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by Ilana Bet-El

Drawing on diaries, letters, and personal accounts from British conscripts who served on the Western Front in the latter half of the Great War, this is the first book to explore the contribution they made to the war effort. By the end of the war more than 2.5 million men had been conscripted, but their memory has not lived on; they are the lost legions of World War


Drawing on diaries, letters, and personal accounts from British conscripts who served on the Western Front in the latter half of the Great War, this is the first book to explore the contribution they made to the war effort. By the end of the war more than 2.5 million men had been conscripted, but their memory has not lived on; they are the lost legions of World War I. Here, at last, their story is told: the story of ordinary men, from manual workers to clerks and solicitors, who became soldiers, fought and—for those who survived—went home. In this groundbreaking work, Ilana Bet-El explains their absence from the imagery of the war. She reconstructs the daily life of soldiers on the Western Front as we are told, in the conscripts’ own words, of the grim reality of dirt and lice and hunger, the mysteries of army pay and military discipline, and the joys of leave and cigarettes. It is a compelling journey back in time, which restores these men to the public image of the Great War by rediscovering the "forgotten memory" of Britain’s conscript army.

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The History Press
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4.90(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)

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Forgotten Men of the Great War

By Ilana R. Bet-El

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Ilana R. Bet-El
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9993-2



'... beyond the release from boredom there is the joy in uniforms which stimulates war. The instinct for fancy dress is hard to kill ...'

Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice and History

In every army, and for every individual, enlistment and basic training are the basic rites of passage, from the status of civilian to that of soldier. From forms to uniforms, drill to discipline, they are the introduction to the mysterious world of the military, instilling frameworks and friendships that will enable each person – volunteer, conscript or officer – to exist in the army, and in battle. However, in wartime Britain, it was the process of enlistment that was different for volunteers and conscripts: for the volunteer, it was an act of free will; for the conscript, it was a bureaucratic maze, marked by the lack of choice or control of the individual over his own fate. Moreover, the volunteer experienced the entire process at the recruiting station; the conscript was within the process long before he arrived there.

For the volunteer, both the decision to join the army and his physical presence at a recruiting office were an expression of personal desire. A classic summary of such a self-motivated process was given by one who volunteered in September 1914: upon seeing ambulances full of wounded men, 'I determined to join up that same evening. I went home, had a hasty meal, smartened up and duly presented myself at the HQ of the 24th London regiment.' In direct contrast, the inner deliberations or self-motivation of the individual conscript were irrelevant. It was a state dictate, and a formal, printed summons, sent through the mail, which brought him to the recruiting office on a given date, regardless of his own thoughts or inclinations. The Military Service Acts of the First World War, which were the legislative tool that enforced conscription, reflected this clearly. In each, the specified group of 'male British subjects' were 'deemed as from the appointed date to have been enlisted in His Majesty's regular forces for general service with the Colours or in the Reserve for the Period of the war, and have been forthwith transferred to the Reserve.' In other words, both the decision to enlist and the act of attestation were revoked from the sphere of the individual.

The supremacy of a state system over individual free will was well summarised in the following account: 'I was a Post Office Sorter from 1906 and was called up under the Military Service Acts June 1916 after having previously volunteered for the Army Post Office and withdrawing my application in 1915.' The writer had clearly debated the issue of enlistment, and decided against it; but the introduction of conscription made his personal decision irrelevant. Being 'called up' was the formal notification that he was 'deemed' to have attested his willingness to serve in the army, and as such he was already a member of the Reserve force. In fact, it was at this point that both terms passed into common usage in the language, and officialdom. Army forms slowly began to reflect this change with the introduction of conscription in 1916, and by 1918 it had become standard. For example, there was a version of the attestation form clearly defined for 'men deemed to be enlisted in H.M. Regular Forces for General Service with the Colours ... under the provisions of the Military Service Acts, 1916'. Printed on the form were also the two crucial articles, left open to be filled in with the appropriate dates: 'Deemed to have been enlisted' and 'Called up for Service'.

The conceptual shift from free will to a printed summons actually necessitated a huge expansion in the process of enlistment, which encompassed far more than forms. Before the introduction of conscription the pre-war, rather limited system used for the regular army had merely been expanded erratically to accommodate the volunteers. Conscription meant that the bureaucratic machine had to be set in action much before an individual actively enlisted. First, a man eligible for conscription had to be singled out from the civilian population. Second, he had to be transferred on paper to the army Reserve Corps, which in effect marked his transition from civilian to soldier. Third, the newly conscripted man had to be informed of his new status, through a summons to the local recruiting office. In technical terms, this process was administered through the local authorities, with the aid of the National Register of August 1915. Copies of the registration forms pertaining to men between the ages of eighteen and forty-one (and those who subsequently reached the age of eighteen) were given to local military authorities by the local civilian ones. 'From these forms cards were prepared, three for each man, for use by the Area Commanders (white), the Sub-Area Commanders (red), and by local Recruiting Committees (blue).' In this way military registers were also created in each area, and these were kept in parallel with the local registers, since the local authorities notified the Area Commanders of all deaths and changes of address of men of military age. 'By these means the military authorities were kept posted as to the men available for recruiting ... so far as the National Register was complete and accurate.' For their part, the military authorities informed the civilian ones if a man was called up for enlistment, or killed in action. The system was far from watertight, and communication between the two branches was often inconsistent, largely due to the multiplicity of forms. And so, with the establishment of the Ministry of National Service in November 1917, the military and local registers were revised, as were the methods of communication between the two authorities. Since the National Register had not proven itself for industrial needs, all local registers were rearranged strictly on an alphabetical basis, regardless of occupation; and serial numbers, identical for both authorities, were given to the men's forms. These measures all made revisions and corrections of the two registers, military and civilian, easier. However, the actual system of calling men up through the local recruiting committees remained essentially the same.

It was undoubtedly a bureaucratic maze, which began with a registration form and ended with a call-up notice. More significantly, it was one which a conscript had been shunted through – without his consent and without his knowledge. In other words, he was completely passive. This may be seen, for example, in a diary entry for 14 February 1917: 'Received calling up notice from Croydon Recruiting Office.' The diarist was a civil servant, probably in his late twenties when he was summoned. As such he was comparable to the volunteers who went before him, who disrupted their personal and professional life in order to enlist. In his case, however, his life was disrupted for him by the external force of an army summons while he remained passive.

The eighteen-year-old recruits, who usually joined up when they were eighteen-and-a-half, comprised another large section of the conscript population. Their enlistment was best typified by the following summary: 'In the December of the year 1916 I reached the age of 18. In the following March I was duly enlisted.' In this case the conscript's professional life was not disrupted, since he had not yet created one. This was also true of the man who recalled that 'During the period 1914–1918 I was a quiet youth of a working-class family until the 5th May 1916, when at the age of 18 ... I joined the 2/4th Battalion East Lancs Regiment'. Passivity is apparent in both cases: the authors' age initiated a bureaucratic process, yet as the focus of this process they were required only to comply with the orders sent to them. There was nothing personal, they were statistics: their age, gender and nationality fulfilled the prerequisites laid down by the state for the enactment of the bureaucratic process of conscription.

One option, open to young men who wished not to be identified as conscripts, was volunteering for a unit prior to their eighteenth birthday, then awaiting this date for actually joining up. For example, one young man, who wanted 'the pride of being a volunteer', found out that 'certain regiments were permitted to accept men who offered themselves at eighteen if they were physically fit. ... Consequently, two days before my eighteenth birthday ... I was enrolled as a member of the London Rifle Brigade.' Another youth used this method as a means of controlling his placement in the army, and therefore volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps: 'It was 1917, and as I had no desire to be conscripted into the infantry when I was eighteen, having a strong desire to be an airman. ... Just after my eighteenth birthday and while waiting for my call-up, I went over to Leeds to stay with my parents until that fateful day in early September [1917].' The men who enlisted under the Derby Scheme may be seen as a combination of voluntarism and conscription: when canvassed in their own homes or offices the Derbyites attested their willingness to join up. In other words, they attested themselves, and were not deemed to have done so by the state; yet their free will was expressed as an answer to a question, and not as a self-motivated act. As a contemporary satirist put it, the issue was 'whether the necessary men are to be compelled to volunteer or persuaded to be compulsorily enrolled'. However, once attested, they were treated exactly as conscripts in that they became the passive subjects of the bureaucratic process. This is well exemplified in the case of a man who attested under the scheme in November 1915. Being single, he was placed in Group 5, which was called up within two weeks of the first Military Service Act being passed. His employer appealed at the local tribunal established under the scheme, and he was moved to Group 10. But 'this availed me very little as the next ten Groups were called up together'. A further appeal postponed his eventual enlistment to April 1916. It is thus clear that once an individual came into contact with the bureaucracy that eventually controlled conscription, his identity as either Derbyite or conscript was irrelevant.

There were, however, advantages to the Derby Scheme. Lt Edward Allfree, a solicitor with four children, happily attested his willingness to enlist under the scheme, precisely because it combined the act of free attestation with an externally imposed schedule. Allfree had not volunteered because he thought his familial duty superseded his patriotic one, yet he felt some guilt over the matter. The scheme allowed him to pay lip-service to his sense of duty to King and Country, in that he attested his willingness to join. Yet it also forcibly removed him from his family, without him actually having to initiate this action: '... the burden of deciding when one ought to enlist was removed from the individual'. Thus in contrast to the conscripts, who were passive throughout the entire process of enlistment, Allfree and all Derbyites became so only after their attestation: 'There was now nothing to do or to worry about but wait until one should be called up. In due course I received notice that my group was called up, and that I was to join at Canterbury Barracks on 10th June, 1916.'

The second stage of enlistment under conscription started when the individual attended the local recruiting office. In effect, it was this part of the proceedings that reflected equally upon volunteers and conscripts, since both were filtered through an identical system, comprised of four stages: completing an attestation form; undergoing a medical examination and classification; taking the oath of allegiance and the King's shilling, which was a day's basic pay for a private soldier; and placement in a military unit. At the end of the day, both also emerged from the recruiting office either as classified soldiers or as men officially and certifiably exempted due to incompatibility with military requirements. But the similarity is misleading, because in terms of status the two groups were totally distinct: the volunteer arrived at the recruiting office as a free man, who took the oath only if he 'accepted the conditions of service'. As such he could actually depart the premises at any time, up to the point at which he was sworn in as a soldier. W. Cobb, the post office sorter discussed above, exercised this privilege when he withdrew his voluntary application form in 1915. In another case a group of men wishing to volunteer in August 1914 waited for three days in the crowds before Great Scotland Yard, the Central London Recruiting Depot, before deciding to leave and go in search of a less crowded recruiting depot.

In contrast, the conscripts did not decide when to present themselves at the recruiting office nor when to leave it. Upon arriving at the office they were already attested soldiers whose time and movements were no longer under their own control. They were subject to the demands of the military authorities. The immediate implication of this situation was that from the moment they entered the recruiting office they could be treated as new recruits, the lowest form of life in the army. An eighteen-year-old who enlisted in Worcester in December 1916 noted that 'the first bloke as I met on the parade ground was the old Sergeant-Major– the recruiting officer. "What the hell do you want?" he said. "Oh, I've come to join the Army, sir," I said.' Another conscript recalls having 'my new khaki uniform more or less thrown at me and ... told to report again in the morning'. But at base, and in many cases, reporting to the recruiting station was merely another stage in the business of bureaucracy, extended much beyond anything experienced by the volunteers. Alfred M. Hale, a minor composer who was conscripted in 1917 after previously being exempted by the Navy, noted that 'my "calling-up notice" required my attendance at the Ealing recruiting office at 9 a.m. sharp on the morning of 1 May'. Hale did indeed present himself at the prescribed time and date, only to be interviewed by a recruiting officer who suggested he procure a rejection certificate from the naval authorities. He thus went across London to the appropriate office but failed to get the certificate. Thereupon his solicitor despatched a clerk to 'worry the Naval authorities' who sent him 'from pillar to post before he got an answer', which was still negative. This was the start of Hale's 'ordeal', in which dealings with bureaucrats played an immense part, as did the external constraints put upon his freedom. His eventual enlistment on 4 May led him to compare his experiences with 'a certain compartment full of convicts bound for Dartmoor I had once seen at North Road Station, Plymouth'.

Alfred Hale was a patently unmilitary individual, and his descriptions may therefore be slightly exaggerated. However, all the descriptions of conscript enlistment portray the movements of the individual as a process of response to bureaucratic orders revolving around a series of papers procured from military clerks and doctors. For example:

14 February 1917 Received calling up notice from Croydon Recruiting Office.

15 February 1917 Asked for permit from Croydon Recruiting Office to allow me to be medically examined in London.

16 February 1917 Obtained paper from Civil Service Rifles saying they are willing to accept me.

17 February 1917 Heard officially that I was to be released if fit physically for general service.

21 February 1917 Received permit and was examined and passed.
Resigned from Specials.

28 February 1917 Joined up.

Each of these entries refers to some form of contact with bureaucracy – and this is the complete record as it was originally written, not an abbreviated version. It was the diarist who saw his enlistment as a bureaucratic process, initiated by the summons sent to him. And while he undoubtedly made an attempt to exercise some control over his fate by requesting a specific unit, the Civil Service Rifles, this was still done within the confines of a set procedure, governed by permits and forms.

The physical act of enlistment in the recruiting station began with the attestation form, which was composed of questions concerning the personal particulars of the individual conscript. This was probably the most important document created for each soldier, since it became the basis of his military service file: any information or forms pertaining to his life or career in the army were added to it throughout his service. There was no standard attestation form among the different branches of the Army, which tended to differ in both form and content. However, all recorded age, place of birth and/ or address (parish/town/county), nationality, occupation, marital status, next of kin, religion, residential status and prison record. In the case of conscripts many of these details were already known and recorded because of the National Register of August 1915: the first summons they received was based upon the returns of the register; the completion of the attestation form therefore served more as a confirmation of their particulars. Within the military service file, it was this form which was most regularly updated with regard to matters such as promotions, transfers, health, wounds, participation in campaigns, subsequent decorations, and a summation of periods served 'abroad'. Personal particulars were also regularly updated, from changes in marital status and family composition (births and deaths), to the next of kin's address. The last entry on the form would always be the date and administrative reasons for discharge.


Excerpted from Conscripts by Ilana R. Bet-El. Copyright © 2013 Ilana R. Bet-El. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ilana Bet-El is a writer, historian, and political analyst who has worked with the UN as a political analyst both in New York and the Balkans, including two years in Bosnia after the war. She has written for the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, and the European Voice.

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