Object of the Month – May 2014

May 2014 - Duncan Whiteman’s Army Form W. 3236 (conscription letter)

Duncan Whiteman's conscription letterFor the first one and a half years of World War I the increasing need for soldiers was fed by a steady stream of two and a half million volunteers. However as early as the summer of 1915 it was clear that relying on volunteers was not going to be enough. The Military Service Act was passed in January 1916 introducing mass conscription for the first time.

Sooner or later the dreaded day would come when Army Form W. 3236 landed on your doormat. This form gave conscripts only a few days notice on receipt before they had to join the army reserve at the specified time and place. Failure to do so was treated as desertion.

However there was chance for exemption from service if:

  • it was in the national interest for you to be engaged in other work, or trained for any other work
  • serious hardship would ensue due to exceptional financial or business obligations or domestic position
  • you were ill or infirm
  • you had a conscientious objection to military service

If any of these applied you would have to stand before a local tribunal to plead your case. Many people who objected to the call-up on the grounds of conscientious objection, such as Duncan Whiteman, the recipient of this Army Form W. 3236, had trouble at these tribunals. The rest of the country had little time or sympathy for them. Those that stayed at home were viewed as ‘shirkers’ or cowards. This lack of sympathy was perhaps understandable, especially from people who had just lost relatives at the front. Duncan White spent time in jail before he agreed to serve in a non-combatant role.

In other cases whole groups of workers were granted exemption by the government. Unions such as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) felt that they should be exempt because of the skilled nature of their work. ASE’s attitude created resentment. This song, A Prayer to Lloyd George, mocked the engineers.

‘Don’t send me in the army George,

I’m in the ASE,

Take all the bloody labourers, But for God’s sake don’t take me.

You want me for a soldier?

Well, that can never be –

A man of my ability,

And in the ASE!’