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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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The Big Push on the Big Screen

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sources:

The Times

Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War

 
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Posted by on 24 August 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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Rain delays

July 1st, 1916 is one of the great memorable dates of the Great War for the British. The first day of the Battle of the Somme has a resonance, alongside the 11th of November. That this was not the date it was supposed to start might be a surprise, until one realises why: it was delayed by rain! A rain delay in mid-summer? That may seem familiar to any cricket or tennis fans this year.

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Posted by on 1 July 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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Stepney’s Iron Hindenburg

At a charity fete in 1916, the people of Stepney adapted a German patriotic money-raising gimmick to support British troops with their own ‘Iron Hindenburg’ statue.

"Hard hits at Hindenburg: driving them home"

This picture from the 27 September 1916 Illustrated War News shows two nurses from Mile End Hospital knocking nails into a wooden figure depicting Paul von Hindenburg to help raise money for ‘our brave wounded and disabled soldiers’.  One of these wounded soldiers is shown holding up their ladder (apparently borrowed from Harrod’s) while they do it.

Wooden statues into which nails were driven were used in Austria and Germany from 1915: the Men of Nails. A particularly notable example was the 42-foot statue of Hindenburg erected in September 1915 in the Königsplatz (next to the Reichstag), in front of a victory monument to Prussia’s wars with Denmark, Austria and France from 1864-71.

Unveiling the Iron Hindenburg in Berlin (image from Gutenburg)

An academic article (here) recounts this event in Berlin: The Kaiser’s daughter-in-law unveiled the statue, to the sound of a choir singing Beethoven, and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg gave a speech. The Princess drove a golden nail into the Field Marshall’s name, the first of over a million nails driven into the sculpture by Germans giving money per nail to support the war effort. The ceremony was widely reported in the international press (NY Times).

Somehow, it seems unlikely that such a great scene accompanied Stepney’s Iron Hindenburg (or that it lasted until 1919 like the Berlin one). The hero of Tannenburg was certainly not depicted quite so heroically in the statue and the nails were driven with anger and humour rather than respect.

The British version was clearly meant as a parody of the German statues. The Illustrated War News caption says:

If the scene shocks the delicate susceptablities of the Germans, they will do well to remember that it was themselves who initiated this curious perversion of motive and method.

Anger and humour were prominent in British attitudes towards the Germans in 1914-1918. This mockery of the Iron Hindenburg fits neatly into both categories.

 
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Posted by on 12 February 2012 in Events

 

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