17 September 1915 – Compulsory Service

Above: one of Fergus Mackain’s cartoon postcards about his service in the Royal Fusiliers.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about today’s parliamentary debate on conscription is that it takes place without so much as a nudge from Number 10 Downing Street. Introducing a new war credit extension two days ago, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith made no mention of the issue; Lord Kitchener, who remarked on a drop-off in enlistments that same day in the House of Lords, nevertheless did not broach the topic of compulsory service. either. Instead, the conscription debate has risen from among a surprisingly broad grassroots coalition of Conservatives (also known as Unionists) and Liberals, with dissent centered in the representatives of the labor movement but also found in both parties of the coalition government. Quite simply, the issue has already transcended partisan labeling on both sides of the question, for they each have popular support and organizing advocates.

A wire service report on the day's debate preserved by the National Library of New Zealand

A wire service report on the day’s debate preserved by the National Library of New Zealand

While the debate leads to no conclusions, bears only tangentially on the proposed legislation, and involves no votes on the question, it is an important barometer of the country’s increasing readiness to enact a conscription scheme. Unlike its peers on the European continent, during a 19th Century of ‘splendid isolation’ Great Britain has never had a very large army; in fact, the British Army was smaller than the Belgian Army when the war began, for London reckoned that their Navy could defeat any invasion, while the mass inductions in Germany, France, and other societies across the water were widely seen as infringements on human freedom — and fuel for militarists. Indeed, before the war this strategic choice has been one reason for the Empire’s great success as a commercial and financial power, for the royal coffers have not been asked to pay for the care and feeding of millions of young men who are otherwise perfectly capable of working and earning wages, contributing to the economy rather than draining it.

And wages are an issue in the conversation about conscription. British labor organizers in the Liberal Party are eager to protect their hard-won rights — not just in terms of wages, but also on factory safety issues such as ‘dilution,’ the practice of replacing skilled workers with lower-paid, unskilled labor. Because the British munitions industry has been ramped up at least as quickly as the Army, dilution has been a necessary resort that worries the trade unions. They also fear that military conscription will be accompanied by industrial conscription, for the government has already taken up powers that it had previously eschewed, such as the ability to settle wage disputes. A century later, we might even say that it is the British left which best exhibits a healthy distrust of powerful, centralized government in 1915 — which is not to say that they are unpatriotic, for these same labor leaders definitely support the war, and have proven quite willing to make sacrifices for the nation. In the end, their lobbying will prevent the worst possibilities from happening when a majority does eventually coalesce around the issue.

For it is abundantly clear with time that the voluntary system of recruiting is failing to meet the needs of the Army. Unspoken, yet weighing on the minds of all who take part in today’s debate, are the wretched facts of the conflict on its battlefields, for the war is not going particularly well for Britain and her allies anywhere at the moment. By the beginning of 1916, recruiting shortfalls and the pressing need for manpower in the trenches leave no other recourse. But even then, opponents of the measure will still manage to make changes to its final form, such as conscientious objector provisions.

Unlike Russia, where all impulses towards popular governance are being systematically stifled with the conflict as an excuse, Britain can thus claim to have a thriving democracy in 1915. Having already conscripted a larger percentage of their male population than any other country at war, France too has struggled with issues of parliamentary oversight, and the sitting government fears the effect of centrifugal forces on its majority. Whatever we may think of the war or its prosecution thus far, of the three nations just mentioned, Britain has been faced with the biggest material challenges, but has also undeniably enjoyed the greatest success in terms of popular governance and military expansion. And perhaps the two matters are inextricable, for Russia lags in both categories, as the results of the summer-long Central Powers offensives on the Eastern Front bear witness. The fact that Russia’s peasant Army and troublesome Navy will also be first to collapse upon their country in revolution suggests that oppression of the democratic impulse does not benefit a modern state in wartime, but actually discourages necessary adaptation to material and social conditions of human conflict. In short, democracies are generally quite good at winning wars of necessity, even at enormous cost in blood and treasure, and on a global scale, as long as they generally feel the sacrifice is worthwhile in the end — a promise that not all of the belligerent states can fulfill. Some must be losers, but they needn’t necessarily be all on the same side.


A 1916 conscription poster shows the full diversity of British manhood transitioning from soldier to civilian