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.
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.
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.
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.