WW1 military service: volunteers, conscription and exemption

WW1 military service

Conscription means compulsory enlistment into a group of some sort, usually the armed forces. People generally called it the 'call up' and 'being called up'. At the start of WW1, there was no conscription: men simply volunteered for military service. Then, with the 1916 Military Service Act, came conscription and legal and other ways to avoid it.


By the webmaster based on informal interviews and additional research

The 1916 Military Service Acts on conscription in WW1

World War One conscription in the UK did not happen immediately or even shortly after the start of the war in August 1914. The country was proud that its people felt so strongly about the cause of the war, that its men joined up in their thousands as volunteers. There was of course pressure from society for them to do so. The maxim was:

"We don't want you to go, but we think you should."

It became clear, though, that the war could never be won by relying on voluntary recruits. So came the Military Service Act of January 1916. It specified that single men aged 18 to 40 years old were liable to be called up for military service with certain exclusions. The second Act of just a few months later in May 1916 extended the conscription to married men.

Reserved occupations: the exclusions from military service

The occupations that were excluded from conscription were known as 'reserved occupations'. They were occupations deemed essential for the war effort and the smooth running of the country. Ill-health was understandably a valid reason for exemption.

Attempts to avoid being conscripted

Can you imagine how people felt about male members of their families being suddenly whisked away to fight in a war that was likely to maim or kill them! And can you imagine how women felt at being deprived of their husbands and having to carry on managing home and family without them! And can you imagine how employers felt at losing employees if their businesses were not deemed essential to the war effort! There was also the constant worry that an occupation deemed as reserved one week would suddenly have its status removed as more and more men were dying in the fighting.

An obvious result was that people sought comfort by trying to argue, first among themselves and then formally, that they, their loved ones and their employees were actually in occupations that should be regarded as reserved ones. (The same, not surprisingly, was also true for World War Two - see Claims for occupations to be treated as reserved.)

In fact, my understanding is that such arguments came to little because ways were found to fill the jobs by other means, usually with unmarried women and children.

Below is a documented example of an attempt to avoid conscription.

Pressure on parents to canvass to avoid teachers being conscripted

Have a look at the following child's Christmas letter home. The pertinent points are transcribed below.

First page of letter, written in an English lesson at school, Christmas 1915 (WW1)
Second page of letter, written in an English lesson at school, Christmas 1915 (WW1).

Christmas letter home, written by a ten-year-old in a school English lesson in 1915, pleading a case for continuing reserved occupation status for teachers

The was written by my father when he was age 10. Ignoring the exceptional quality of the handwriting for a ten-year old, for which all credit must go to the teachers of the time, ask yourself whether you think that a child of ten would express his own thoughts in the following way:

... We should very much like to say, "Peace on earth and goodwill to men", but the times are out of joint and we cannot see any signs of peace yet.

However we have been able to do good work at school as if all was peaceful, but we fear that our masters may be called up to serve King and Country if the war continues and then our education will suffer...

There seems to me to be little doubt that the letter, and sixty or so others from the rest of the class, was copied from what the teacher had written on the blackboard. It also seems to me that the teacher was concerned at the likelihood of being conscripted, even though he was currently in a reserved occupation, and he wanted to prepare parents for canvassing if that changed.

I don't know the outcome, but I do understand that the bar to married women teaching was kept less strictly in the war.

Temporary exemption from conscription

In general, conscription was permanent, that is until the end of the war or injury.

The final image shows a valid certificate of exemption from conscription which was temporary. I was told that it was on the grounds of ill-health.

Certificate of exemption from Military Service in the WW1, UK.

Certificate of exemption from Military Service in the First World War.

What is interesting about it is that the exemption is specifically for a short, limited time only - presumably only to give time for recovery from the ill-health. We do not know for how long the exemption was to last because, although the end date is given, the issuing date has been torn off. However the temporary nature of the exemption is stressed. The issuing body was giving nothing away.

The certificate is part of a larger document which was presumably an application for exemption from military service. It has sadly not survived.

Several interesting points can be gleaned from the certificate:

The certificate was issued by a Local Tribunal. Presumably its address was in the missing part of the document. However the use of the term Local Tribunal suggests that the document was, in fact, a valid national one for the whole of Britain, for which there were local issuing bodies. Somewhat surprisingly, the certificate has no space to show the reason for the exemption. Presumably that is fully explained in the missing part of the document.

Frederick's exemption was until the 4th October 1918.

The exemption certificate shows that the Local Tribunal could set the conditions for the exemption. Fortunately for Frederick, his exemption was unconditional, which meant that he did not have to do any type of war work during the period of his exemption.

The end of WW1 conscription

As it happened, Armistice was to come shortly after the end of Frederick's exemption, in the following month on November 11th 1918 - not that the tribunal could have foreseen this with any certainty. Anyway, conscription was extended until 1920 to enable the army to deal with continuing trouble spots in the Empire and parts of Europe.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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