It was on Thursday 27th January 1916 that Britain’s parliament passed the Military Service Act – an Act that introduced compulsory conscription for all single men between the ages of 18 and 41.
The Great War was edging into its third year of conflict when British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith introduced the first military conscription bill in his country’s history to the House of Commons. From the beginning of conflict Lord Kitchener, Britain’s secretary of State for War, had warned that the war would be decided by Britain’s last 1 million men.
All the regular divisions of the British army had gone into action in the summer of 1914 and the campaign for volunteers based around the slogan “Your King and Country Need You!” began in earnest in August of that year. The volunteer response had been impressive with around half-a-million enlisting in the first six weeks of the war alone. However, the war had proved to be far longer and bloodier than expected and the army shrank. By the late summer of 1915 Britain had lost some 60,000 officers and it had become clear to Lord Kitchener that military conscription would be necessary if Britain was to win the war.
Prime Minister Asquith had feared that conscription would be a politically unattractive proposition, but he finally submitted to reality and, on Wednesday 5th January 1916, he introduced the first conscription bill to Parliament. It was passed into law as the Military Service Act on Thursday 27th January 1916 and went into effect on Monday 10th February 1916. Now every British male between 18 and 40 was liable to be called up for military service unless they were a widower with children; a minister of religion or involved in activities beneficial to the country must be conscripted.
PS: My grandfather worked on the land – a ‘beneficial activity’ – but appears to have gone-to-war anyway. His records are thin but record him as being in Army service for 9 years 110 days plus 6 years 255 days in reserves. Unfortunately he died a number of years before I was born and his wife – my Nan – did not like to talk about his absence and I was a bit on the young side to ask her anyway! Resolving it all might take some time but I think it’s time I tried again.