The Case for Conscription

Many who supported the campaign for compulsory military service in Edwardian Britain saw it as a necessary measure against the threat of invasion and the shadow of German militarism. Others identified it as a valuable counter to ‘softness, indiscipline and unmanliness’ in young men of the period. Detractors, meanwhile, feared it could be used to overthrow the state. Tom Stearn describes the campaign, how it was received and what it achieved in the run up to the First World War.

The attempt to stampede the country into conscription was infamous, it was a crime against mankind, and would be resisted, protested Percy Illingworth, Liberal MP for Shipley, in 1913. Yet conscription, which he and so many of his compatriots loathed, was for other great powers the long accepted norm. In Germany conscripts served two years with the colours. In France they served two years in 1913 increased to three; in Russia, four years; and in Japan three years. With their mass conscript armies, continental military planners thought in terms of relative size, while continental pressure groups – the German Wehrverein and the French Ligue pour la service des trois ans – demanded ever larger armies. The pre-1914 arms race was largely a conscription race as France and Germany strove to increase their military manpower for the war they planned.

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