In August 1914 Great Britain entered into a war with no experience of developing a mass army and the notion of conscription was entirely alien. The British Army had an estimated 700,000 men. Germany’s army had over 3.7 million. There was a call for volunteers to enlist, and thousands answered that call. In the first 8 weeks over ¾ of a million men in Britain had joined up.
Not every volunteer was suitable to be a soldier. Each volunteer had to meet age restrictions, nationality criteria, and pass a medical examination. The minimum age to enlist was 18, and 19 to serve overseas.
The army was unprepared for the numbers of volunteers wanting to fight. Men were rushed through the official process of joining up, training camps were often basic, and supplies for equipment were limited. In the flood of recruiting in early 1914, medical examinations were often hasty, and a blind eye was turned to official standards in an effort to process men quickly. This allowed many under age and unfit men to enlist. At least 250,000 of the men enlisted were under the age of 19. The minimum requirements fluctuated throughout the war depending on how many men were volunteering. At the height of recruitment the minimum height requirement was raised from 5’3” to 5’6” to prevent an unmanageable number of volunteers. It was lowered again to 5’3” when recruiting decreased, then lowered again to 5’ in 1918.
By 1915 it was clear that it was not possible to continue fighting by relying on volunteers. The high number of casualties meant that the army needed to be continuously reinforced with new men and volunteer recruitment was not meeting that demand. So on 15 July 1915 the National Registration Act 1915 was passed. It required all men and women, between the ages of 15 and 65 to register. Many saw it as the beginning of the end of voluntary recruitment and the movement towards conscription. It gave the government a statistical breakdown of the men in the civilian population – whether they were married, or single, their ages, occupations, and their names and addresses. This information was then used by The Derby Scheme in autumn 1915. Men that were between 18 and 41 years old and not in a reserved occupation were eligible to serve.
Canvassers were sent out to recruit these men. These were usually men who could not serve themselves, but were influential; discharged veterans and fathers of serving men were the most effective. Canvassers persuaded men to enlist, and a few canvassers, when persuasion failed, resorted to threats and violence. To avoid canvassers, many men moved address or went to live with relatives. Women who supported the war would often locate these men’s new addresses and pass the information onto the canvassers. Once a man was attested, (enrolled as fit for military service), he promised to go to the recruiting office within 48 hours to enlist. Some were accompanied there immediately. If they were suitable and signed up, the canvasser received a signing bonus of 2 shillings and 9 pence.
This method still did not recruit the necessary number of men. Though parliament was divided on the issue, conscription was seen as a way to quickly increase the numbers of troops.
In January 1916 the First Military Act was introduced and came into force in March. It introduced conscription for single men between 18 and 41 years old in England, Scotland, and Wales, unless they were married, widowed with children, medically unfit, serving in the Royal Navy, clergymen, conscientious objectors, or working in a reserved occupation.