Category Archives: Recruitment

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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Recruiting in armour: Norman Wrighton

War brought some odd sights to London’s streets. One of these was a Shakespearean actor recruiting in a suit of armour on Charing Cross Road

From Daily Express 18 Dec 1915

From Daily Express 18 Dec 1915

Norman Wrighton was born in Staffordshire and came to London to act in the West End. In the 1911 census, he gave his occupation as ‘Actor, dramatist and poet’ and his employer as Seymour Hicks – a prominent London performer and theatre manager.

Wrighton was keen on making Shakespeare accessible to the public – including through open-air recitals in Hyde Park, and through recitals in the Music Halls (about which he wrote to the Times in 1910). He also wrote invasion plays – a genre designed to alert the British public to the threat of war in Europe and possible invasion of their country. The Stage Yearbook 1910 lists his sketch ‘Wake Up England’ being performed at the Empire in Leeds in February 1909. The previous year, his play Britain’s Awakening (in which he also starred) appeared in the West End in London.

Quite why he felt the need to dress in armour to deliver his recruiting speech in December is not clear, although he undoubtedly attracted greater attention that way (judging by a wider-angled photo of the scene, the crowd were mainly soldiers, though, which may have defeated the point somewhat). The statue in front of which he spoke is of Sir Henry Irving at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, behind the National Portrait Gallery.

Earlier that year, another of his plays ‘Kultur’ was reportedly used by recruiting sergeants in the capital. Perhaps that is was what Wrighton was reciting in front of Irving’s stature, clad in armour.

Daily Mirror 17 July 1915

Daily Mirror 17 July 1915


Posted by on 28 June 2013 in Famous People, Recruitment


The Non-Combatant Corps: a tale of three objectors

The most famous stories about conscription in Great War Britain are those of Conscientious Objectors. As with any other group, their stories varied enormously, as the stories of three men who ended up in the Non-Combatant Corps: A.J. Munro, W. Cooper and A.J. Elsdon.

Non-Combatant Corps capbadge

Non-Combatant Corps capbadge

When compulsory military service was introduced in 1916, men were entitled to claim conscientious objection to military service. This was an option refused to conscripts in other countries (including France), but it was widely seen as an option taken by ‘shirkers’ and cowards who simply did not want to fight. After 18 months of war and ceaseless calls for more men, it was hard for many people (including many tribunal members) to believe that anyone could not want to fight for their country if they were fit and able.

The Military Service Act 1916 (as posted on the Great War Forum in full) contained section 2(3), which read:

“Any certificate of exemption may be absolute, conditional, or temporary, as the authority by whom it was granted think best suited to the case, and also in the case of an application on conscientious grounds, may take the form of an exemption from combatant service only, or may be conditional on the applicant being engaged in some work which in the opinion of the Tribunal dealing with the case is of national importance […]”

The phrasing of the section on conscientious objectors (COs), which bears the hallmarks of a late inclusion in the text, led many to misunderstand what was allowed. The Act was supposed to offer absolute, conditional or temporary exemptions to COs, with an additional option of non-combatant service. The phrasing, though, could easily (if perhaps willfully) be misread as suggesting that only non-combatant service was available to COs.

Many tribunals, unsure of how to judge the validity of philosophical objections to war, opted for the non-combat route as one that seemed suit everyone: they got rid of the CO, the CO was not forced to take part in combat, and the military got an extra soldier. However, it was not so simple: many objectors objected absolutely to military service and refused to take up even non-combatant service.

The units that many of these men were sent into were companies of the Non-Combatant Corps, part of the Labour Corps. The NCC was mocked my many soldiers, the press and others, gaining the nick-name ‘No-Courage Corps. One soldier sent in his idea for a regimental crest to the Daily Mirror:

(Daily Mirror 20/4/1916)

(Daily Mirror 20/4/1916)

Walthamstow clerk Arthur James Elsdon was called up in the summer of 1916 at the age of 21 and claimed a conscientious objection to military service. When he was enrolled in the army, he refused to sign his service papers. He was allocated No 4 Eastern Company on 15 June, and on the 23rd was tried to 112 days hard labour. It is not clear from his service papers what he had done wrong, but it is likely that he was refusing orders from superiors, as many absolutist COs did. In September, Elsdon was transferred to the army reserve.

Elsdon refused to sign his service papers.

Elsdon refused to sign his service papers.

In early 1917, the authorities decided to put Elsdon to work and he was ordered to work at Messrs Bibby’s, a large oil mill in Liverpool. On 31 March 1917, though, having not arrived in Liverpool he was recalled to the army; since No 4 company was in Ireland, he was ordered to report to No 10 company at Gravesend on 6 April. Eldson wrote to the War Office asking whether this was right, as his unit was No 4. He also told them that he was in correspondence with an MP about the Home Office employment schemes that were, by then, being used to occupy conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the armed forces.

Elsdon never arrived at Gravesend. A policeman called at his father’s house in Westbury Road, Walthamstow, where he heard that Arthur had called at the house on the 6th (presumably the day he wrote the letter) but disappeared – the house was kept under observation but no sign of the young man was forthcoming. Eventually, he was apprehended in March 1918 and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.

William Cooper, a coffin-maker from Barking, also ended up in jail. His route was slightly different, though. Although his faith as a member of the Plymouth Brethren meant that he was opposed to military service, his father made an appeal to the local tribunal on the basis of William being indispensable to their business. A tribunal hearing on 16 June 1916 accepted this reason and exempted him, although another in October made it conditional on joining the St John’s Ambulance, which Cooper promptly did.

On 21 December, it was announced that being an undertaker was no longer deemed work of national importance. In March, Cooper’s exemption was upheld, only to be cancelled in April. At a hearing on 24 April 1917, he told the tribunal of his conscientious objection but it was rejected as having been formed since the start of the war (which was not a valid ground for exemption) because it had not been part of his previous appeals. Through April and May he wrote to the War Office and to David Lloyd George about his case: that his father had made the previous appeal and ignored his conscientious objection.

Cooper’s appeals were not enough though and he reported to Westminster to join the Rifle Brigade. Despite reporting there, Cooper refused to obey orders and was sent to the guard room, where he found another CO, but this man was rude and objectionable so Cooper asked to be moved into another room, which he was. He ended up being sent to Wormwood Scrubs and later served in the NCC. (Cooper’s diary is available to read in the Liddle Collection in Leeds)

Different again was the story of Andrew John Munro, a schoolmaster from Enfield, who appeared before Croydon tribunal on 3 March 1916. Oddly, Munro had been previously served in the 20th London (the Blackheath and Woolwich battalion) – presumably either pre-war or in the second or third-line unit. He was exempted from combatant service and was called up on 23 March and joined the 1st Eastern Company NCC. A month later he was in France.

Munro served out the rest of the war doing labour work in the NCC in France. He spent most of the war serving in a detachment with the 19th (Western) Division on the Western Front, serving with them from November 1916 to May 1917 and again from October 1917 onwards. Unlike Cooper and Elsdon, Munro was apparently content with his role in the army – his disciplinary record is completely clean.

The Non-Combatant Corps was an attempt to give those who objected to taking human life a way to serve in the army. Many were allocated to it unthinkingly: those who objected to military service as a whole, either for religious or political reasons, simply could not countenance serving in even this unit. For some, though, it was an appropriate vehicle for them to serve their country when the law mandated that they should, without having to take direct part in the fighting. Other objectors took up work in the Royal Army Medical Corps in order to save lives rather than take them (just as many quakers had joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit early in the war).

Conscientious Objectors were a diverse group, including absolutists who fled or were arrested rather than serve and those who did labouring work for the Home Office well away from the military, as well as those who were content to serve in the military a non-combat role.


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Alfred Eve, the military representative

If Military Service Tribunals have a negative public image, then the military representatives attending them have an even worse one – although perhaps slightly more deserved. Although not necessarily Blimpish zealots, they were there to argue the army’s case and often displayed offensive and bullying attitudes. They were, however, another part of the civil-military body that was the tribunal – an odd position interestingly demonstrated by Alfred Eve, the military representative in Walthamstow.

Alfred Eve was an electrical and mechanical engineer, born in 1861 in Kent. In 1887, living in Homerton, he married his next-door neighbour Alice H Mote; the couple had eight children. In the 1911 census the 7 surviving children (6 sons and one young daughter) were living with Alfred and Alice in their house at 25 Greenleaf Road, Walthamstow. By 1914, Alfred Eve was also a councillor for the Hoe Street ward on the local urban district council.

Following eight years of youthful service in the East London Engineers, the Great War brought Alfred back into uniform. He became the recruiting and organising officer for Walthamstow and Chingford. He was granted an army commission in October 1914. In that year, he has response – as recruiting officer – for recruiting 350 men into the 1/7th Essex Regiment (the Walthamstow Territorial battalion) and 500 into the 2/6th (the second line of the West Ham battalion). In 1915, he brought in 800 to the 3/7th Essex, 2,500 into the 2/6th, and another 3,200 into London Regt (according to the Walthamstow Gazette, 7/12/17). In June 1915 he became a Captain and was put in command of a company of the 2/6th Essex.

When the military service tribunals were established in early 1916, military representatives were appointed to examine each case and to argue the military’s case. Many did this with vigour and agdressively cross-examined and criticised appellants, although most still tried to balance the needs of the local community and those of the armed forces.

Most ‘military representatives’ were not military men in peacetime, they were described in Parliament as ‘charming men… nine out of ten of them being solicitors in khaki’ (House of Lords Hansard 12/4/16). Indeed the two military representatives who served Eat Ham in 1916-18 were solicitors, as was the military representative for the Essex Appeal Tribunal that heard appeals against local tribunal judgements in Walthamstow, East Ham and other areas that were then part of Essex. Many though, like Alfred Eve, had had experience in the Territorials or their predecessor force the Volunteers.

Captain Eve was forcefully in favour of pursuing the war to a conclusion. He was an advocate of the anti-German policies of the British Empire Union. He was also a hard-working military representative.

A scene from a contemporary sketch performed in Carlisle that "deals amusingly with a military tribunal". "Major Hope-Brown (right) plays the military representative a role which he plays off the stage" (military representatives were renamed NS representatives in 1917??) (from Daily Mirror 18/4/1918)

A scene from a contemporary sketch performed in Carlisle that “deals amusingly with a military tribunal”. “Major Hope-Brown (right) plays the National Service representative a role which he plays off the stage” (military representatives were renamed National Service representatives in 1917) (from Daily Mirror 18/4/1918)

One exchange shows both Alfred Eve’s perspective and the less pro-military attitude of the tribunal members. The tribunal members were discussing the case of a sheet-metal worker rated C1 (a low category of military fitness), whose exemption from service Eve was challenging:

Councillor Wilkes said he thought perhaps appellant might be better employed on munitions work than in doing C1 work in the Army.
Captain Eve: We are here to find the men for the Army.
The Chairman: No. We are here to see that the rights of the civil population are respected and that no injustice is done. If a man can show a good case for exemption it is our duty to give it. If you don’t fall in with our view it is your duty to appeal against our decision and the Appeal Tribunal will act as umpire between us.
Captain Eve: I know my duty thoroughly, Mr. Chairman.
The Chairman (to appellant): You have good grounds since you are the only support of your widowed mother and four children, three of whom go to school.
Appellant was granted a fortnight in which to find work on munitions.
(from Walthamstow gazette 30/3/1917)

At other times, the other tribunal members gently mocked their military colleague:

Mr A.M. Lloyd, market gardener, Woodford Green, asked for [an exemption for] G.W. Taylor (C2), on the ground that he was doing work of national importance, among other things, they grew vegetables for the military hospitals.
In the course of the hearing of the case the Chairman favoured the granting of the applications.
The Military Representative [Capt. Eve] remarked that some applicants told “such tales”.
Councillor Goodger: I’ll tell you what they can’t do, captain!
The Miitary Representative (eagerly): What’s that?
Councillor Goodger: They can’t tell ‘em like you can!
The Gallant Captain (nearly bursting with laughter): That’s done it.
Six months [exemption granted to Taylor].
(from Walthamstow Gazette, 12/10/17)

Despite his pro-military attitude, Eve was clearly seen as approachable though, as he complained in March 1917 that those appealing to the tribunal were calling at his house to discuss their cases, despite clear instruction in their paperwork telling them to address them to the recruiting office.

Like other military representatives, Eve investigated the rumours of shirkers working in local factories instead of serving their country. When people – including other tribunal members – complained that the local Xlonite Works were holding back fit men of military age, Eve an his assistant (Lieut Paine) went to visit the factory. They found that there were indeed youths there, but that they were 16 and 17-year-olds not liable for conscription yet.

Much maligned though they were – often rightly given the aggressive attitudes some took – the military representatives played an important role in wartime recruitment alongside the other tribunal members. Their role was also unpaid, so involved a sacrifice on their part – fittingly given that they were calling for younger men to make such great sacrifices. In addition to this, Alfred Eve forwent his chance of becoming chairman of the council in 1917 due to the potential clash with his existing tribunal role (the chairman usually chaired the meetings, which he could not have done as military representative).

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Posted by on 16 March 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, Recruitment


Will You March Too?

As conscription loomed, the Government tried to convince men to volunteer or attest their willingness to serve in the army before they could be forced by the state to join up. Posters appeared across London and elsewhere in Britain asking ‘Will You March Too or Wait Till March 2?’

(c) Library of Congress

(c) Library of Congress

The Military Service Act 1916, passed into law on 27 January, made all eligible single men (those aged 19-40) liable for military service on 2 March 1916. It ended the Derby Scheme, set up in late 1915, which had allowed men to ‘attest their willingness to serve’ – essentially volunteering to be conscripted. At midnight on 1/2 March, the Derby Scheme ‘groups’ (arranged by year of birth) were closed and eligible men not in them were assigned to the equivalent ‘classes’ in which they could be called up as conscripts.

The more bellicose newspapers and propagandists made much of this deadline – insinuating that only those men who attested would be able to apply for exemption from military service (as we have seen, this was not the case). The Government and army recruiters were happy to play along. Posters like that above appeared around the country (including a Welsh version). The phrase ‘Will You March Too or Wait Till March 2’ was plastered up outside Town Halls. The posters appeared around the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square – as shown in this photo, replaced on 1 March with one reading ‘Last Day: March the First’.

The final pre-conscription recruiting campaign poster was widespread enough to be satirised by Punch magazine. On 1 March 1916, a cartoon showed two ladies looking at the ‘March Too’ poster:

Topical humour from Punch, 3 March 1916

Topical humour from Punch, 1 March 1916

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Posted by on 2 March 2013 in Recruitment


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