Within weeks of war breaking out, it was clear that Britain needed many more fighting men. A series of recruitment initiatives produced an unprecedented surge of volunteers – and some enduring myths. Andy McSmith tries to unpick fact from fiction
On 3 September 1914, the recruiting sergeants were kept frantically busy from dawn to dusk, coping with a phenomenon never matched before or since. That Thursday, a month after Britain went to war, 33,204 young men volunteered – more in one day than the army normally recruited in a year.
There has never been a rush to volunteer in the UK to compare with the fervour of August and September 1914. We cannot know how many were answering the call out of a genuine sense of patriotic duty, believing their country was under threat. A great many probably thought that soldiering would be an exciting life and a chance to see a bit of the world. Many were certainly induced by peer group pressure to sign up.
The British army was one of the few in 1914 that took volunteers only. The absence of conscripts meant that it was an effective force for its size: the British Expeditionary Force that set sail for France a few days after war was declared to be “incomparably the best trained, best organised and best equipped British army which ever went forth to war”, according to the official historian, Brigadier-General Sir James Edmonds. But the Germans had 2.2 million men under arms and the French more than a million, while the total strength of the British army was 450,000, and the BEF, the only force actually doing any fighting, consisted originally of just 100,000 officers and men.
The Liberal government was deeply averse to the idea of conscription. Therefore, men had to be induced or pressured into volunteering – and quickly.
On 6 August, Parliament gave Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War, authority to enlist 500,000 volunteers aged between 18 and 38, with a minimum height of 5ft 3in. To encourage volunteers, the minimum length of service was reduced from seven years to “three years or the duration of the war, whichever the longer”.
At first, there was no great rush. In the week that war was declared, about 15,000 answered the call. One of the best known of the early recruits was Siegfried Sassoon, who would progress during the course of the conflict from war hero to pacifist and anti-war poet. He was so eager to serve that he signed up on 2 August.
In the second week, the numbers were higher. By the end of August, the total had reached 195,000. The army had swollen by more than two-fifths of its previous size in just four weeks, but that 500,000 target was still a long way off. Somebody needed to do some creative thinking to speed up the flow.
General Henry Rawlinson, whose name would later be indissolubly linked with the Battle of the Somme, made the sensible suggestion that men would be more willing to come forward if they could serve alongside those they knew. The idea was taken up by Lord Derby, who put out an appeal in Liverpool on 28 August for local men to serve in the first of what became known as the “Pals battalions”. He had 3,000 recruits within three days. After that success, other towns and cities, including Accrington, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, East Grinstead and London formed their own Pals battalions. On Tyneside, there was a Pals battalion made up entirely of Irishmen.
Showbusiness was also drafted in to boost recruitment. In the book Forgotten Voices of the Great War, compiled by Max Arthur, a mill worker named Kitty Eckersley described the evening that her husband enlisted, after a friend had given them tickets to a live show at the Palace Theatre, in Clayton. “We didn’t know what was on, of course, but it was a great treat for us. So we went. And when we got there, everything was lovely. Vesta Tilley was on stage. She was beautifully dressed in a lovely gown of either silver or gold. But what we didn’t know until we got there was that also on stage were army officers all set out for recruiting.”
Vesta Tilley, wife of the Tory MP Sir Abraham Walter de Frece, was a renowned and highly paid music star. The number she performed on this and similar occasions had been especially composed by a prolific songwriter named Paul Rubens.
The chorus went:
Oh, we don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go.
For your King and your country both need you so.
We shall want you and miss you
But with all our might and main
We shall cheer you, thank you, bless you
When you come home again.
To reinforce the message, Tilley left the stage and walked among the audience, gathering starstruck young men in her wake, who enlisted on the spot. To Kitty Eckersley’s horror, her husband joined the queue. He set off for France soon afterwards and she did not see him for six months.
Eventually, at some of these recruiting events, in addition to the stars and the dancing girls, there would be children at the back, primed to hand white feathers to young men who hadn’t signed up.
But it appears that the biggest single spur to recruitment was news from the front. The BEF first saw action at Mons on 23 August and Le Cateau on 26 August. That men were dying in action set off the biggest rush to recruitment yet. In a single week, beginning Monday 31 August, 191,000 men signed up, almost as many as in the whole of August. However, by the end of September, they were back to where they were in the first week of the war.
The figures cast an unexpected light on the single most famous image from the great war – that poster of Kitchener, his finger pointing at the viewer, over the slogan: “Your Country Needs You”.
Superbly designed by a graphic artist named Alfred Leete and based on a more widely circulated poster with Kitchener’s image above a 30-word extract from one of his speeches, it has stayed in the public consciousness for a century when other propaganda images from that time have faded away. The myth is that Kitchener’s finger inspired or shamed vast numbers into joining up. In fact, the image first appeared on the cover of a magazine called London Opinion, on 5 September – just when recruitment started to fall away. The historian James Taylor, who wrote an entire book about this one poster, came to the surprising conclusion that very few of the men who set off to war even saw it.
Certainly, the huge effort put into recruitment failed to supply the numbers needed to feed the war machine. By Christmas 1914, 85,000 British servicemen had already died.
Eventually, in July 1915, the Liberal government, driven to the conclusion that it would never enlist sufficient volunteers, would reluctantly introduce conscription.
Tomorrow: The taxis of Marne