Why did so many Britons volunteer to fight in the First World War?

Countries go to war for many reasons. Be it the moral rights of the people of their own or a foreign country, trade and their own economy or fear of attack from another. But why do men go to war? Is it the adventure, the sense of danger or the legalised murder of another human being? Do they feel it is their patriotic duty for King (or Queen) and country? This essay will highlight the main reasons that Britain did not have to resort to conscription until 1916, due to the amount of volunteers’ at the start of the 1st World War.

Britain in the main is an island, a united island since 1706 and the Act of Union which saw Scotland join England and Wales and formed Great Britain. 1800 saw Ireland also join this union and the British Isles was formed. Their nearest neighbour and enemy was France. With a powerful navy to patrol the waters and prevent attack, it was felt that there was no need to maintain a large army and therefore a small well equipped, well trained volunteer force would suffice. Before the 1st World War, there were several small wars around the empire that involved British troops. In the main these wars were won by superior troops and equipment against ill-equipped natives. Casualties were small compared to the enemy and victory inevitable on most occasions.1 These wars created a false sense of security. The point of winning was far more important than the cost of human lives, and to the public back home that war was nothing but a distant adventure and provided material for boys’ story books.2 All this and the fact that these wars were won by one person who generally dominated the campaign, reinforced the idea that the British army was adequate for any need that may arise.

The 1st World War started on 1st August 1914. Britain entered on the 4th August 1914 in the defence of Belgium who had been invaded by Germany. Many generally thought that the war would be over by the Christmas of that year. Lord Kitchener, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War was unconvinced of this. He stated at his first cabinet meeting that the war would last for three years and not three months. He also pointed out that Great Britain would have to raise an army of millions3 if Britain wanted to win. Conscription to the army at the time was politically unacceptable, Kitchener decided to raise a new army of volunteers, and on 6th August Parliament sanctioned an increase in the army strength of 500,000 men. Kitchener then issued his first call to arms of 100,000 men. The response was staggering. 30,000 men enlisted every day to the end of August, and by mid-September 500,000 had enlisted. By the end of the year one million men had enlisted since the start of the war. By this time it had already become apparent that Kitchener was being proved right in his prediction about how long the war would last, and how many men were going to be required to fight it. However there were many reasons why men rushed to the recruiting offices to enlist.

Companies during the first few months of the war were unsure of their economic futures; they made redundant approximately 500,000 men. At the same time in Bristol, relief to the able bodied poor of military age was withdrawn. This caused the unemployment rate to fall by 1.5%4 as the men enlisted. It was also suggested by General Henry Rawlinson that men would be more willing to join up if they could serve with people that they already knew. This idea was tested by Lord Derby, who in late August decided to try and raise a battalion in Liverpool containing only local men. Within a few days enough men had enlisted to form four battalions. This success prompted other towns and cities to follow. This was the beginning of the Pals battalions and this pride, both civic and community spirit created competition between cities in who could raise the most. There were also battalions formed that shared an occupation or an employer, “Glasgow Corporation Tramways” and the “Hull Commercials” to name but two. This massive recruitment also caused problems of its own.

At the start of the war, the army could not provide enough uniforms and weapons for every man who enlisted. The Pal battalions especially, once formed then stayed and trained often with broomsticks as rifles, within their local recruitment area until the army called for them to attend official training. Industry also started to suffer. The amount of workers that had enlisted led to a shortage on the factory floor which in turn led to employment for women. This war was a decisive moment in the emancipation of women.5 Women for the first time started working in factories other than cotton mills. From munitions to engineering, women worked along side men, not always though on equal pay. Women were also pressured in other ways to send their men to war.

Propaganda played a large role in the recruiting of men for the armed forces. Posters were produced, encouraging men to join up and serve their King. Some posters were deliberately aimed at women, accusing them of holding their men folk back.

“1.You have read what the Germans have done in Belgium. Have you thought what they would do if they invaded this country?

2. Do you realise that the safety of your home and children depends on our getting more men NOW?

3. Do you realise that the one word GO from you may send another man to fight for our King and country?

4. When the war is over and someone asks your husband or your son what he did in the Great War, is he to hang his head because you would not let him go?”6

Women also played their own part in the in the shaming of men not in uniform. They were encouraged by Penrose Fitzgerald, a retired Admiral, to distribute white feathers, thus designating the recipient a coward. In all the Parliamentary Recruiting Office produced approximately 54 million posters and leaflets in trying to get men to volunteer for the army.7

During the pre war period, the average working class citizen lived in poverty. Grinding out a meagre living every day, they saw the army as a way to escape. The army promised regular pay, a shilling a day, regular and proper food, clothing and foreign travel. The average working class man had generally not even seen the sea let alone travelled over it, so this was a big incentive to go and fight for your country. The prospect of a short war also helped in the initial rush to enlist.

The outbreak of war saw Ireland with two separate armies. There were the Ulster volunteers who had been formed to resist home rule, and the Irish volunteers who were to defend it and both sides wanted to join the British army.8 Kitchener agreed with the Ulster armies principles and accepted them, thereby acknowledging the “Red Hand of Ulster.” In doing this Kitchener destroyed the surge of Irish loyalty to the United Kingdom. Since the early 1900’s, there had been a campaign by the home rulers against recruitment into the British army. Like the British poster campaign to entice men to join up, the Nationalists used propaganda and nationalism to try and deter Irish men from joining the British army. Even Irish women were targeted,

“Irish girls, who walk with Irish men wearing England’s uniform, remember you are walking with traitors… The Irishman who has chosen to wear the English uniform has chosen to serve the enemy of Ireland, and it is the duty of every Irishwoman who believes in the freedom of Ireland to show her disapproval of his conduct by shunning his company.”9

This was distributed as a leaflet in 1907 to the domestic servants of Ulster. The aim was to cut of the recreation of the soldiers and shame further enlistments into feeling that they were traitors. Schools were also targeted by the anti-recruitment campaign, asking boys never to disgrace themselves by joining the army.10

In the autumn of 1915 the question of conscription was again the subject within the government. It was generally believed that there was approximately 650,000 “Slackers”11 that were avoiding voluntary enlistment. A scheme was derived that would allow men to “Attest” their willingness to enlist. Married men were assured that they would not be called up for duty until all the unmarried males had. Attesting also had the benefit of allowing men to join as volunteers when called for as opposed to be conscripted. Conscription was finally passed by the government in January 1916 on unmarried men between the ages of 18-41.12 However conscription did not provide the same amount of recruits as voluntary enlistment had done. More men found themselves in “reserved” occupations, this did not appease the Generals, but it kept the British industrial machine running. This was a valuable lesson learnt. Conscription was enforced at the beginning of World War Two thus preventing labour shortages just as the country was mobilising.

The First World War lasted a total of fifty two months. Just fewer than five million men joined the British army from within the United Kingdom. During the first fifteen months of war, approximately half that amount volunteered to fight for King and country. Men volunteered for a variety of reasons. Patriotism, to fight for your country, financial gain and better living standards, adventure to do things that are not normally available to Mr. Average, and to do it with friends and colleagues. Least of all the shame of not having gone to war. To fight for your country and die is honourable. To fight for your country and live is self satisfying and humbling. Not to fight for your country is ? The majority of soldiers that return home from a victorious war receive a hero’s welcome, but for many, in their own eyes they are not.