Why were the Irish exempt from conscription during WWI?

Why were the Irish exempt from conscription during WWI?

During the first world war all of Ireland was within the United Kingdom.

In C. S. Lewis's autobiographical book Surprised by Joy he says that as an Irishman (from Belfast) he was exempt from conscription during the first world war.

(He joined the army and was wounded in combat, and many of his schoolmates were killed.)

I am guessing that attempts to conscript Irishmen at that time might have been resisted with widespread violence, but that's just a guess.

Why were they exempt?

Legally they were exempt because The Military Service Act (1916) applied to men "ordinarily resident in Great Britain" not men "ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom"

But practically, it would have taken more men to supress the inevitable uprising than they would have recruited. John Dillon MP said:

If you had passed a Military Service Bill for Ireland, it would have taken 150,000 men and three months' hard fighting to have dealt with it.

The Easter Risings made it clear things were very unstable in Ireland, and they didn't want to make things worse. The backlash that followed their later attempt to apply conscription to Ireland (The Conscription Crisis of 1918) shows their first decision was correct.

This exchange in the House of Commons in 1918 between the Prime Minister and two Irish MPs shows the mood of the time:

§ The PRIME MINISTER [… ]Therefore, we propose to extend the Military Service Act to Ireland under the same conditions as in Great Britain. As there is no machinery in existence, and no register has yet been completed in Ireland, it may take some weeks before actual enrolment begins.

§ Mr. FLAVIN It will never begin. Ireland will not have it at any price.

§ The PRIME MINISTER But there must be no delay.

§ Mr. FLAVIN You come across, and try to take them.

§ The PRIME MINISTER As soon as arrangements are complete, the Government will, by Order in Council, put the: Act into immediate operation -

§ Mr. WILLIAM O'BRIEN That is a declaration of war against Ireland

Traditionally, there had been no conscription in Ireland, at least not after the 17th century. Irish did serve in the British army, but only as volunteers. As an occupying country, Britain did not want to 1) antagonize and 2) train Irish soldiers who would be not loyal to them. Irish volunteers, on the other hand, served with pride so they were self-selected for their loyalty.

In 1918, Britain did consider (for the first time) conscripting Irishmen. But by that time 1) the war was nearly over and 2) the Irish independence movement had gotten underway.

Conscription and Conscientious Objection

The early years of the First World War brought a large number of casualties to the army of Great Britain and despite the number of volunteers the government was soon in dire need of more troops. On the 2nd March 1916 the Military Service Act came into force. This Act enforced compulsory military service for every British male aged between 18 and 41 who was either unmarried or a widower without children (later Acts widened the range of men eligible and altered the age qualification). Exemption could be granted from this conscription into the military forces by means of a Tribunal system.

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What was National Service?

National Service, a standardised form of peacetime conscription, was introduced in 1947 for all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 30.

The Military Service Act 1916: appeals against conscription

27 January 1916 was a watershed moment in modern British history. The Military Service Act was passed, enforcing compulsory military service for the first time on British society.

Copy of Military Service Act, 27 January 1916 detailing those under the qualifying conditions were now part of the army reserve (catalogue reference: MH 47/142/1)

Initially, the Act specified that single men aged 18 to 41 who were outside of a protected occupation (those jobs considered of national importance) were now part of the army reserve and liable for immediate call-up. Also included were widowers without children. In May 1916 the Act was amended to include married men. By 1918 it had been extended in age range to 51.

Those faced with conscription into the army were, however, given the opportunity to apply for exemption from military service at local or county based military service tribunals. Men could apply for an exemption under any of or a combination of the following grounds, covering employment, educational, domestic and health circumstances, as well as conscientious objection:

A: On the ground that it is expedient in the national interests that the man should, instead of being employed in military service, be engaged in other work in which he is habitually engaged

B: On the ground that it is expedient in the national interests that the man should, instead of being employed in military service, be engaged in other work which he wishes to be engaged

C: If he is being educated or trained for any work, on the ground that it is expedient in the national interests that, instead of being employed in military service, he should continue to be so educated or trained

D: On the ground that serious hardship would ensure if the man were called up for Army service, owing to his exceptional financial or business obligations or domestic position

E: On the ground of ill-health or infirmity

F: On the ground of a conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service

G: On the ground that the principal and usual occupation of the man is one of those included in the list of occupations certified by Government Departments for exemption’

Luckily for us at The National Archives, we hold one of the two officially retained collections of tribunal records, covering the Middlesex County Appeal Tribunal, in our MH 47 collection.

In total we hold about 11,000 case papers, which are available to view for free via our online catalogue, Discovery. The case papers themselves reveal the day-to-day challenges faced by individuals, families, households and businesses. They also highlight how the impact of the war on society caused community divisions.

Case paper of Edmund Darvill, which highlights the extra domestic and business responsibilities he took on so that his brother and brother-in-law could serve in the military (catalogue reference: MH 47/54/58)

One area that regularly comes through from these personal statements on the appeal forms is that the family in question have already provided, and in some cases lost, sons, brothers or husbands to the army. Edmund Darvill’s case paper, above, reveals the additional business interests he had taken on so that his brother and brother-in-law could join the army. Significantly, this meant he was now the financial support for his wider family, not just his own wife and children.

Statements and evidence supplied to tribunals was not always supportive of an appellant, however. For example, in the case of Charles Busby, a butcher, a letter was sent to the tribunal by an anonymous resident describing Busby as a ‘rotten shirker’ for obtaining continuous exemptions. In contrast, the author of the letter had lost two of his sons during the fighting.

Letter from anonymous local resident against the appeal of Charles Busby, highlighting social divisions within local communities (catalogue reference: MH 47/96/22)

The evidence provided against appellants could also come from sources much closer to home. In the case of Percival Brown it is his wife who writes to the tribunal, pleading that he be taken by the army and that an exemption be denied. This was based upon the way her husband had treated her for a number of years and the fact that the military separation allowance would be more beneficial to her.

Letter from Mrs Brown asking the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal not to grant her husband, Percival Brown, an exemption (catalogue reference: MH 47/105/37)

Another issue that divided society following the introduction of conscription was conscientious objection. In some cases, there is evidence of clear acts of discrimination against those with such objections to serving.

In the case of Charles Cunningham, the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal upheld his appeal for exemption on conscientious grounds in April 1916. The condition of this exemption was that he should remain in the employment of London County Council. Attached to the case paper, however, is a letter, dated June 1916, from the London County Council to Charles. In it, they confirm that as a conscientious objector, he is to be placed on a period of leave without pay, regardless of the Tribunal’s decision.

Letter sent to Charles Cunningham from employer after the Tribunal had granted an exemption. Discrimination is evident against some with conscientious objections (catalogue reference: MH 47/66/83)

Statistically speaking, conscientious cases before tribunals in the First World War appear to be very small. For example, statistics compiled by the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal show that of the 8791 individuals who came before them, only 577 were based solely on a conscientious reason (6.5%).

I wanted to explore this area a bit further and undertook some statistical sampling of my own. In the 152 cases before the Appeal Tribunal in Middlesex from residents of Heston and Isleworth, 4.5% appealed on conscientious grounds. In contrast 59% appealed under domestic hardship. In the 142 cases from residents of Wembley the figures were 4.2% and 72.5% respectfully. Finally, for the 136 residents of Southgate, it was 5.1% and 70.6%.

A further study of the 152 Heston and Isleworth resident’s cases reveals that nearly 43% actually had their exemption status improved by the Appeal Tribunal (either via an extended temporary exemption period or by a conditional exemption). In contrast, 23% received a reduced exemption on appeal.

The examples above show that the introduction of the Military Service Act added to already very emotive situations for families on the Home Front. Likewise, it is also evident that exemptions from military service could cause significant bad feeling within local communities, especially for those who had already lost loved ones during this horrific conflict. While my statistical summaries are just a very small sample, I hope they and the examples given help to showcase how tribunal material could be used to analyse the impact of war on society at home during the First World War.

With thanks to the Federation of Family History Societies and the Friends of The National Archives for their support in carrying out this project, which was originally completed in 2014. My colleagues and I will continue to post tribunal related blogs throughout the period of conscription.

Conscription during World War One

With the outbreak of war in 1914, Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener realised that Britain’s small professional army would be no match for the might of Germany in a long drawn out conflict. He proposed raising a new army, ‘Kitchener’s Army’, based entirely on volunteers. Initially men flocked to join up and there were so many recruits that the army struggled to cope.

Initially those who had opposed the war were free to abstain from it, as participation was a matter of personal choice. However by late 1915 volunteers had slowed to a trickle. The British Government was now forced to consider introducing conscription, a move that ran entirely against the liberal traditions of British life.

In the first few months of 1916 the Military Service Act was passed by the British Government, rendering all fit males of military age liable for call up. For the first time, men who could not or would not support Britain’s role in the war were forced into public view. Although the act did allow for Conscientious Objection, the so-called ‘Conchies’ or C.O’s were hated by the vast majority of the population. Appeals against military service were generally based on either religious or political conviction.

Across the British Isles some 16,000 men claimed Conscientious Objection. The vast majority did so on religious grounds. Only a minority were political opponents of the war, and they generally received harsher treatment.

Military tribunals had the power to exempt people from active military service. The tribunals might recommend a non-combatant role in the armed forces, for example in a medical unit, or alternative civilian work such as forestry, factory, social or hospital work and, towards the end of the war, coal mining.

Those men who would not accept this compromise were known as Absolutists, as they demanded absolute exemption. They would accept no compromise with the army, would not serve in uniform in a non-combatant role and as a result were imprisoned for two years with hard labour.

Conscription in World War One

  • In March 1916, the Military Service Act imposed conscription on all single men aged 18 to 41. It exempted the medically unfit, clergymen, teachers and certain classes of industrial worker
  • Conscientious objectors were also exempted, and were in most cases given civilian jobs or non-fighting roles at the front
  • A second Act passed in May 1916 extended conscription to married men
  • Conscription was not applied to Ireland because of the 1916 Easter Rising, although in fact many Irishmen volunteered to fight

The hearings were, he says, "usually quite brief and didn't last more than about 10 minutes".

"The person appealing was represented by a solicitor or maybe just a friend who could help defend them.

"Their case was assessed and it was accepted or not. Both the applicant and the military representative had the right of appeal, so it could go to a tribunal after that, made up of members appointed by the Crown.

"It was quite a large system."

According to the National Archives, the majority of appeals were dismissed and many people did go on to see war service.

However, some exemptions were granted, as the Middlesex Tribunals records reveal.

John Shallis, for example, appealed on the grounds of domestic hardship, having lost four of his brothers during the war.

His mother was described as a "cripple" on his appeal form, having broken her leg, and his father was away carrying out Home Defence duties with the Territorial Force.

It was his work in munitions which tipped the balance though and he was granted exemption.

Leslie Turner, from Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society, says anyone had the right to ask for an exemption, though "whether it was granted or not was another story".

She says that in the Disley papers, one case stood out to her, that of print hand Clifford Carrington.

"Against his name was the notation 'Or brother to go'.

"His younger brother Harold must have drawn the short straw as he was sent to the front as part of the Prince of Wales' Volunteers (South Lancashire) Regiment 2nd Battalion.

"Clifford's hearing was dated 25 October 1917. By 17 November 1918, records state that Harold Carrington had died of wounds.

"I thought how awful it must have been for Clifford.

"A colleague has since found a medal card for a Clifford Carrington - who joined the Cheshire Regiment. So it is likely he ended up joining the military anyway."

Mr Brosnan says Carrington may not have had a choice, as even if men were granted exemption, it was often only temporary and as the toll of the war became heavier and heavier, the parameters of conscription changed.

"In 1918, when manpower was even more of an issue, the age range was extended so soldiers who were 18 could serve overseas because of the dwindling numbers available.

"Also, there were categories of war work that were essential that were reassessed. For example, some men that were working in mining in 1916 might be in the Army by 1918."

Those who applied for exemption were also reassessed and if their situation changed, they might have found their argument for exemption rejected at a subsequent hearing.

Conscientious objection was more likely to result in a permanent exemption, though Mr Brosnan says this came at a price.

"The majority of people were pretty hostile towards them and pretty unimpressed by that kind of attitude. It was such an unusual thing and was going against the general view at the time.

"They and their families and friends were poorly treated by wider society."

However, he says men "who objected for political or religious reasons often came from communities of people of the same persuasion".

"It wasn't just one or two that were conscientious objectors, there were several, so in their immediate surroundings, they would be more accepted than in the wider community."

What happened to conscientious objectors during World War One

Here in Australia, the First World War conjures up the image of the ANZACs—young men volunteering and travelling across the globe to serve the nation. There is, however, another side to the story—what happened to those who didn’t volunteer. Annabelle Quince explores the brutality directed at conscientious objectors.

Unlike most nations during the First World War, Australia did not introduce conscription. However, it was not for want of trying. Twice Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes asked the people of Australia in a referendum to grant the government the power to compel citizens to serve overseas during the war. The referenda were held on 28 October, 1916 and 20 December, 1917, were rejected both times by a slim majority.

It was a very different story overseas, where conscription was introduced in Britain, New Zealand and the United States. While most men accepted conscription, there were a number of men who, for either political or religious reasons, refused to enlist. Establishing the exact number of people who resisted conscription is difficult, but in the UK it’s estimated that about 20,000 men sought to be made exempt from the draft, plus a substantial minority in the US.

Both Baxter and Briggs carried on to the end and suffered considerable brutality. Both men were strung up on poles. This was called 'Field Punishment Number One'.

Many of those who refused conscription into active service were prepared to take on non-combat roles either at home or at the front. However, there were a few men who refused to take part in any aspect of the war, refusing even to put on an army uniform. They were typically known as absolutists. These men were usually court marshalled, imprisoned and in a number of cases brutalised. David Grant, author of A Question of Faith: A history of the New Zealand Christian Pacifist Society, says absolutists were initially a small minority.

‘There were very few New Zealanders against the Great War when it broke out in August of 1914, a small handful of Christian pacifists,’ says Grant. ‘But they were very much . swimming against the tide, the feeling was that we needed to go and support the mother country in times of stress.'

'People rushed to enlist in the period from the outbreak of war up to the landing at Gallipoli, there were plenty of men to fulfil the requirements of a volunteer army to go and fight the Turks and the Germans.’

By the end of 1915, however, things had begun to change. Of the 8,556 New Zealanders who served at Gallipoli between April and November 1915, 7,473 were injured and 2,515 killed. This number includes those who died from bullet and bayonet wounds, but also those who died from untreated and infected wounds, and diseases such as influenza, measles, typhoid, and dysentery.

By 1916, as reports of the stalemate at the front and casualty numbers began to filter home, the number of volunteers in New Zealand and Australia declined.

‘The British government required New Zealand to send so many troops to fulfil its obligations to the war effort,’ says Grant. ‘Then we had significant numbers of large engagements with the Germans again, with significant death and injury, and the realisation that these requirements were not being met. They had some discussion for some time before the bill was passed in August of 1916 and enacted in November of 1916.’

In New Zealand, the government simply used its power and passed the Military Service Act, which introduced military conscription in August 1916.

When balloting commenced in November 1916, close to 10,000 New Zealand soldiers had recently been injured at the battle of the Somme and two reinforcement contingents were short of around 1500 men. The government was worried that there could be resistance to conscription, but the great majority of young New Zealand men who were called up in the ballot did enlist. However, there was a minority who did not.

‘There was opposition to its introduction,’ says Grant. ‘There was quite vigorous opposition, mostly from left-wing Labour people who opposed it. They believed [that] if you’re going to have conscription of men, you must have conscription of wealth. But there were also a significant numbers of others: Irish people living in New Zealand [who believed] it wasn’t their fight, there were some Maori people who believed it wasn’t their fight either. These [were] mostly from the tribes that had been devastated in the land wars of the 1860s and 1870s and lost a lot of their land. There were a number of fundamentalist Christian people who felt that it wasn’t their war, [that] there shouldn’t be war and they weren’t going to fight. But the great bulk of them were people of extreme left-wing persuasion.

Two such men were Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs. Baxter was one of New Zealand's better-known pacifists. His book, We Will Not Cease, recorded his opposition to the war, was and was, in his words, 'the record of my fight to the utmost against the military machine during the First World War’. Baxter rejected the war both as a pacifist and as a Christian socialist. He was balloted for service and arrested just after conscription was introduced in New Zealand in November 1916. He also persuaded his family that the war was wrong, and six of the seven Baxter brothers would eventually go to prison for their beliefs.

Baxter applied for exemption from conscription but was denied because he was not a member of a church that had declared military service 'contrary to divine revelation'. He still refused to serve and was arrested and imprisoned. At the end of 1917 he was being held in the prison attached to Trentham Military Camp near Wellington, one of over 100 objectors in prisons and prison camps throughout the country.

Briggs was called up in early 1917 and refused to serve on the grounds that he was a socialist. He also applied for exemption and was denied and on 23 March 1917. After he rejected an army medical examination in Palmerston North, he was escorted to Trentham Military Camp. Refusing all military orders to drill, he was court martialled and sentenced to 84 days' hard labour. All those who applied for exemption as conscientious objectors had to go through an appeal board process.

'The men that were appointed to these appeal boards had an inbuilt bias against men who did not want to fight,’ says Grant. ‘They felt it was a failure of citizenship on their part and they were most unsympathetic. The government and the legislation said that the only people who had exemption . were two churches whose tenets exclusively said that they would not engage in warfare. They were the Quakers and a small American-based sect called the Christadelphians. So they were the only people that were exempted as a right and it was only a handful of people. In fact, a number of Quakers actually did go as stretcher-bearers, as non-combatants in the First World War.’

In 1917 both Baxter and Briggs were in the prison at the Trentham Military Camp.

The New Zealand minister of defence, James Allen, believed that men who had failed their appeal boards were part of the army, and if they refused orders they were locked up either in military lockups or civilian prisons. The lockups on military camps soon became overcrowded with conscientious objectors.

'One morning in 1917, Colonel Herbert Potter, who was the commandant of the Trentham Military Camp near Wellington, decided to divest his camp and also some of the prisons of 14 men who had fail their appeal boards and were regarded as military defaulters, but still in the army,’ says Grant. ‘There was a troop ship in Wellington called the Waitemata it had some space. Potter decided that these men would wake up early in the morning and be frog marched down to the ship and taken aboard [to sail for] for Britain and then France. Allen’s belief [was] that when these 14 men saw the others fighting valiantly against the Germans in terrible conditions on the Western Front, they would automatically [change] their minds and serve alongside their fellows. That did not happen.’

Of the 14 who were sent over to Europe, 12 eventually took up jobs as stretcher-bearers or other non-combatant roles. Baxter and Briggs, however, still refused to submit.

‘Both Baxter and Briggs carried on to the end and suffered considerable brutality,’ says Grant. ‘Both men were strung up on poles. This was called “Field Punishment Number One”.’

Field Punishment Number One, often abbreviated to F.P. No. 1, consisted of the convicted man being placed in handcuffs or similar restraints and attached to a gun wheel or fence post for up to two hours per day. In the early part of the war, it was often applied with the arms stretched out and the legs tied together, giving rise to the nickname ‘crucifixion’. It was usually applied for up to three days out of four, up to 21 days total. It’s been alleged that it was sometimes applied within range of enemy fire.

‘Archibald Baxter, once he survived and didn’t submit after the field punishment, he was told to march with his fellows into another part of the Western Front,’ says Grant. ‘By this time, weak, dazed and starving, he lost his way and became very disoriented and ended up semi-conscious in a field having divested himself of the uniform that they made him wear. He was found semi-conscious and close to death by some British soldiers and gradually nursed back to health. He later went into a hospital where there were a lot of other men who had been suffering shell shock and so forth. He was finally diagnosed as being insane, which was an out for the New Zealand army because I think that the army hierarchy had realised by that time that Baxter was never going to submit. He spent some time in two hospitals in France and another hospital in England before they sent him home.’

For his part, Briggs was dragged down a series of paths that led up to the frontline over muddy ground and potholes full of water.

‘The Red Cap [military police] sergeant had four men drag him along by their legs on his back,’ says Grant. ‘He suffered lacerations and deep holes. There was blood spreading everywhere when they did that. They pulled him through some deep puddles. He was in deep pain but refused to cry out. The soldiers later told him that they were forced to do this by the Red Caps and a particular army officer who was keen to break Briggs. Briggs’ spirit was unquenchable. He simply did not protest and he did not submit . he simply was one of those very stoic people who didn’t submit.’

Eventually, at the army's instruction, a medical board found that Briggs had rheumatism and he was re-graded as C-2, unfit for combat action. Despite the brutality of the military police, whose job it was to ‘persuade’ the conscientious objectors to change their minds, many conscripted soldiers were more sympathetic.

'There’s a wonderful story about this particular officer, who was unsympathetic to the protesters’ cause, ordering four conscript soldiers to lift Archibald Baxter up in the air and let him fall back first onto the ground on the duckboard,’ says Grant. ‘Now, these duckboards had nails. Some of the nails in the duckboards, they were protruding, and, of course, they can dig into the skin and cause pain. These four soldiers lifted Baxter up, and instead of letting him drop, they just gently lowered him down to the ground. This happened three times, and in the end, the officers simply gave up. They did have this kind of sympathy, not so much from the volunteer soldiers, but certainly from the conscript soldiers who all may not have agreed with this and were incensed by the kind of brutal treatment that they could see happening to these men.'

Primary Sources

(1) Winston Churchill, memorandum (6th November, 1941)

It may be a convenience to my colleagues if I set out the provisional views which I have formed on some of the major issues which we have to settle.

(1) The age of compulsory military service for men should be raised by ten years, to include all men under 51. While this might not make very many men available for an active fighting role, it would assist the Minister of Labour in finding men for non-combatant duties in the Services.

The possibility that the age should be raised again later on need not be excluded but it would seem that an increase of ten years in the upper limit would be sufficient at the moment.

(2) The case for calling up young men at eighteen and a half, instead of nineteen, seems fully established. Indeed, I would go further and call them up at eighteen if this would make any substantial contribution.

(3) On the whole, I am not yet satisfied, in view of the marked dislike of the process by their Service menfolk, that a case has been established for conscripting women to join the Auxiliary Services at the present time. Voluntary recruitment for these Services should however be strongly encouraged.

(4) Should the Cabinet decide in favour of compelling women to join the Auxiliary Services, it is for consideration whether the method employed should not be by individual selection, rather than by calling up by age groups. The latter system would inevitably discourage women from joining up until their age group was called.

(5) The campaign for directing women into the munitions industries should be pressed forward. The existing powers should be used with greater intensity.

(6) Employers might well be encouraged, in suitable cases, to make further use of the services of married women in industry. This would often have to be on a part-time basis, and means must be found to ease the burden on women who are prepared to perform a dual role.

(2) Ethel Robinson lived in Liverpool during the Second World War. She was interviewed by Jonathan Croall, for his book, Don't You Know There's a War On? (1989)

My husband had wanted to go in the navy, but he had spondylitis in the spine, which is a form of arthritis, so they wouldn't take him in. He was shattered really, because he'd set his heart on getting into the navy. Which they found he had spondylitis, they couldn't give him any treatment, so he had to just pet on with it. He had to give the pub up and go and work on the docks, repairing ships. It was horrible, he'd never done anything like that in his life, you see, and it nearly killed him. He had to climb rigging and climb over ships' sides and things like that. Then, after the children were born, he had to go and work in the Royal Ordnance factory, making guns on shift work, and he hated that as well. But he wouldn't go on the disabled list, not with the sort of jobs they offered you then. So he stuck it out actually.

Although he couldn't go to the war, he'd get a lot of women saying, "Why aren't you fighting for us? My husband's out fighting for you." Well, you just don't bother to answer and these were the same women who were carrying on with all kinds. This was the abuse they used to get, men that were working during the war, a lot of abuse from women and other men.

(3) Joyce Storey, Joyce's War (1992)

I went to work at the Magna Products at Warmley, a big engineering firm with huge wartime contracts. My first impression of this great all male domain was not a good one, and the dust, grit and grime mingled with a strong smell of oil, along with all the lathes and machinery, awed and scared me. Because of the shortage of men, women were coming into the foundries and into the Works. There were women conductors on the buses taking over until the men came home again, though, at the end of the war, they were not so keen to let go of their new independence. The end of this war brought many unheard and undreamt of changes.

When the sirens sounded, it was works policy to leave the factory and file quickly into the shelters. One day, a bomb made a direct hit on one of the shelters at the Filton Aerodrome works, killing all the people inside. Later that day, all the other employees at Filton had been sent home because of the tragedy. They had arrived home white and shaken, none of them being able coherently to tell the story, and wondering how their friends and workmates could ever be properly buried. The shelters at Filton were never re-opened, but were sealed over and became a tomb.

After that, we were not so inclined to use the shelters at our works but would get right away from the place and run into the fields instead. Some of the men would make a bee-line for the pubs if they were open, but I enjoyed fresh air and the break from the dusty atmosphere of the machine shop. It cleared my head so that I was more alert when I returned.

World War I Draft Registration Cards

On May 18, 1917, the Selective Service Act was passed authorizing the President to increase temporarily the military establishment of the United States. The Selective Service System, under the office of the Provost Marshal General, was responsible for the process of selecting men for induction into the military service, from the initial registration to the actual delivery of men to military training camps.

The Selective Service System was one of "supervised decentralization." The office of the Provost Marshal General in Washington was responsible for formulating policy and transmitting it to the governors of the 48 states, the District of Columbia and the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Under the administration of the PMGO it was the states, territories and the District of Columbia which managed the operation of drafting men for military service in World War I.

Under the office of the Provost Marshal General the Selective Service System was made up of 52 states (or territories) and 4,648 local boards. These organizations were responsible for registering men, classifying them, taking into consideration needs for manpower in certain industries and in agriculture, as well as certain special family situations of the registrants handling any appeals of these classifications determining the medical fitness of individual registrants determining the order in which registrants would be called calling registrants and placing them on trains to training centers.

District boards were established by the President (one or more for each Federal Judical District). The average district board had jurisdiction over approximately 30 local boards, each with an average registration of 5,000 men. The district boards had appellate jurisdiction over the decision of local boards in some claims and original jurisdiction in others.

Local boards were established for each county or similar subdivision in each state, and for each 30,000 persons (approximately) in each city or county with a population over 30,000. The local boards were charged with the registration, determination of order and serial numbers, classification, call and entrainment of draftees.

During World War I there were three registrations. The first, on June 5, 1917, was for all men between the ages of 21 and 31. The second, on June 5, 1918, registered those who attained age 21 after June 5, 1917. (A supplemental registration was held on August 24, 1918, for those becoming 21 years old after June 5, 1918. This was included in the second registration.) The third registration was held on September 12, 1918, for men age 18 through 45.

Records Description

The information included on each registration differs somewhat but the general information shown includes order and serial numbers (assigned by the Selective Service System), full name, date and place of birth, race, citizenship, occupation, personal description, and signature.

The registration cards consist of approximately 24,000,000 cards of men who registered for the draft, (about 23% of the population in 1918). It is important to note that not all of the men who registered for the draft actually served in the military and not all men who served in the military registered for the draft. Moreover these are not military service records. They end when an individual reports to the army training camp. They contain no information about an individual's military service.

After the signing of the armistice of November 11, 1918, the activities of the Selective Service System were rapidly curtailed. On March 31, 1919, all local, district, and medical advisory boards were closed, and on May 21, 1919, the last state headquarters closed operations. The Provost Marshal General was relieved from duty on July 15, 1919, thereby finally terminating the activities of the Selective Service System of World War I.

The records are arranged alphabetically by state, including Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia thereunder, alphabetically by county or city (except for Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island which are arranged by divisions and counties) thereunder alphabetically by the name of the registrant.

In rural areas one should be able to find a registrant's card knowing his name and the county in which he registered. In large cities and in some larger counties the search could be more difficult. In New York City, for instance, there were 189 local boards.

Related records include Classification Lists of Docket Books maintained by local boards to show the process of classification, physical examination, claim for exemption or discharge from the draft, and the appeals process for each registrant. Each local board also maintained lists of men ordered to report to the board for induction. These show (for each individual ordered to report) name, the mobilization camp to which he was to report and the date he was to report, and the certification of officials of the mobilization camp that the man had (or had not) reported as ordered. These records are in the Field Archives branches in the appropriate regions.

There are also records of the appeals process, and records relating to American registrants living abroad and aliens living in the United States. These records are held in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Part 2: Microfilm Roll Lists

This section includes a roll list for NARA microfilm publication M1509, World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards.

All I have on this period is:-

My grandfather Evan Pugh didn't join the army but worked as a coal miner at Treorchy in South Wales during World War I. Quarrymen were drafted into the coal mines of South Wales, and that was what happened to Evan and his brothers. Britain introduced conscription 2nd February, 1916, under DORA (Defence of the Realm Act). By then over a fifth of all miners had left coal-mining and enlisted in the army, and Britain needed more coal. Coal mining became a "reserved occupation" and miners were, as whole, not allowed to join the army, although the government did enforce a certain amount of weeding out of miners for transfer to the army right up to the end of the war.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, coal mines were taken under governmental control. Relatively a good period for miners as government control resulted in increased safety standards, and higher wages with the same wage rate in all areas. Miners were mainly happy that the government ran the mines.

His marriage cert in 1919 give him living at 13 New Chapel St, Treorchy and "miner". Before and after WW1 he lived and worked in the Slate Quarries in Merioneth.

Tag: Petticoat Rebels of 1916 by Brighid O’Sullivan

Brighid O’Sullivan guest posts today with a topic on Ireland and World War I. In addition to Petticoat Rebels of 1916: Extraordinary Women in Ireland’s Struggle for Freedom, Brighid is the author of 100 Things You Didn’t Know About Ireland and The Sun Palace, a novel set in 6th century Ireland. As you might have guessed, she’s passionate about Ireland and its history.

How Ireland Escaped Conscription in WWI by Brighid O’Sullivan

Poverty, poor working conditions, high infant mortality rates, and hopelessness were facts of life in the 20th century. Sadly, people had little control over any of these conditions. They did, however, have control over whether to be shot at or not, or did they?

Conscription is never a popular subject but no time in history has the compulsory requirement to join the British Army had more controversy than during WWI. Debated in Parliament as far back as 1914, it took affect with the passing of the Military Service Act in March of 1916.

At the time, Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, although at no time in history was this ever a peaceful marriage. While 200,000 Englishmen demonstrated against conscription in Trafalgar Square London, anti-recruitment campaigns were in full swing in Ireland, particularly in Dublin. By 1916, anti-enlistment campaigns included publications in small and large newspapers, satirical posters, plays such as ‘The Saxon Shilling’ written by Padraic Column, and outright destruction of British enlistment posters. This was not to say that thousands of Irishmen did not voluntarily join the British army, which they did, but the numbers had dropped significantly as the first world war progressed.

Because many Irishmen so strongly opposed conscription, England hesitated to enforce it in Ireland, yet no one had thought to ask about the Irishmen living in England at the time. Helen Ruth Gifford (Nellie), a young Irish woman who had memories of countless friends and relatives lost in the Boer War, was not convinced when England said she would not conscript Irishmen into the British army. Would her friends in England be safe, she worried. Would they fall through the loopholes and be conscripted the same as Englishmen?

The question needed an answer before it was too late. Nellie, along with Helen Molony engaged the help of an Irish MP, Alfie Byrne, to bring up the subject in Parliament.

On a Tuesday in the House of Commons, Byrne posed the question of whether Irishmen living in England were exempt from conscription. When told they were not and they could indeed be drafted, the response influenced a huge wave of Irishmen to travel back to their native country.

England was furious and many employers in Ireland refused to give the men jobs when they arrived from England. Men who had jobs but refused to enlist, were replaced with men who were older and not able to serve in the British army. Some employers went as far as printing flyers that read: your country needs you, we don’t.’ These flyers were plastered alongside recruitment posters all over Dublin.

Nellie Gifford, who had started it all, went one-step further in setting up what she called, the ‘Burra’. She obtained names of anyone sacked for not joining the British army and gave out her own address where they could find help. The room was too small, however to shelter so many dismissed men at once. Thomas MacDonagh offered his room instead. His was the Volunteer Headquarters on 2 Dawson Street. The apartment had a dual purpose but as far as the British were concerned, it was simply an Employment Bureau. Arriving from London, Michael Collins sought out a job, naturally ending up at Nellie’s Burra. She quickly recommended him as an assistant to Joseph Plunkett, one of the signatories and leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. Joseph Plunkett was executed later a few hours after marrying his bride, Grace Gifford in Kilmainham jail.

To read more about Irish history by Brighid O’Sullivan go to

If you are interested in Nellie Gifford and other women who were part of Irish and British history, you may enjoy Petticoat Rebels of 1916, Extraordinary Women Who Fought for Irish Freedom.

Many thanks for being on the blog, Brighid.

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