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Category Archives: Recruitment

A year of Great War London

This blog has now been going for a year. At the risk of being a little self-congratulatory, I thought it would be good to look back over some of the people, places and events that we have seen in the posts.

Return to the Front: Victoria Railway Station, by Richard Jack.

Return to the Front: Victoria Railway Station, by Richard Jack.

We have met Londoners who performed great acts of heroism, like Revd Noel Mellish, Arthur Feldwick and CLR Falcy. There was also James Collis, who had been stripped of his Victoria Cross but had it restored after his death in the Great War. Lancelot Dickinson Chapmen pretended to have earned the VC.

We also met the Slatter brothers, Reginald Savory (who, contrary to reports, did not die in the war) CO Oglethorpe (who was not a spy), burns victim HR Lumley, war artist Eric Kennington, drowned soldier AJ Duddeidge, propaganda speakers Thomas Harper and the Bishop of London, musician Percy Gayer, youngster H.J. Bryant, and Henry Allingham – who outlived all other British Great War veterans.

Sportsmen played their part in the war, men like Harry Lee, Bob Whiting and Reggie Schwarz.  So too did the Golliwog.

Men from London’s ethnic minorities served in the British army, including young Czech men and the Jewish battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. G.E.K. Bemand and Walter Tull, two of the British army’s first black officers also left the capital to serve in the war.

We also met Hilda Hewlett, an aviator pioneer; Edie Bennett, longing for her soldier husband; hero’s widow Gertrude Jarratt; and brave women like Mary Bushby Stubbs, Sara Bonnell and nurse Beatrice Allsop.

Other soldiers committed crimes like Henry Canham, who murdered his cheating wife, or WJ Woolner the underage soldier who went on the run from the army.

People found out about the war through the Field Service Postcards, letters (read by censors like Martin Hardie) and through films like The Battle of the Somme, the most successful British film of the age.

Familiar London sites and objects took on a different look or role in the war: St James’s Park hosted Government departments, a factory in Silvertown was destroyed in a huge explosion, the London bus went to war, war-workers’ housing was erected in Woolwich, an ice-rink held stores for the Red Cross, town halls played host to Military Service Tribunals, the British Museum was locked up for the duration, a German submarine arrived in the Thames, and the American YMCA ‘Eagle Hut’ opened in Aldwych.

Germans have appeared in London in the form of civilians interned at Stratford, air raiders (who damaged Cleopatra’s Needle), victims of rioting, and the British Royal Family. They also met with Londoners in the British Army in the 1914 Christmas truce. Meanwhile, a mock Iron Hindenburg appeared in Stepney.

And finally, we have seen the first London war memorials of the Great War and the Royal Naval Division’s memorial, and met one of the men depicted on the Royal Artillery memorial. We have seen the arrival of the Unknown Warrior, a protest at the Cenotaph, and seen its Hyde Park predecessor.

 

Too young to fight: Herbert J Bryant

Many young men and boys tried to enlist in the armed forces underage in 1914 and 1915. Some did so repeatedly. Herbert James Bryant was one of them, briefly joining two different units in 1915 before eventually being conscripted in 1918.

In the first 17 months of the war, the British armed forces were made up (at least legally) of voluntarily-enlisted men. Many who enlisted in this period were underage boys, many making into the army at the age of 13 or 14 – Richard van Emden describes the experiences of some of them in his book Boy Soldiers of the Great War.

Willesden lad Herbert James Bryant was one of those boys who managed to get into the army in 1915 despite being underage (He may well have tried unsuccessfully before then, but there is no record of it).

In June 1915, Bryant joined the Middlesex Regiment, telling them that he was a brass worker aged 18 years and 11 months. How obvious it was that he was too young is hard to say, but this young 5 feet 4 inch fair-haired and blue-eyed boy did not last long in the army. On his first day with his unit, 10 June, he absconded and disappeared for a week until the civil police picked him up on the 18th. The next day he was discharged for having lied about his age.

Bryant's (short) record in the Middlesex Regiment

Bryant’s (short) record in the Middlesex Regiment

Not to be discouraged, he enlisted again (describing himself as a painter’s labourer) two months later on 31 August, this time in the Royal Fusiliers – joining their 27th (Reserve Battalion). In the three months before he was again discharged for lying about his age, Bryant was repeatedly punished with confinement to barracks and cessation of pay for unauthorized absences and malingering.

When Bryant was sent back to civvie street on 28 December 1915, the nation was on the verge of adopting conscription to replace the voluntary enlistment that was not finding sufficient recruits. In theory, with a National Register compiled in August 1915 and a new official system for recruitment, it should have been much harder for underage boys to get into the army.

It took another 28 months for Bryant to get back into the army. Although he was ‘deemed to have enlisted’ in June 1917 (under the terms of the Military Service Act) he was not called up until April 1918, the delay presumably due to his employment at Small Arms Factory in Acton. He had certainly grown up since 1915, now being 5 feet 7.5 inches in height with tattoos on his forearms: a heart and an anchor.

Bryant's details when he was conscripted - including previous service and date of birth

Bryant’s details when he was conscripted – including previous service and date of birth

Despite his ‘A1’ fitness, Bryant was never sent to the front. After four months in the 5th Reserve Cavalry Regiment, he transferred to the Tank Corps, eventually joining the 19th Battalion on 21 September. After being granted home leave for Christmas 1918, he was discharged from the army on 13 March 1919.

Join the Tank Corps - 1919 recruiting poster (c) IWM

“Join the Tank Corps” (1919 recruiting poster (c) IWM) – Bryant rejoined the Tank Corps around this time.

Bryant was not done with military service, thought, and rejoined on demobilisation. He stayed on in the Tank Corps, serving in the 20th and 5th Battalions in 1918-20, during which time he again got in trouble repeatedly for overstaying his leave, absence and neglect of duty. Eventually his service was cut short but a series of illnesses: after contracting from gonorrhea, he also suffered from variocele and was then discharged suffering from ‘Disordered Action of the Heart’ (“DAH”).

Herbert James Bryant was one of the many boys who tired to join the army underage in 1914 and 1915. Eventually he did join up, conscripted in 1918. Oddly, though, he may still have been underage. His Tank Corps service papers give his date of birth as 25 June 1899 (which led to his official enlistment on his 18th birthday in 1917, before his call-up). Strangely, it seems that he was still only 16 when he joined up in early 1918, though. On the 1911 census, Herbert Bryant is listed as a 9 year-old; he does not appear in the 1901 census and his birth was registered in summer 1901 rather than 1899.

1911 census entry for Herbert Bryant's family - note his age: 9 year.

1911 census entry for Herbert Bryant’s family – note his age: 9 year.

It seems mostly likely that he gave a fake date of birth in the National Register in 1915 (just before he joined the Royal Fusiliers) and was called up on the basis of that information three years later. That means that he was originally accepted into the Middlesex Regiment in 1915 at the age of 12 or 13.

Whether it was a sense of duty, a desire for adventure or social pressure that drove boys like Herbert James Bryant to enlist is hard to say, and their motives probably varied just as much as those of other enlistees. What is clear is the Bryant was keen to join up, repeatedly lying about his age to get into khaki, apparently even fooling the conscription system in 1918.

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Thanks to David Underton for pointing out that DAH in the Great War stood for Disordered Action of the Heart, rather than its modern meaning Diffuse Alveolar Hemorrhage.

 
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Posted by on 4 January 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, Recruitment

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Read more:

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

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

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

 

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Absent voters

This week is the last chance to register to vote in the 2012 London mayoral election, assembly elections and (elsewhere) local council elections.  In 1918, a completely new electoral register was created as all men over 21, women over 30, and servicemen over 19 were allowed to vote. This register marks out those who were serving in the armed forces and allows us a snapshot of military service in the summer of 1918 when it was compiled. How many Londoners were serving? How did London compare with other regions?

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on 15 April 2012 in People, Recruitment

 

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