18/5/1917 America introduces conscription

US warships have arrived in Europe to join patrols against the U-boat menace. President Wilson knows however that if the war is to be brought to an end it will be done so on land. Here the USA is at a considerable disadvantage. The country’s army amounts to just 145,000, insignificantly small compared to the great armies of Europe.

In order to make a difference in Europe, the American army will have to be expanded. Today the President signs into a law the Selective Service Act, which allows for conscription. Even so, it will be some time before the army will have been built up to a level that can take on the Germans. Given the task facing the Americans, that of building a large modern army almost from scratch, some wonder whether the USA will be able to deploy troops to Europe in strength before 1919.

In keeping with the traditions of the United States, draftees will be segregated by colour.

image source (Wikipedia)

5/5/1917 Pro-conscription party wins landslide in Australia

Australian politics has been in turmoil since the failure of a conscription referendum last year. Prime Minister Billy Hughes had supported conscription but most of his Labor Party colleagues had opposed it. After the vote, Hughes had left his party, taking a good few of the MPs with him but remaining as Prime Minister only with the support of the Liberals.

Since then Hughes’ supporters and the Liberals have merged to create the Nationalist Party, with Hughes as leader. Today Australia goes to the polls in a general election. A drop in Labor’s vote sees the Nationalists win a landslide victory of seats in the Australian parliament. Now Hughes begins to think about having another go at introducing conscription to Australia.

29/10/1916 Australia votes against conscription

At the start of this war many naively thought it would end quite quickly, but instead it has gone on and on. The war has also consumed far more lives than expected. Many of the men who went off to fight in 1914 are now dead or invalided. Like Britain, Australia initially sought to recruit more men by appealing for volunteers. However, less and less men are signing up now that they have a sense of the war’s real horror.

Britain got around this problem by introducing conscription, emulating continental European countries by compelling military service. Billy Hughes, Australia’s prime minister, wants to do the same, but conscription is more opposed in his country. Hughes leads the Labor Party, but opposition to conscription is strong within the labour movement. The opposition of his own party members means that he cannot force conscription through parliament.

Instead Hughes calls a plebiscite, inviting Australians to vote for conscription. Aside from Hughes himself, the proposal is supported by the opposition Liberal party, by most of the media, the Protestant churches and by establishment interests generally. Conscription is opposed by much of the labour movement and the Catholic church.

The pro-conscription newspapers provide glowing reports of Hughes addressing cheering crowds supporting the plebiscite but ignore or downplay meetings of those who are against the draft. As a result, when the votes are counted today, many are shocked to discover that Australia has voted narrowly against conscription.

For Hughes the vote is a disaster. He has already been expelled from several unions he had helped to found. Now he is the prime minister of a country that has rejected his signature proposal and leader of a party that is increasingly alienated from him.

image sources:

Norman Lindsay poster in support of conscription (Wikipedia)

International Workers of the World poster opposing conscription (Wikipedia)

Post referendum cartoon from The Australian Worker by Claude Marquet (Wikipedia)

25/5/1916 Feeding the guns: Britain widens conscription’s dragnet

Britain was the only one of the major combatants to begin the war without a large standing army. The other nations conscripted men into their armies but Britain had a comparatively tiny army comprised only of people who had voluntarily enlisted. This army was too small for the war that Britain found itself fighting. Initially the British authorities appealed for volunteers to make up the army’s numbers. That initially yielded a large number of men but as the carnage of the conflict became more apparent it became harder to find sufficient volunteers.

Earlier this year Britain began to conscript unmarried men into the army. Now the recruiters’ net is widened as married men too find themselves summoned to the colours. This may be because of fears that shirkers were entering into ill-starred marriages as a way of avoiding their martial duty.

Conscription continues to apply only to England, Scotland and Wales. Given the recent rebellion in Dublin it seems wise to not provoke the Irish.

image sources:

Daddy, what did you do in the Great War? (Highfield Modern World History)

New recruits (BBC News)

27/1/1916 Britain introduces conscription

Britain entered this war with an all-volunteer army, making her unique among the major combatants of Europe. The British army was small at the war’s start and suffered horrendous casualties during fighting in late 1914 that more or less wiped out the pre-war cohort of troops. Since then large numbers of volunteers have swelled the ranks but now recruitment has slowed. Voluntary enlistment will not maintain the British army at the level needed to fight the war.

The solution for this problem is conscription. Today the Military Services Act becomes law, allowing the authorities to forcibly recruit unmarried men into the army. The measure is controversial, with trade unionists particularly opposed. Exemptions are put in place for men working in a variety of key professions or where their recruitment would lead to extreme hardship for their families.

The Act only applies to England, Scotland and Wales. Irish nationalist politicians had strongly objected to conscription (while maintaining support for the war itself). The British government decides that it would be best not to provoke unrest in Ireland by forcing people there into the army.

15/7/1915 Britain takes a step towards conscription

Britain is unusual among the combatant nations in that it still relies on volunteers to make up the numbers in its armed forces. Other countries conscripted men into their armies even in peacetime, but pressing men into military service seemed like an affront to the liberties of the British. This meant that Britain went into the war with a tiny army compared to those of its allies and enemies. Because of the terrible blood-letting since the start of the conflict, very few of the British soldiers who started the war are left in a fit shape to keep fighting it.

When the war started, the British authorities looked for volunteers to join the army and build it up in size. This appeal for new recruits has been very successful, with many young men joining up to do their bit for King and country. The army is now much larger than it was in August 1914, though its quality has gone down as the remaining professional troops have been diluted by the volunteers. Nevertheless, the authorities know that a continuous stream of recruits is necessary to keep the army up to strength. Although men are still volunteering in large numbers, the day may come when potential recruits decide that they would rather not expose themselves to the guns of the enemy.

And so steps are made towards introducing conscription. Today the National Registration Act becomes law. This does not provide for conscription but it lays the ground for it, by requiring men and women to register with the authorities. Once registered with the state bureaucracy it will be that bit easier for men to be forcibly inducted into the armed forces.

image sources:

Lord Kitchener recruitment poster (Wikipedia)

Registration form (The Derby Scheme)