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.
A reserved occupation meant any occupation that was considered vital to the war effort on the home front. It was a broad category that changed as the war continued and the need for able bodied men at the front increased. Generally, reserved occupations included teachers, train and bus drivers, clergymen, men working in the coal mines, shipyards, iron or steel works, and munitions factories, and some men who worked as farmers.
The Act was unique as it allowed for exemption based on conscientious grounds. The debate that surrounded conscientious objection was not whether it should be recognised or not, but whether it should be limited to Quakers who had been exempted from militia service since 1757.
Conscription aroused much controversy and differing views both on its introduction and the issue of conscientious objectors.
Men that were called up for service could appeal to a local Military Service Tribunal. These were organised by local authorities to deal with exemption applications. The system was not perfect; it allowed for individual prejudice and bias to override the principle of the law. Conscripts could appeal for exemption on the grounds of conscience, family circumstances, health, and by reason of employment such as being in a reserved occupation. Years after the end of the war, the government instructed that local governing bodies destroy all tribunal related material as it was deemed to be too sensitive. Material only survives from Middlesex and Lothian and Peebles in Scotland.
There were letters supporting the case for exemption; business owners explaining how their business might be destroyed, family members who would suffer devastating economic hardship, and pleas from mothers who had already lost many sons to the war. Some were the opposite, with doctor’s testimonies of medical unfitness of conscripts being ignored, indictments against the character of conscripts appealing, even a letter from a wife asking them to send her husband to war because he made her life so miserable.
If an applicant’s case was rejected then they faced imprisonment and possible execution if they refused to go to war. Early on, these men were already considered to be soldiers and would be sent to military prisons. This changed in mid-1916 and they were sent to civil prisons where they were usually sentenced to 112 days third division hard labour. This was the most severe level of prison sentence under English law at the time. This included a month of solitary confinement, a diet of bread and water, and performing arduous and menial tasks such as breaking stone.
After their release, many men were arrested again as deserters, court-martialled, and returned to prison.