12 December 1915 – Recruitment

This is supposed to be the final day of registration for the Derby scheme, a last-ditch effort to avoid military conscription in the United Kingdom — and one of the largest undertakings in the history of British governance. All across England and Scotland, more than two million men now wear armbands like the one seen above (via Foxhall Militaria) to signify their having attested for deferred enlistment under the scheme.

In one sense, the Derby scheme works out spectacularly: when the eponymous Lord Derby reports to Parliament on December 20th, nearly three million men have either attested, enlisted, or been rejected for medical reasons since the 23rd of October. But of the five million men of military age in the UK, only about five percent, or 275,000, have actually been inducted into service — nowhere near the total needed to replace the expected losses of operations being planned for the new year. Altogether, just 59% of eligible men have registered for military service, while nine percent are deemed unfit. At least one million unmarried males have not taken part, and of these some 650,000 are not ‘starred’ for working in critical war industries.

So in terms of turning out volunteers to actually serve in battle, the Derby scheme is clearly not working. But in the sense that it lays clear the limits of Britain’s tradition of an all-volunteer force, bringing the conscription question to a decision at last, the Derby plan is a complete success.

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Left: a poster announces that single men will be called up first. Right: Edward Stanley, Lord Derby

The scheme does not fail from lack of Victorian effort. By the end of the day, registration is held open while a throng of men holds out at recruiting centers, and recruiting continues at some stations until the 19th. A whole system of recruiters, a relentless press campaign, and a host of social and political pressures have been brought to bear. Some veterans of the front are convinced to participate in convincing the lads; many of these meetings leave the soldiers unsatisfied. The fathers of sons at war are deemed especially effective at shaming young men into signing up. Women ‘award’ white feathers in public to men they deem cowards, and the ‘fairer sex’ is actively propagandized to withhold their attentions from ‘shirkers’ a very good reason for attestation.

All this activity dedicated to the preservation of a Victorian cultural institution has in fact raised a spirit of British impressment haunting the streets. With this full-court press still having failed to produce an army of the needed size, however, the Asquith government finally brings conscription up for discussion in the War Cabinet on the 14th, before Derby makes his final report to Parliament. Six days later, Lord Curzon and Leo Amery begin drafting a compulsory conscription bill with plans to submit it in the new year.

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Men registering for the 1915 August census at a common boarding house. From Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War

By publicly offering to discriminate prioritize calling up single over married men without explaining any details, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith added a measure of confusion and uncertainty to the recruiting effort in the first weeks of November. Replying to Lord Derby’s letter asking for clarification on November 20th, Asquith solidified a whole new political issue within the conscription issue.

Married men will not be called upon for war service before young unmarried men. If the latter do not offer themselves in adequate numbers, voluntarily, the married men who have offered as recruits will be released from any pledge, and a bill will introduced compelling young men to serve. If this Bill should not pass, the married men will be automatically released. Mr. Asquith, in his reply, says the letter correctly expressed the Government’s intention.

Yet the Derby scheme is never quite abandoned into 1917, for the database is used to locate conscripts; nor do recruiting centers and volunteer drives really end before 1918 comes to an exhausted close. The move to conscription will never fully replace Britain’s cherished heritage.

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A histogram shows that volunteerism understandably diminishes, but never actually ceases in the course of the conflict