Recruitment to the british army during the first world war
At the start of 1914 the British Army had
a reported strength of 710,000 men
including reserves, of which around
80,000 were regular troops ready for
By the end of World War I almost 1 in 4
of the total male population of the United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
had joined, over five million men.
The war began with a massive and
unprecedented wave of enthusiasm.
At the beginning of August 1914, Parliament
issued a call for an extra 500,000 soldiers.
The response was overwhelming. By the end
of September, over 750,000 men had enlisted;
(every month 125,000 men volenteered) by
January 1915, a million.
The enthusiasm to join and fight was genuine,
showing an "almost mystical patriotism".
Sixth forms and universities were almost
emptied as the war continued.
A World War I
One early peculiarity was the formation of "Pals
battalions": groups of men from the same factory, football
team, bank, and similar, joining and fighting together.
The idea was first suggested at a public meeting by Lord
Derby; within three days, he oversaw volunteers sufficient
for three battalions.
Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, gave
official approval for the measure almost instantly and the
response was impressive.
Manchester raised fifteen specific 'Pals' battalions; one of
the smallest was Accrington, in Lancashire, which raised
The drawback of 'Pals' battalions was that a whole town
could lose its military-aged menfolk in a single day.
The government demand for men continued unabated,
and after the first call in August for 500,000 men; a further
3.5 million were called-for before the year ended.
The pre-war calculations had supposed that the British
Expeditionary Force would lose around 40% of its
manpower in the first six months of fighting.
Kitchener's predictions of three years fighting and a
million men needed was regarded as incredible.
The seven divisions of the BEF, totalling 85,000 men, had
been landed in France at the outbreak of war; casualties
in the first three months totalled almost 90,000.
By mid-1915, this total had risen to around 375,000 men
even before the autumn offensives and the rate of
recruitment was falling off, for a number of reasons.
In 1915 the total available number of men of military age was 5.5
million, with around 500,000 more reaching the age each year.
By late September, 2.25 million men had been enlisted and 1.5 million
were in reserved occupations.
Of the rest, the recruiters had uncovered a dismaying fact — almost
two in every five volunteers were entirely unsuitable for military service
on the grounds of health.
When volunteer numbers fell to around 70,000 a month after the
Dardanelles Expedition, the government felt forced to intervene,
although they initially avoided conscription.
A National Registration Act in 1915 created a register that revealed the
number of men still available and they were targeted in a number of
The skills of advertising were brought to bear with posters, public
meetings, tales of German atrocities, and the threat of shame.
The 'Derby Scheme' used door-to-door visits to gather men to 'attest' to
serve if needed.
May 1915 poster by
E. V. Kealey, from
Many public institutions of all sorts
mobilized to help recruit for the war.
The women's suffrage movement was
sharply divided, the slight majority
becoming very enthusiastic patriots and
asking their members to give white
feathers (the sign of the coward) in the
streets to men of military age who had
not joined the army.
The popular music hall artistes of the time
worked enthusiastically for recruitment.
Harry Lauder toured the music halls,
recruiting young soldiers on stage in front
of the audience, often offering 'ten pounds
for the first recruit tonight'.
Marie Lloyd sang a recruiting song I didn't
like you much before you joined the army,
John, but I do like you, cockie, now you've
got yer khaki on.
Vesta Tilley sang The Army of Today's
With insufficient numbers attesting and
the French Army in dire need of relief, a
Military Service Bill was introduced in
January 1916, providing for the
conscription of single men aged 18-41;
in May conscription was extended to
The government pledged not to send
teenagers to serve in the front line.
Ireland was excluded from the scheme.
Conscription, however, had little impact on enlistment.
The number continued to decline towards 40,000 a
month, as essential men were needed for war work and
the poor health of many others remained, even as the
requirements were progressively reduced.
From 1.28 million enlisting in 1915, this had fallen to 1.19
million for 1916 and fell to around 820,000 for 1917.
The healthy manpower was simply not there — in 1917–
18 only 36% of men examined were suitable for full
military duties, and 40% were either totally unfit or were
classified as unable to undergo physical exertion.
In 1918, the British Army was actually smaller than in
1917 (3.84 million to 3.9 million) and almost half the
infantry was nineteen or younger.
Conscientious objection was included in the
1916 Acts, with objectors appearing before
local tribunals to obtain exemption.
Around 7000 men were granted non-
combatant duties, while a further 3000 ended
up in special work camps.
6000 were imprisoned.
Some forty two were sent to France to
potentially face the threat of a firing squad.
This threat was more real to thirty five who
were formally sentenced to death, but
immediately reprieved, with ten years penal