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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.

Sources:

 

 

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

 

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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 legislation.gov.uk)

Preamble and first clause of the National Registration Act 1915 (from legislation.gov.uk)

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).

Sources:

  • Trevor Wilson, The Myriad Faces of War
  • Derby Scheme Website
  • Peter Simkins, Kitchener’s Army
 
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Posted by on 25 August 2015 in Recruitment

 

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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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