Citizen army raised from whole nation

Iconic "Your Country Needs You" poster used to encourage volunteers to join the army.
Iconic "Your Country Needs You" poster used to encourage volunteers to join the army.
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Of the seven and a half million men in Great Britain aged 18 to 41 available for war service, a third were regulars, Territorials and volunteers, a third were conscripted and a third were found to be medically unfit or exempted on grounds of occupation. Conscription of single men began in January 1916 and of married men the following March. The minimum age requirement was often ignored.

Recruits were given a cursory medical examination and placed in one of four categories. Grade One were judged fit for any kind of active service; Grade Two had a “slight” disability but were still eligible for combat duties; Grade Three were suited only for clerical work; and Grade Four were rejected. However, since doctors were paid half a crown for everyone they passed they often overlooked some disabilities such as bad feet or rotten teeth.

There were exceptions. One was for those who were below the minimum standard height of 5ft 3in and came to be called “Bantams”. In October 1914, the MP for Birkenhead, Alfred Bigland, offered volunteers to the army who were between 5ft and 5ft 3in tall and had been turned down in their native county of Durham. Most of them were sturdy coalminers. Kitchener agreed to accept them on condition that their expanded chests measured at least 34 inches. As a result, two whole service battalions were added to the Cheshire regiment and joined the 35th Division in April, 1915. Later, a second Division, the 40th, was raised with the insignia of a Bantam Cock. In May 1915, Kitchener lowered the height limit of enlisted men to 5ft 2in.

There were also the “conscientious objectors” or “conchies”, who opposed the war on moral or religious grounds and who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Crown which bound them for “the duration”. Yet such was the mood of the country that only about 16,000 stood firm and went to prison or into medical units. “COs” were not viewed sympathetically by the press, examining tribunals or the general civilian public. Female “vigilantees” gave white feathers as badges of cowardice to young men not wearing uniform.

On the eve of war the British army was no more than a worldwide colonial police force, particularly if Ireland is counted as a colony. Whereas Russia had five million conscripts in uniform, France four million, and Germany five million, Great Britain had none. All its soldiers, regulars in the Colours, reservists and Territorials, were volunteers, and altogether numbered less than half a million, 160,000 regulars stationed mostly in Ireland, India and Africa and 300,000 “Saturday night” Territorials.

Before the start of conscription, the regulars and the Terriers had been depleted, exhausted and demoralised and the British army had been enlarged and transformed by the addition of more than two million members of Kitchener’s “New Army” of volunteers. This was a truly citizen army, raised from the whole nation, of all classes, urban and rural, from all parts of the kingdom. Conscription was never extended to Ireland, yet even from there 206,000 enlisted as volunteers.

One unique feature of K’s volunteers were the so-called “Pals” battalions. Though this name was never officially approved by the War Office, it was coined by Lord Derby, “the King of Lancashire”, in a speech he made in Liverpool on August 28, 1914. The city had already raised one thousand-strong battalion when the lord announced the formation of a second. “This should be a Battalion of Pals, a battalion in which friends from the same office will fight shoulder to shoulder”. From then on the concept spread rapidly across the country, especially in northern English and Scottish towns and cities.

Each of these new battalions was raised by local leaders who at first fed, clothed and equipped them until they were adopted by the War Office. Each was then attached by name to the local infantry regiment, so that four Bradford and Leeds “Pals” joined the West Yorkshires, the four Liverpool “Pals” the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, the Sheffield City battalion, the York and Lancasters. Manchester had seven such battalions and even Barnsley two of its own. Also, men who were in the same employment joined up together. Of Hull’s four, the Commercials, the Tradesmen, the Sportsmen and T’Others, became the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th battalions of the East Yorkshires. On Tyneside, men of Irish and Scottish origin formed no fewer than eight battalions, all incorporated into the Northumberland Fusiliers. Of the one thousand volunteer battalions recruited by June 1916, two thirds were raised in this way.

Aided by the six million posters printed and displayed until the advent of conscription, recruitment along these lines was certainly effective and productive, but there were negative consequences. The speed and volume overwhelmed the slender resources of the War Office. In the early months, at least, the “Pals” lacked uniforms, accommodation, weapons and trained officers and as a result they spent months in civilian clothes, drilled with broom handles and lived in makeshift camps. They were lucky if they were led by survivors of the trenches, not by Boer War “dug-outs” or elderly peacetime ex-regulars.

Secondly, as events on the Somme battlefield during the summer of 1916 proved, concentrating new recruits also concentrated casualties. On July 1, when the “Pals” from Accrington, Sheffield, Leeds and Barnsley went into their first attack, by nightfall they were almost wiped out for no gains. Much the same happened to the Manchester and Liverpool lads who took their objectives but suffered colossal losses. 345 Bradford boys were killed in one morning. Whole towns in the industrial North went into mourning. The answer was conscription and a deliberate mixture of battalion membership.

The recruitment of “Pals” also concentrated hardship in their communities back home. After taking “the King’s shilling”, a day’s pay, the private soldier without dependants received seven shillings a week plus food and clothing. If married, his wife was entitled to a “separation allowance” of only 12s 6d a week and an extra 2s 6d for each child. In 1914-15 these rates of income were lower than the lowest in the land earned by agricultural labourers.

Though the war stimulated every kind of production from coal-mining, engineering, textiles and the metal trades and longer working hours and higher wages compensated families for absent breadwinners, higher rents and food prices, Scarborough’s economy offered few such opportunities. The town’s dependence on summer visitors, domestic and hotel service and fishing was now a serious liability. The bombardment had been bad enough; but an indefinite continuation of the war was an unmixed disaster to its poorer population.