Court of the Conscripts
Evidence from Britain’s First World War conscription tribunals reveals a surprisingly efficient and impartial system, as Rebecca Pyne-Edwards Banks asserts in this extract from her 2015 undergraduate dissertation prize-winning essay.
A hundred years ago, Britain’s Liberal government introduced conscription. Uniquely among combatants in the First World War, the men of Britain could apply for exemption. Under the government’s Military Service Act (1916), conscripts could go before a tribunal and claim on grounds of ill health, financial difficulties, work of national importance and conscientious objection. Historians have emphasised the ill treatment inflicted upon the small number of absolutist conscientious objectors, who doggedly refused any involvement in the war. Though fewer than ten per cent of men claimed on the grounds of conscience, it remains the most explored area of military exemption. However, using the remaining archival material from the tribunal system, it becomes clear that by allowing men a space in which they could publicly object to conscription, tribunals eased its introduction. By studying the tribunals’ design, methods of implementation and the lives of their volunteer members, we can see how they played a vital role in balancing manpower between the frontline and the home front.