The Military Service Act 1916

The Military Service Act was introduced in Britain by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith 100 years ago on 27th January 1916. It came into force in the March of that year, and marked the end of Britain’s dependence upon purely voluntary enlistment. 


British Conscription Poster via Wikipedia Commons

The Act determined that men aged between 18 and 41 were liable to be called up for active service. Though there were some exceptions, the purpose of the Act was to provide the large volumes of men that were required for front line battle. The initial enthusiasm for enlisting for war service had worn off by late 1915, and the queues to join Kitchener’s volunteer army had dissipated. In the Borough, the local newspaper reported that ‘In Twickenham, there are many men left who have not joined the army or volunteers.’[1] Those exempted by the act initially included married men (though an additional Act in May extended conscription to them), widows with children, and men who were working at the time in a ‘reserved occupation’, and therefore considered to be conducting work of national importance.

Men were able to apply for exemptions to conscription at Local Tribunals. By the end of June 1916, almost 750,000 men had appealed.[2] The Middlesex Tribunal Records (MH47) are held at The National Archives in Kew, and detail the appeals made by Richmond men against conscription. The results of appeals were also published by the local press – providing historians and researchers with a wonderful resource.

Many men reported to the tribunal that leaving their line of work would result in hardship for the business. Arthur Sutton, of Twickenham, was granted a month’s temporary exemption to allow him to make arrangements for his business.[3] Employed by his father in an Upholster and Cabinet Makers firm in Hampton Wick, Richard Wheeler was the only assistant who had not yet been called for service. His appeal on the grounds that he was required in this work was dismissed – as it was not considered of ‘national importance’. Aged just 18, Richard was expected to enlist whilst his father was told he should find a man over military age to employ in his son’s absence.[4] For others, family obligations and personal matters led them to make appeals to the tribunal. The Thames Valley Times reveals that several appeals were made on the grounds that the men were required to care for their mothers, usually following the death of their father or the loss of siblings to the Front. Many of these cases were not granted exemptions. George William Williams, owner of the Roebuck Inn in Hampton Hill, was eventually granted a certificate of exemption. His wife and two young children were counted amongst his dependents, and thus his departure for war would bring hardship.[5]


Postcard of Richmond Bridge Credit: Howard Webb

From these records, it appears that obtaining an exemption from service was no easy task. In late February, 1916, the Thames Valley Times reported that ‘the reports published of decisions come to by tribunals reveal how slight the opportunity is now for men to secure concessions under the Act. The grim logic of war conditions takes little count of private business or personal prospects.’[6]


With thanks to Richmond upon Thames Local Studies and The National Archives for informing this blog.

Featured Image: © IWM


[1] Thames Valley Times, 2nd February 1916, From original material held at Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Library & Archive


[3] The National Archives, MH47/15/30

[4] The National Archives, MH 47/89/13

[5] The National Archives, MH47/21/36

[6] Thames Valley Times, 23rd February 1916, From original material held at Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Library & Archive

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