Even though Lord Kitchener’s infamous ‘Your Country Needs You’ campaign and Edward Stanley’s ‘Derby Scheme’ encouraged 2,466,719 men to voluntarily enlist between August 1914 and December 1915, it had become apparent to the British government that voluntary enlistment was no longer meeting the need for recruits. The government – though adverse to the idea of conscription for fear of lowering morale – saw no viable alternative and voted to begin the process of conscription by passing the Military Service Act in March 1916.
Similarly to the previous 1914 enlisting requirements, the terms set forth in the Military Service Act initially dictated that all ‘single men’ and ‘childless widowers’ between the ages of 18 and 41 in England, Scotland and Wales should either voluntarily enlist for active service at their local Armed Forces recruiter’s office, or attest straight away under the Derby scheme because as of 2nd March 1916 all eligible candidates that hadn’t signed up yet would be automatically drafted for service.
A further incentive for men to voluntarily enlist was the fact that conscripted men would have no choice about which service, regiment or unit they joined, whereas volunteers – to a certain extent – had a choice.
When the government finally introduced conscription though, it sadly found no great reservoir of manpower to tap in to. In fact most of those conscripted appealed for an ‘exemption’ and if none could be found had to be coerced into service lowering the morale of the nation.
Facts on conscription:
What is Conscription?
When a country’s military needs people to fight in a war but there aren’t enough volunteers to do so, the government can vote to enact a process called ‘Conscription’. ‘Conscription’ is a compulsory enlistment for active state service meaning that if a man was declared medically fit to fight, then he had to fight.
The Irish population was exempt from conscription due to discontent surrounding calls for an independent Ireland however many Irishmen still volunteered to fight for Britain and Kitchener developed a poster targeted at promoting Irish voluntary enlistment.
In May 1916 a second Government act extended conscription for military service to married men, and a third Act passed in 1918 extended the upper age limit to all men aged up to 51 years-old.