Military Service Act, 1916: Conscription

The Military Service Act changed Britain forever. The act meant that the state had the right to put British men in lethal danger i.e. the trenches. But these reluctant warriors didn’t want to fight and, worse, they were literally second class citizens. Many of them were subject to emotional blackmail from their mothers, sisters etc., who saw only too clearly lethal danger with only a remote possibility of glory. The Act was essential because of horrendous losses coupled with the collapse of volunteering.

The British volunteer army of 1914-5 was subject to industrial warfare. The tactics used hadn’t advanced at the same rate as the effectiveness of weaponry in fact tactics were medieval. The First World War became a slogging match between enormous armies neither of whom knew how to win. As a consequence the greatest volunteer army ever formed was dissipated in futile attacks, which quickly became bloodbaths*. Volunteering withered away because of this slaughter.

Recruitment of volunteers became inefficient and the simple capitalist solution of paying ‘danger’ money as an incentive was economically (and politically) impossible. Pay was set at £19.77 per year for a private soldier, which increased by £1.52 per year once a full year had been survived. No private soldier could ever aspire to full citizenship as this required property with an annual rental value of £10. (Corporals earned £31.93 a year and sergeants £46.63 so , at a stretch, sergeants could become citizens.) Requiring men to risk their lives and simultaneously deny them citizenship was very uncomfortable from a moral point of view. And so the Military Service Act led inexorably to universal suffrage and the abandonment of ‘stakeholder democracy’. This has changed British political life forever.

Conscription created a further unexpected consequence in that many men had to be literally forced into the army whilst others opposed war on moral grounds. A new moral opposition developed namely that of conscientious objection. By definition a conscientious objector cannot be forced to fight as they regard war as a worse evil than the draconian penalties inflicted by the authorities. The classic example of a draconian penalty was when 34 men were sent to France to put them into military jurisdiction. A military court sentenced them to death for disobeying orders. Probably after pressure from Bertrand Russell (a member of the house of Lords) and fear of negative publicity this sentence was reduced to ten years penal servitude. The High Command were also aware that 750,000 British men had requested exemption in the first six months of the act. If this had translated into civil disobedience the war effort would have been crippled.

The Military Service Act is critical to our understanding of Britain today. It created a democracy where people became a citizen by right rather than by wealth. Widening the franchise meant that the working classes could get direct representation in parliament and within ten years Labour formed their first government. Political deference collapsed and ‘equality of sacrifice’ translated into political equality with subsequent impacts on taxation policy and redistribution of the national income.

*The battle of Loos, September 1915, had 20,000 British casualties in the first four days for example.

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