As Family Historians you'll no doubt have researched ancestors who served in WW1. You may also come across people in your family tree who didn't see military service during WW1. There could be a whole host of reasons for this.
Britain avoided introducing Conscription for the first 18-months of War, instead a range of measures being introduced to ‘encourage’ men to enlist. Perhaps the most well known of these was the ‘Pals’ scheme whereby men who enlisted together would be allowed to serve together; the rationale being that the keener members of a group would pressurise the less-keen to come along. So successful was the scheme that entire Battalions were raised from a single Town or part of a City. The weakness of the scheme was soon revealed, however, for when a ‘Pals’ Battalion suffered heavy losses, the effect on their home Town or City could be devastating.
There were never enough men to feed the meat-grinder of the Western Front, however, and eventually the Government was forced to forgo its principles. The Military Service Act of January 1916 made all single or widowed men between the ages of 18 and 41 liable to Conscription. A follow-up Act in June of that year extended the call-up to ALL men in this age range. Finally, in April,1918, the upper age limit was extended to 50; with provision to further increase it to 56 if needed.
Men could apply for exemption to the Call-up and plead their case before a local Tribunal. Much attention has been given to the fates of Conscientious Objectors, who refused to join the Services on moral grounds. However, these were actually very few in number – less than 20,000 during the course of the War. By far the greatest number who came before a Tribunal were those who applied for deferment or exemption on health grounds.
The scale of the ill-health problem is an often overlooked national scandal, an indictment of the generally poor physical condition of Britain’s poorer workers in the decades before the outbreak of War. In November 1917 responsibility for assessing the men’s health passed from military to civilian hands after complaints that the Army was applying ridiculously lax rules to get as many men into service as possible. Between then and the end of the War in November 1918, over one-million eligible men were granted exemptions on health grounds.
Amid the flurry of enlistments which followed the outbreak of the First World War, it was forgotten that certain ‘key’ workers were necessary to the normal running of the country. So much so, that some Servicemen had to be brought back from the Front in 1915 to resume their civilian occupations.
When Conscription was introduced, this factor was not overlooked and certain grades of civilian worker were exempted from the call-up. These included many Farmers, Doctors and Teachers, as well as those employed in industrial work which was considered vital to the war effort. The latter included Coal Miners, Train Drivers, skilled Shipyard, Steel and Iron Workers, and those working in armaments factories.
It was reckoned that about a third of the (almost) 5-million men eligible for the call-up in 1915 were working in Reserved occupations. The rules on Exemption changed repeatedly during the War and a man’s status varied according to his age as well as his marital status. For example, often those in Reserved occupations could still be called-up if they were under the age of 25; the reasoning being that these would be less experienced and therefore less valuable workers. Nevertheless, by the end of the War in November,1918, around 2.5-million held Reserved status.
Unfortunately records relating to the process of gaining ‘Reserved’ occupational status have not survived. However, it is often possible to interpolate the facts given a man’s occupation as given in the 1911 Census.
To avoid the embarrassment of being labelled ‘shirkers’ or of being presented with a white feather – the symbol of ‘cowardice’, such workers were issued with an official Certificate of Service as well as a Metal Badge to provide a visual symbol of their status.
Conscription was considered a necessary evil to meet the Services’ manpower shortage, but in fact its effect is often over-estimated. Of the 4.9 million men who served in the British Army between 1914 and 1918, almost half had enlisted before conscription was introduced. Of the 2.5-million who enlisted after Conscription was introduced, over half were volunteers. In fact, it has been calculated that the total number of men to be conscripted in Britain was ‘just’ 1.3-million or about a quarter of the total number to serve.