derby Scheme website summarises the process of building the register well:

“The registration was to undertaken in a similar way to a census however, unlike a census, the head of household was not responsible for completing the form and instead each person who came under the act would complete their own form. Some 29 million forms were issued across England, Scotland and Wales.

Men were required to complete a granite blue form and women a white form.

“The returned forms were collected shortly after 15 August 1915 and compiled by the local authority. A summary of the register was passed to the Registrar General who compiled statistics however the actual forms were retained at a local level.”

Registering in a common boarding house from Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War

Registering in a common boarding house from Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War

It was a major undertaking and required a huge amount of work to complete. In England it was organised by local authorities (in Scotland it was centralised), and conducted with the help of a large number of volunteers. In St Marylebone, the council’s general purposes committee noted on 7 October that,

“The Town Clerk has reported to us on the steps taken for compiling and maintaining the Borough’s portion of the National Register. The work has engaged a very considerable number of voluntary helpers and a large number of the staff since the beginning of August. The invitations of the President of the Local Government Board and the Registrar General for capable voluntary helpers from among the professional and official classes did not meet with a very large response, although several barristers, members of the Council, and leading residents kindly offered their services; but at the last moment a number of church workers, workers from the Women’s Emergency Corps, the Women’s Service League, and others, came forward, and a sufficient number of enumerators undertook the difficult task of the distribution and collection of the Registration forms.

“Owing to the large number of foreign residents in the Borough it was also necessary to secure interpreters, and several residents volunteered for this work.”

The register of men in St Marylebone had been completed by 7 September but the register of women was still being worked on. Nearly 100,000 forms had to be dealt with and over 70,000 certificates completed and sent out.

National Registration work in Bermondsey town hall. From Daily Mirror 11 Sept 1915

National Registration work in Bermondsey town hall. From Daily Mirror 11 Sept 1915

The information on the forms was sent to the Local Government Board, who transferred the details of men of military age (i.e. 18-41 years old) onto pink forms that listed their employment and family details. If they employed in war work (for example, coal mining, munitions work, railways and some agricultural work) their pink forms were marked with a black star – leading to the term ‘starred’ meaning that someone had an essential war role.

Article on the pink form, Daily Express 18 August 1915.

Article on the pink form, Daily Express 18 August 1915.

People who were registered were sent a registration card:

National Registration card

National Registration card

As you will see, this one – for Thomas Gorman of 28 Farmilo Road, Leyton, records his name, address and occupation. It also carried the mark of the next step in the process – the Derby Scheme: Thomas Gorman ‘attested his willingness to serve’ in December 1915.

Nationally, the 1915 register showed that over 5 million men were not in the forces, of whom 2.18 million were single and 2.83 million were married. Of those single men (the first to be conscripted in 1916), 690,138 were in ‘starred’ roles meaning that nearly 1.5 million were potentially available for military service.

The National Register was a major waypoint in the move from the voluntary recruitment of 1914 to the conscription system introduced in 1916. It gave the Government a statistical breakdown of how many single and married men, of what ages, remained in the civilian population – and it gave them those men’s names and addresses. After those men were asked to enlist or attest in the Derby Scheme at the end of 1915, the Military Service Acts of 1916 introduced compulsory military service for all men of military age (unless they could get an exemption).


  • Trevor Wilson, The Myriad Faces of War
  • Derby Scheme Website
  • Peter Simkins, Kitchener’s Army

Posted by on 25 August 2015 in Recruitment


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When will this war end?

That was a question that was all too often on the minds of soldiers, sailors and civilians during the Great War: when will this war end? Views varied throughout the war on what a realistic answer was.

This recruiting poster promised victory in 1915 if only men would come forward in sufficient numbers

This recruiting poster promised victory in 1915 if only men would come forward in sufficient numbers

In January 1915, businessman F.S. Oliver wrote to his brother in Canada about the progress of the war and attitudes to it in London.

…when will it be finished? The man in the street varies between 3 points of view: Kitchener’s original prophecy of three or four years; the general business man’s view, March 1916 [i.e. another 14 months]; the newspaper (derived from the General staff) optimist, 3 or 4 months. Just now it has made up its mind to the first of these.

What can we learn from this? Obviously it is only the observation of one (quite well-connected) man, but it tells us something about views about the war.  For one thing it tells us that there was some variation in views, so we cannot simply say that people thought one thing or another. The quotation also tells us something of where he felt the views had come from; the 3-year prediction was a well-known statement of Lord Kitchener’s, when he called for a mass army to be formed. The idea that newspapers and generals were promising a short war is something that has become a major part of our mythology of the Great War.

Over by Christmas?

I have written elsewhere about the idea that people in 1914 thought that the Great War would be ‘over by Christmas’. Some may have done, but it was not a widespread belief and is only very rarely expressed in written sources. Soldiers were more likely to say that it would be over so soon, either because they feared not getting to use their training and take part, or because they had taken part and wanted it to be over as soon as possible. Many went from fear of an early end to the war to wishing for it.

Henry Williamson (later author of Tarka the Otter) presents a good example of the effect that war service had on predictions. Having predicted at least a year of war in August 1914, he repeated in September that the ‘war looks as if it will be a long one’. After his first spell of service in the muddy, dangerous front line trenches, however, he wrote home that ‘We all think the war will end soon, thank God when it does’.

Private Henry Williamson, 1915

Private Henry Williamson, 1915

The timing of the recruiting boom of 1914 suggests that men did not join up in droves thinking the war would end by Christmas. The peak of recruiting came in the wake of the British Army’s retreat with heavy losses from Mons – hardly an event to inspire dreams of an imminent victory.

The idea that generals and politicians were telling everyone (through the newspapers) that the war would be over soon doesn’t hold much water.  The only such public statement that refers to that term that I was able to find (other than in reference to a German belief in an early victory) was from Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India, who told an audience at Harrow School in October that he ‘was perfectly shocked when he read in the papers of people talking about the war being over by Christmas [. . .]. In his judgement more than one Christmas would pass before our soldiers returned’. Curzon was using the phrase in exactly the opposite way to how generals and politicians are popularly supposed to have used it – instead of an optimistic promise to persuade men to join up, it was a warning not to think that victory would be easy.

The phrase and the idea certainly existed in 1914, then. It appears several times in Punch, including in this oddly-prescient exchange in a story in the 14 October issue:

“It’ll be over by Christmas all right,” said James again, but without conviction. “Maybe,” I said; “Christmas, 1918, you mean, I suppose?” James called me a rude name, as soldiers will, and relapsed into moody silence.

The idea that it was dominant, though, is part of the post-war image of 1914 that has grown up since then, during the later war years and particularly after 1918.

After 1914

In general, it seems that people’s expectations of the length of the war revolved around the big battles and calendar years.  Robert Graves notes in Goodbye to All That that soldiers could not really conceive of the war going on for more than another 12 months.  When he was conscripted in the summer of 1916, Edwin Bennett from Walthamstow promised his family that the war would end and he would be home again to play with his new daughter within a year.

Perhaps surprisingly, people could place bets against the ‘risk’ of peace coming within a certain time period. In 1914, even odds were given on peace by March 1915, but the ‘risk’ of peace within around 12 months decreased gradually from 75% in Spring 1915 to only evens in August 1917.

Others placed less formal bets, including many servicemen but also civilians. RWM Gibbs, a Battersea-born teacher then living in Surrey, had such a bet with his outfitter in early 1916 that the war would end that year. Gibbs’s father had made the same prediction a few months earlier.

The big set-piece offensives on the Western Front raised and – for the most part – dashed hopes of victory by the end of the year, or by Christmas. The battle of Loos had this effect, but it was much more prominent in 1916 in the run up to the battle of the Somme and, particularly, in 1917. The year had been unofficially declared the ‘year of victory’, with a ‘Victory Loan’ and a memorial unveiled in the East London cemetery dedicated to the fallen of the war of 1914-1917.

Newspapers made no secret of the 1917 War Loan being a 'Victory Loan' (Daily Mirror, 27/2/1917)

Newspapers made no secret of the 1917 War Loan being a ‘Victory Loan’ (Daily Mirror, 27/2/1917)

The failure to bring about victory in 1917 was a huge blow to British morale. Another enormous offensive at Ypres had brought peace no closer than had the previous summer’s effort on the Somme. The failure to break through or even hold on to ground captured at Cambrai only added to people’s disappointment, as we have seen recent blog post.

As noted in that blog post, the annual debate at Talbot House (in Poperinge, Belgium) on whether the war would end by the end of the coming year had registered a strong ‘yes’ vote in 1916 and 1917. The vote in early 1918 produced a tie, with only the chair’s casting vote producing an overall affirmative resolution that the war would end in 1918.

In 1939?

An interesting echo of Oliver’s observation from the start of 1915 comes in a Mass-Observation survey in November 1939.

Only 19% thought that it would last three years (considerably more than before the government’s prediction of a three-year war was publicised), whereas 21% expected it to last ‘nine months to two years’ and the same proportion thought that the war would be over in less than six months, only two decades after the 52-month Great War! The report noted ‘the exceptionally high proportion [29 percent] who can’t answer’, many of whom had ‘thought there would never be a war and since its outbreak have been wishfully thinking it away’ Similarly there were predictions from 1942 at least that the war would end within the year, while battlefield victories boosted confidence in an imminent peace.

When will this war end?

Of course we all now know that the war ended on 11 November 1918 (or at least the fighting on the Western Front ended then, the peace was signed in July 1919 and actually legally came into force in 1920). One thing that makes contemporary diaries both interesting and at the same time hard to become entirely lost in is that we know when the big battles were to come and when peace would finally return, when those living through the war obviously could no know either. It is very hard for us now to know how it felt to be in, say, November 1916 not knowing that the war would last for another two years. That people withstood the hardships of such a protracted and unpredictable conflict is hugely impressive.

The beginning of a new calendar year prompted widespread expectations (or perhaps more accurately hopes) of peace within 12 months – before the end of the year or by Christmas. From 1915 to 1917 this was a common feature in British morale; ironically, 1918 appears to have been an exception and peace seemed further away than ever.

Main sources:

  • See my article ‘”Over by Christmas”: British popular opinion and the short war in 1914’ in First World War Studies journal 2010
  • FS Oliver, ‘Anvil of War’
  • Diaries of RWM Gibbs and Andrew Clark (Bodleian library)
  • Letters of Mr and Mrs Bennett (IWM)
  • Harrison and Madge, eds. ‘War begins at home by mass observation.’
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Posted by on 4 January 2015 in Ordinary Londoners, Recruitment


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London and the recruiting boom

Recruitment to the army is one of the defining images of 1914 in Britain and in London in particular – Kitchener’s call to arms and the queues outside recruiting offices. A week-by-week breakdown of recruiting rates reveals that the pattern of enlistment in London was not quite the same as across the UK as a whole.

"Is your home here? Defend it!" A poster depicting the recruiting districts in the UK (Library of Congress archive)

“Is your home here? Defend it!” A 1915 poster depicting the recruiting districts in the UK (Library of Congress archive)

September 1914 was the peak month for recruitment to the British Army during the Great War. Half a million men joined the army during the month, most of them during the first week and a half. On 11 September, the army increased its physical requirements of recruits. This (possibly coinciding with a natural end to the extreme levels seen after the news from Mons arrived at the end of August) resulted in a very rapid decline in recruiting. Over 190,000 men joined up nationwide in the first week of September, but only 40,000 did so in the week of the 15th to the 21st a fortnight later.

London’s recruiting pattern was basically the same as that of the UK as a whole, with the peak weeks of recruitment being the first two weeks of September, followed by a decline. An interesting facet of the figures, though, is that the peak was less pronounced in London than in the UK as a whole. One way to observe this is that the peak weeks (1-7 and 8-14 September) saw London’s recruits make up a smaller proportion of the UK-wide figure than in any other week in August or September (see graph below). Overall, just under 18% of August’s recruits came from London and just under 15% of those who joined up in September.

Weekly recruiting rates for London and that figure as a percentage of the UK enlistments that week, Aug-Sept 1914

Weekly recruiting rates for London and that figure as a percentage of the UK enlistments that week, Aug-Sept 1914

Another way, that tells a different aspect of the story is that of the men who enlisted across the UK in the period 4 August to 28 September, a third joined up in the first week of September. For London alone, the figure is 25%.

London’s peak of recruiting was very large, but it was less extreme compared to the weeks either side of it, when London provided proportionately more of the nation’s recruits. Historian David Silbey (in his book The British Working Classes and Enthusiasm for War in 1914-1916) describes the recruiting boom as behaving like a ripple coming out from London in August and early September, with London disproportionately affected in August.

The pattern after September was not even. In October, over 22% of all recruits came through the London recruiting district (which covered the Metropolitan area of Greater London, not just the county of London as it existed in 1914). The figure fell below 15% for the next three months, before settling around 18-23% for the rest of 1915. From the 1915 average of 20%, the proportion fell under conscription to around 14.5-16% in the remaining years of the war. The wartime average was 17%.

So, what does this tell us? First of all, it tells us that the pattern for recruitment was different in London to the UK as a whole, with more enlistments in the first weeks and less of a pronounced peak in early September. Second, it tells us that around 17% of recruits came through the London district, which is around what one would expect for a region (Greater London) housing around 7 million of the nation’s 44 million people.

Note on War Office recruiting figures: the figures for August and September do not tally exactly between the daily and monthly returns. The daily figures have been used here for August and September – allowing for a weekly breakdown – the monthly figures are quoted from October onwards. The proportions of recruits brought in through the London recruiting district were broadly the same though: 18.5% in August 1915 and 14.63% in September in the monthly return, compared with the above-quoted daily return figures of just under 18 and 15% respectively.


Posted by on 28 September 2014 in Recruitment



Your King and Country Need YOU: the initial rush to the colours

One of the abiding images of 1914 in London is the crush of men trying to join the army. The biggest rush to enlist came at the end of August, but the initial rush overwhelmed the recruiting machinery and so created a memorable image.

Recruiting lining up outside the Whitehall Recruiting Office in London, August 1914 (c)IWM

Recruiting lining up outside the Whitehall Recruiting Office in London, August 1914 (c)IWM 

Over the first five days of war – 4th to 8th August 1914 – nearly 8,200 men joined the British Army (not including the existing reservists and Territorials who were called up). In London alone, 2,152 men joined up in those couple of days.

August 6th saw the first ‘call to arms’ published, Lord Kitchener (the Secretary of State for War) called for 100,000 men to join up ‘for three years or the duration’ and recruiting posters went up around London. These were not the ones with Kitchener’s face on them, those posters (by Alfred Leete, based on a cover image for the magazine London Opinion) were not widespread and appeared on in late September. The first posters were text-based, as were most 1914 recruiting posters. One read: “Your King and Country need – YOU”. Another restated the call to arms.

An example of the first wave of recruiting posters in 1914 (c) Library of Congress

An example of the first wave of recruiting posters in 1914 (c) Library of Congress

The crush and long queues at recruiting stations caused much frustration, particularly at the central London recruiting office on Great Scotland Yard and the headquarters of the various Territorial units. City clerk Bernard Brookes waited for two or three hours on Buckingham Palace Road on 7 August to join the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (16th battalion of the all-Territorial London Regiment): ‘After much swearing outside the building, we were “sworn in”’. On that day, 7 August, The Times reported new offices opening in Camberwell, Islington, Battersea, Fulham, and Marylebone.

The men who joined up included both completely new recruits like Brookes and people with previous military experience, either Regular or Territorial. Among the latter was shipping clerk Ronald Charles Colman. Colman was 23 years and 6 months old and had joined the London Scottish (14th battalion, London Regiment) in 1909; he left the unit in 1913 after his 4 years’ Territorial service was up. When war came in 1914, he immediately rejoined at their headquarters, signing up at 59 Buckingham Gate on 5 August 1914 and passing the medical examination. He was immediately ‘embodied’ (i.e. mobilised) and after little more than a month, he and his comrades were in France (arriving on 16 September 1914) a few days after Colman had signed the ‘imperial service’ declaration that was required at that point for Territorials to be sent overseas, since they had joined units designed for home defence.

The London Scottish were the first Territorial unit to go into action alongside Regular soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force. On 31 October (Hallowe’en) 1914, they went into action at Messines, in the south of the Ypres Salient. The Scots went moved to Wystschaete from 8 a.m. to reinforce the 4th Cavalry Brigade (who were fighting as infantry). They advanced into a dangerous gap in the British line, suffering casualties all the way and resisted attacks by the Germans through the night, denying them access to the road to Ypres.

The Messines 1917 blog‘s concludes that “the efforts of the London Scottish had won time and ultimately prevented a far superior force breaking through to Ypres. The Scots had lost 394 of their 700 officers and men in their short time on the ridge.” A famous photo shows some of the London Scottish at their roll call the next day, when only 150 men answered their names – although stragglers made the numbers up to over 300 uninjured survivors in the end.

One of the casualties that day was Pte R.C. Colman, whose injury is summarised in his medical records:

Fracture of ankle (Rt)

“In action near Ypres 31-10-14. Man states that when advancing a shell burst near him, and he was thrown heavily injuring his right foot either by the fall or his foot being struck. There is considerable thickening of [right] ankle. There is also some tenderness and after walking any distance there is pain”

He was treated at the 4th Cavalry Field Ambulance before being sent back to the UK. He was in hospital from 6-11 November at St Bartholomew’s in London, before being transferred to the 3rd barraltion of the London Scottish (3/14 Londons). In May 1915, Colman was discharged as no longer physically fit for military service, after only 274 days of wartime service, just 47 of which were spent on the Western Front.

Colman’s injuries, although they were serious enough to stop him from serving as a soldier, did not constrain his ambitions elsewhere. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, “Colman began to take up the acting career which had fascinated him since amateur dramatics in childhood. He made his début with Lena Ashwell at the London Coliseum in 1916, playing a black-faced herald in a short sketch called The Maharani of Arakan by Rabindranath Tagore; he was soon after that taken by Gladys Cooper into her Playhouse company for minor roles, which Miss Cooper considered he played ‘with amiable but remarkable clumsiness’. Very soon, however, his natural good looks were recognized by a film producer and by 1919 he had appeared in three short silent dramas, despite a casting card that read ‘does not screen well’.”

He did suffer from the wound though, as the DNB notes “he was to spend much of the remainder of his life and career attempting, often in considerable pain, to conceal [the limp caused by his war wounds] from audiences and cameras alike.” Ronald Colman went on to star in films like Beau Geste (1926) and Bulldog Drummond (1929). He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, one for his film work and one for theatre.

Post-war photo of Ronald Colman, veteran of the London Scottish at Messines, 1914

Post-war photo of Ronald Colman, veteran of the London Scottish at Messines, 1914

Ronald Colman was, in a sense, one of the lucky ones. The volunteers of 1914 were the most likely to be killed or wounded during the war (because they served for longer and probably also because of the poor quality of the early trenches and the Tommies’ lack of helmets before 1916). When he was wounded, it was enough to get him out of the war but not enough to prevent him being an enormously successful star of stage and screen. He died in California in 1958; the Times called him ‘the most complete gentleman of the cinema’.



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Posted by on 6 August 2014 in Famous People, Recruitment


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London’s war graves

When walking through cemeteries and churchyards around London and across the UK, it is common to come across the familiar outline of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone, or even a Cross of Sacrifice. Well over eight thousand of the British Empire’s war dead are buried in London and Middlesex.

According to the CWGC’s website, there are 9375 cemeteries, churchyards and memorials in the UK that serve as the nation’s commemoration of a fallen service man or women of the Great War. This is a total of over 90,000 of the British and Empire dead of the Great War, out of around 673,000 with known graves in total from that war worldwide (deaths dating from 1914-21). This does not include those mentioned on their parents’ or siblings’ gravestones here, only those who were buried or cremated in the UK or whose bodies were never found and who are officially commemorated in this country.

War graves in front of a Second World War air-raid shelter in Wandsworth (Earlsfield) Cemetery. Picture (c)CWGC

First World War graves in front of a Second World War air-raid shelter in Wandsworth (Earlsfield) Cemetery. Picture (c)CWGC

In London there are 36 cemeteries and churchyards in which service personnel of the Great War are buried, along with another 79 sites in what used to be Middlesex (now almost entirely in London).  There are bound to be more in the bits of East London that used to be in Essex and South London that used to be in Kent or Surrey, but these are harder to separate from the modern counties’ sites.

In total 8,569 of the Empire’s war dead are buried in London and Middlesex (5637 in London, 2832 in Middlesex). Sixty-three of the 115 sites hold fewer than 10 war casualties each, while the largest six sites hold nearly a third of the London Great War graves between them – over 2,700.

The 27 sites with over 100 war dead are listed in this table:

London CWGC

The men and women buried in London and Middlesex are a mixed groups, from a variety of nations and arms of service. The reasons they are buried here vary too: some were Londoners who died in training or on leave or serving as medics; many died in London hospitals whether as Londoners near home or  hundreds or thousands of miles from their families across the UK and the rest of the globe; others survived the war but died shortly afterwards of their wounds or illness.

Laid to rest thousands of miles from home. Australian war graves in Nunhead cemetery, 25 April 1920. Image from AWM collection

Laid to rest thousands of miles from home. Australian war graves in Nunhead cemetery, 25 April 1920. Image from AWM collection

In addition to the thousands buried in London and Middlesex, the capital is home to the nation’s largest memorial to the missing. The Tower Hill Memorial commemorates the dead of the Merchant Navy and the Fishing Fleet. Almost twelve thousand of its 35,747 names are from the First World War. The other memorials in the UK (the matching naval memorials of Portsmouth, Chatham and Plymouth and the smaller Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton to those of land and air forces who died at sea) together list another 27,370 names from the Great War dead with no known graves. In addition, 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers are commemorated at Patcham Down after dying in the UK and being cremated in accordance with their faiths.

Near to London are the graves of another 1,738 of the Great War dead buried in Brookwood cemetery (including the Muslim comrades of the Sikhs and Hindus named at Patcham Down). A new monument there also records the names of over 350 war dead who still had no known grave before being commemorated at Brookwood.

Australian and New Zealand headstones in Highgate Cemetery. Picture (c)CWGC

Australian and New Zealand headstones in Highgate Cemetery. Picture (c)CWGC


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West Indians in Britain’s Great War army

Across the British Empire, men joined up to fight in the Great War in large numbers. Many West Indian men joined the British Army, leading to the creation of a (non-combatant) British West Indies Regiment. Not all West Indians ended up in that Regiment, though, and official acceptance of their place in other units evolved over time. This blog post, in Black History Month, looks at some elements of that story.

The British Empire in 1914 covered almost 12 million square miles and included 421 million people. Of the 59 million who were not in India (including modern Pakistan and Bangladesh) and the UK, 1.7 million were in the British West Indies. This consisted of the colonies of: the Bahamas, Barbados, British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica (including the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Cayman Islands), Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands. The vast majority of these British subjects in the West Indies were black, with only 35,000 white people among them.

There was already a West India Regiment, which was based in Sierra Leone at the start of the war and fought in East Africa and Palestine.  However, many West Indian men travelled to Britain to join the regular British Army rather than this unit. The authorities in Britain decided to group these men together into a new unit rather than having them dispersed across the army and serving alongside white men.  So the British West Indies Regiment was created in 1915. In total, 15,600 men served in the Regiment, two thirds from Jamaica; CWGC records the deaths of 1390 men of the regiment in the Great War period. Just over sixty are buried in the UK, with another 58 commemorated on the Hollybrook memorial in Southampton after dying at sea. Although they did not serve in the front line on the Western Front, the BWIR did fight in Egypt and Palestine; 49 men of the regiment were mentioned in despatches and 81 earned medals for bravery (there is a good photo on flickr of one BWIR soldier being awarded the DCM).

Recruits for the British West Indies Regiment from Trinidad and Barbados being sworn in by the Lord Mayor of London (from Illustrated War News, 26 Jan 1916)

Recruits for the British West Indies Regiment from Trinidad and Barbados being sworn in by the Lord Mayor of London (from Illustrated War News, 26 Jan 1916)

We have already seen that not all West Indian men – or Britons of West Indian descent – enlisting in the UK were put into the new West Indies Regiment. The (Jamaican-born) Bemand brothers both served in the Royal Artillery, while footballer Walter Tull served in the Middlesex Regiment; all three of these men had a white British parent as well as a black West Indian parent, two of them earned commissions in the British Army but sadly all three were killed in action. Anorther notable West Indian soldier who joined up in the UK was William Robinson Clarke, who joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 as a driver and later became a pilot. A blog post on quotes a number of sources describing other black soldiers in the British Army.

Sgt W.R. Clarke, an RE8 pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, he was wounded in action in 1917.

Sgt W.R. Clarke, an RE8 pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, he was wounded in action in 1917.

Two other West Indians based in London demonstrate different experiences of West Indians who joined up to fight in the British Army. Ralph Ernest Vignalë and his brother Otto Rudolf Vignalë were born in Trinidad but moved to the UK before the war. In 1911, they were living together on Amberley Grove, Croydon, along with Ralph’s wife, the Deptford-born Henrietta, and the first of the couple’s three daughters. Ralph was an electrical engineer and Otto was a dental surgeon. By 1915 they were living on London Road, Croydon: Ralph at number 217 and Otto at 161. (Note: Their surname is sometimes recorded as Vignali)

In July 1915, Ralph joined the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. By early 1916, he was a corporal in their 4th/4th battalion (a reserve unit), based in Cambridge. He was never transferred to an active-service battalion of the West Surreys. Meanwhile, in February 1916, Otto attested under the Derby Scheme (the odd voluntary conscription system that preceded full compulsion); he was then called up in May and joined the Royal Artillery.

After nearly two years in the army, Ralph eventually did go out to France, but only after being transferred to the 3rd Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment, whom he joined in France in late April 1917. The unit did not serve as combat troops on the Western front, so Ralph Vignalë would not have seen action directly.  After a period of sickness in late June, he returned to the unit but became severely ill in late September 1917. In October he was sent back to a hospital in the UK suffering from acute nephritis – a serious kidney problem, caused by exposure while serving in the BWIR. The illness was so severe that he was discharged and given a 100% army disability pension (meaning that he was deemed unable to earn money through work) until he had recovered; he was declared fully fit in 1920. Now a civilian again, Ralph studied to become a barrister, passing his final exams in 1922 and becoming a member of the Middle Temple. He later became mayor of his home town of Arima in Trinidad.

A black soldier (possibly an artilleryman by his cap badge) with two comrades. Could this be O.R. Vignale? Sadly, we may never know

A black soldier (possibly an artilleryman by his cap badge) with two comrades.

Otto Vignalë passed through artillery training and joined the 2/1st Northumbrian (North Riding) Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, before moving on to ‘A’ Battery, Heavy Artillery, where he qualified as a signaller.  Like his brother, he was not sent abroad while serving in original unit, but he was also retained in the UK when the army (belatedly) transferred him to the Royal Army Medical Corps. He too survived illness (in his case influenza) and returned to civilian life after the war (when he lived at 8 Sydenham Road, Croydon); he qualified as a dentist and lived into the 1950s. Both Vignalë brothers enlisted in the British Army in active service units, but neither had the chance to fight at the front.

In 1917, the War Office had a different issue to resove relating to West Indian recruits. Under the Military Service (Conventions with Allied States) Act 1917, military citizens of one Allied Power living in another had the choice to join one or other of their armed forces – these men were to volunteer with their home country or be conscripted in their new homelands. This was controversial in relation to Russian Jews being forced to fight in the Russian Army or for their British allies (see this post-war book). Less well known is the situation of black British subjects living in the USA – the vast majority of whom were migrants from the British West Indies.

In the National Archives, there is correspondence between the Military Mission in Washington and the War Office in London about what to do with these men. It was reported that hundreds had expressed their preference to join the British Army rather than the American. However, they wanted to join combatant units in the regular British Army, rather than the British West Indies Regiment. The fact that they were not enlisting was reportedly causing indignation among citizens in Britain’s important new ally.  Existing rules (although clearly not always enforced) barred non-white soldiers from serving in the regular British Army.

While the issue was being resolved, these men were asked to sign an attestation that they wanted to serve. This would prevent the US authorities from conscripting them.

Sworn declaration by Allan Hoyt (or Hoyte), a seaman from Barbados living in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917.

Sworn declaration by Allan Hoyt (or Hoyte), a seaman from Barbados living in Brooklyn, New York, in 1917.

Eventually, the War Office allowed these West Indian men to enlist in the British Army and hundreds were signed up. Judging by the surviving service records a large number were assigned to the Royal Engineers, but others were put into reserve battalions of other units including the Scots Rifles, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Middlesex Regiment, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the Dorset Regiment. Most of those whose records have survived were resident in New York or New Jersey in the North East of the USA.

It is not clear how many were sent to Britain, but those who were appear to have arrived in autumn 1918 just as the fighting was ending on the Western Front. They were still in the UK when the Peace was finally signed in the summer of 1919 and then had to fill out more forms to get themselves sent back to the USA after ending up in Sunderland in the case of Allan Hoyt (who joined the York and Lancs Regt), Winchester in the case of James Desant (from Nevis and serving in the Scottish Rifles), Hounslow in the case of Joseph Edwards (a Jamaican in the KOSB who had only married in August 1918), and other military camps.

The way that men joining the Army of the British Empire were treated was unlikely to be completely consistent in a force of six million men, but these stories demonstrate the  different experiences of West Indian men and the vagaries of Government and military policy towards them. The policy seems largely to have been to avoid black British subjects who were not from the UK itself from serving in combat roles on the Western Front, which took the form of creating a new Regiment (which fought elsewhere but not in France and Flanders) as well as keeping West Indian men in reserve roles in other units, even when the rules had been changed to officially allow them to serve in other units in the British army.

Update 18/6/2015: in the caption for the last photo I originally wondered whether the man depicted was Otto Vignalë. Thanks to Joan Leggett for contacting me to let me know that it is not him.


Empire figures from Australian newspapers in 1914

War Memorial Gates page on Caribbean participants in the war

National Archives

Army service and other records on ancestry

Long, Long Trail on the British West Indies Regiment

Black Presence blog post on Black British Soldiers

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Posted by on 24 October 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, People, Recruitment


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Commandeered: German offices in London

Early in the Great War, the British Government were able to take extraordinary steps against German citizens and businesses. In 1914-15 many Germans were interned (including some held in Stratford). The Government also commandeered the headquarters of German owned shipping line Hamburg-Amerika in Cockspur Street, Westminster.

Hamburg-Amerika was a transatlantic shipping line founded in 1847 and based in Hamburg, Germany; in the early twentieth century, one of their ships held the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.  In 1906-07, they had a new London headquarters built at 14-16 Cockspur Street in Westminster. The  building was designed by Arthur T. Bolton, with sculpture by W.B. Fagan (both of them Londoners) – it was a magnificent structure. The website Oriental Passions has a good set of photographs of the facade in a blog post from 2011. The English Heritage Archives have a few photos of the building just after it was built (for example this one of the facade).

At the start of the Great War, this impressive German building was taken into the service of Britain and its armed forces:

War Illustrated, vol. 1, Jan 1915

War Illustrated, vol. 1, Jan 1915

Here is the same section today:

The same section of 14-16 Cockspur Street today

The same section of 14-16 Cockspur Street today

One of the English Heritage Archive photos shows this part of the building in detail before the war. This allows us to see how it was transformed.  The company’s name was removed from the top and a banner with ‘HIS MAJESTY’S ARMY’ erected in its place. Likewise the windows have been boarded up and plastered with recruiting messages – with the words ‘Men of the Empire. Your King & Country Need You. Enlist Today.’

Around this big poster are the usual 1914-era text-based recruiting posters – the picture posters were more common in 1915.  Either side of the door is an unofficial recruiting poster that did have a large picture on it. These were reprints of the poster from a pre-war film about the army, pressed into service in 1914 to serve as a recruiting poster:

Film poster used for recruiting (image built up of two IWM poster images: title and image)

Film poster used for recruiting (image built up of the images of two sections of the poster (c)IWM)

The building’s role as a recruiting office was far from the end of its use by the British Government. By late 1916 (when voluntary enlistment had been replaced with conscription), the Hamburg-Amerika Line section of the building moved from being used by the War Office to being an Admiralty building, according the Prime Minister in response to questions about whether steps were being made to sell the building. Eventually, in July 1917, the building (now being used by the Ministry of Munitions) was sold by the British Government for £60,200 to P&O, maintaining the presence of travel companies on Cockspur Street (reported in Times 1/8/1917). Throughout all this, the British/Canadian Allan Line Steamship Company Limited had continued to occupy the right-hand-side of the building (viewed from Cockspur Street), as they had before the war. Today, that side of the building is the Brazilian Embassy.

When war was declared, German citizens in Britain were subject to restrictions on their liberty. Similarly, German property could be seized by the Government. This prominent building in Westminster was seized and put to the key purpose of the day: recruiting men to fight against the Germans.

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Posted by on 21 October 2013 in Famous companies, Places, Recruitment


The 1914 recruiting boom

The first week of September was the peak of the recruiting boom in 1914, in London no less than in the rest of the UK. Nearly 200,000 men joined the armed forces in that week, including over 21,000 in London.

Recruiting lining up outside the Whitehall Recruiting Office in London, August 1914 (c)IWM

Recruiting lining up outside the Whitehall Recruiting Office in Great Scotland Yard (see the same view today here) London, August 1914 (c)IWM

One of our abiding memories of 1914 is the recruiting boom or ‘rush to the colours’. Contrary to some popular impressions, this was not simply based on some notion that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’.  The peak came after the news arrived at home that the British Expeditionary Force had suffered great casualties at Mons and were now in retreat. People rushed to the colours at the moment of utmost danger, not because they all thought it was going to be a brief, glorious lark.

Weekly recruiting figures for London and for the rest of the UK

Weekly recruiting figures for London and for the rest of the UK (based on War Office records at National Archives)

Looking at each of the first nine weeks of the war from the declaration of war on Tuesday August 4th, it is clear that the peak came in the fortnight after news from Mons arrived. This news was not the only factor: the increase in unemployment in wartime, a general sense of duty, and for some a sense of adventure also played a part, among other individual factors affecting each man joining the army that summer. However, the timing suggests that the risk of defeat (and fear of invasion) played a large part.

That first week of September, 191,000 men joined up across the UK, almost as many as had joined up in the whole of August (195,000). In London, the 34,730 had joined up by 31 August and another 21,870 joined in the first week of August.

It is worth remembering that even the recruiting levels in August were vast compared with peacetime. In each of the last few years of peace, between 25,000 and 30,000 men had joined the army (including Territorials) each year, between 4,000 and 5,000 of them in the London recruiting district (which included areas that were then in the surrounding counties but are now in London, such as Stratford in East London/Essex). Every week from 11 August to 21 September saw a larger intake than each of the preceding years had done – the peak week of 1-7 September brought in more than six times the peacetime level of enlistments!

If we look at the daily figures we can see that it was the middle of that week that saw the absolute peak nationally, with over 27,000 enlisting on Wednesday 3rd and over 29,000 on both Thursday 4th and Friday 5th.

Daily recruiting figures

Daily recruiting figures

Interestingly, though, the peak days in London were slightly different. In fact the peak day here was Tuesday the 9th, when 4,833 men joined up in the London recruiting district (more men than had enlisted here in the whole year up to the end of September 1912). The only other days when over 4,000 joined up were Tuesday 1st and Wednesday 3rd. It is not clear why these dates were the peaks, but local fluctuations in towns and cities could be based on an intensive local recruiting effort (such as a large meeting or campaign by a local army unit) or the effects on local employment of the war, or indeed of the weather or seasons – such as the end of harvest in the countryside.

The recruiting boom of 1914 was a unique event in British history, with hundreds of thousands of men joining the armed forces (and particularly the army) in the space of a few days. It is a poignant moment in retrospect as we know about the battles that faced these men over the next four years. Those men who joined up in August and September 1914 fought, and many died, in some of the most famous and bloody battles in British history.

We can look at the statistics and timing and get some sense of why so many enlisted at that point, but each man’s story up to the point that he entered the recruiting office was unique, just as each man’s experiences after enlistment were different.

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Posted by on 7 September 2013 in Recruitment


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