Conscription was very hard to swallow by everybody, although of course to those who thought much about it, it was absolutely essential. The majority of people as far as I can remember had no idea of the fact that war had to be total…

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

The First World War was a new kind of war. It was fought on a massive scale, and involved millions of people. Entire populations became engaged in a fight for survival. As well as men in the armed forces, civilian populations soon found themselves directly affected by the conflict. This new – total – war was made possible by a number of factors. In Britain, the Defence of the Realm Act was immediately introduced in 1914, to give the government more control over people’s lives. Conscientious objector Eric Dott explained his reaction to its restrictions.

Well it was a very strict enactment during the war, the Defence of the Realm Act, which put a very strict limit on what you could say; or do; or write that might be interpreted as against the interests of the country in wartime. They were repressing anti-war feeling, repressing it very severely and strongly. And if you were known to have spoken; or said; or written anything that might be critical of the war effort, or discouraging for another man to take up the war effort, you would be arrested as treason, they would call that treason. And you would be put in prison for it.

One of the many new controls imposed by the Defence of the Realm Act – or DORA – was a ban on buying rounds of drinks. William Benham explained this.

And another thing of course they had in the pubs which was the "No Treating Order", you know. You weren't allowed… I couldn't take you into the pub and buy you a drink, if I'd wanted to. You'd have to pay for your own, and I'd have to pay for mine. And the only way I could give you a drink would be to slide the money to you, so that you paid for yours and I paid for mine! This was the "No Treating Order", so that they tried to stop what we call the social life of a pub, they tried to stop it as much as possible. Because of the possibility of people saying unguarded things, getting a bit… having a drink or two over the odds and saying unguarded things. But there was a lot of security about like that. And there was a lot of funny little orders like that thing about the no treating, and those sort of things.

Horses were requisitioned by the British government early in the war, for use at the front. Thomas Hooker, who later served with the Machine Gun Corps, recalled the effects of this.

And soon after this news of the war, we were told – and we saw – that horses were being commandeered on the street. Leaving the baker or the milkman to pull his own cart home: there were very few motor-cars about. And we heard that these were required for the army transport.

DORA strictly controlled the information that appeared in the media about the progress of the war. Beryl Hutchinson, who was an ambulance driver in Belgium and France, described how she got her war news.

If you got a nice supply of good newspapers, you kept it under the seat of the vehicle that you were driving. But it wasn't all that current English, sometimes they were French. Just anything that you could get hold of. They told you about things that weren't in your area and they told you about things at sea, some long time after it had happened, and that sort of thing. And I think you heard of main events and elections and that sort of thing. You didn't hear about air raids until quite a long time afterwards and then very often sideways. And you had to put your own interpretation on it.

Tank officers reading the Daily Mail newspaper in their camp at Poperinghe, 26 September 1917.
Tank officers reading the Daily Mail newspaper in their camp at Poperinghe, 26 September 1917. © IWM (Q 2899)

Charles Quinnell, of the Royal Fusiliers, was frustrated by one reporter’s accounts of the Battle of the Somme that appeared in the British press.

One of the standing jokes was the principal reporter he made – I'll give you an example – he made the Battle of the Somme look like a Sunday school treat. He reported it that the troops went over kicking a football. Well now I believe one battalion or perhaps one platoon found a football and for a joke kicked it up in the air. But he made a big feature of that and people reading the account of the first reports of the Battle of the Somme got absolutely the wrong impression.

Wartime governments also sought to control how people thought, through the use of propaganda. Millions of posters were printed in Britain during the war, delivering a range of messages and slogans. Marjorie Cook, who lived in Buckinghamshire, remembered the intensely anti-German material she saw.

Well I can remember that they just told horror stories. But even children told them among themselves, I mean, about the Germans killing babies and all this kind of thing. But we've got a collection of books that makes that abundantly clear; books about 1915. And it's totally childish and ridiculous the propaganda in these books! All was the wicked Hun – you'd never think that any German soldier was the same as our lads, exactly the same as ours – they were all wicked Huns and all that kind of thing.

Various incidents were seized upon by the British press to fuel anti-German propaganda, such as the sinking of the Lusitania and the execution of nurse, Edith Cavell. Many people believed all they read, and German people in Britain suffered because of it. Clara Thompson, who lived in Hull, described what she witnessed of this.

I was at school with two girls – Katie and Matilda Ziegler – whose father had a pork butcher’s shop on Hessle Road. Oh, they had a dreadful time. I think their father was interned and they had to board up the shop because people were attacking any of the shops, you know, that were known to be run by Germans. And Matilda Ziegler was in my class at school and she was really quite frightened and she got to look shabbily dressed and distressed, you know, because, well, the shop was boarded up. And they were living in the dark behind boards everywhere, you know, and it was really awful.

With the outbreak of hostilities came a ‘spy mania’ that gripped Britain. Although there were real cases of German spies, the fear of espionage was greater than the threat it actually posed. Tom Williamson, of the Norfolk Regiment, recalled the heightened atmosphere in Britain in late 1914 and early 1915.

At that time there was great rumours of German spies floating around in Bury St Edmunds. Well they seemed to be pretty official, at that time, in Bury St Edmunds; it was considered a place to harbour spies, German spies. And we always seemed to be on the alert from these German spies actions when we were on duty with our rifle, on guard. We was always activated to take the proper steps to: ‘Halt! Who comes there?’ And if they don’t stop, you were allowed to shoot. And that applied to anyone who was trespassing on military grounds or camps. I was on that duty many times.

Morale was an important part of total war. It was essential that civilians believed their country could – and should – win. Patriotism played a key role in boosting people’s support for the war. Robert Thelwell-Smith, who grew up in east London, explained how strongly this was felt in Britain.

You'd been brought up, the British Empire was a great place; not a dirty word like it is now. And in school I remember that at school we used to have the Empire Day celebration every year. And later on, when I went to the central school, I remember standing behind a screen and doing one of the patriotic things. Empire Day was quite a big thing in those days and you all felt that the empire was doing good in the world and you felt proud of that. But you begin to doubt, the way things have gone, whether it was good, bad or indifferent.

Manpower was a crucial aspect of fighting a total war. Without sufficient numbers of men joining the armed forces, all was lost. At the outbreak of war, Britain had a very small army compared to most other nations in Europe. Although it soon became clear these numbers needed to be boosted, enlistment was – initially – voluntary. Recruitment drives across the country saw huge numbers join up in the early months. Tom Bromley remembered this period.

In late 1914 and early ’15 there was this patriotic fervour which was designed to induce young men to enlist and join the army and go to France and fight the Germans. At that time, there was organised recruitment and on the fronts of public buildings – town halls and so on – there were replicas of thermometers, graduated, showing the number of men enlisting in the various battalions and formations. And there was competition amongst these to see who could push up the highest total in the given time. And I well recall on the Manchester Town Hall, for instance, these thermometers for recruitment in the pals, Manchester Pals battalions. And there were thousands and thousands of young men who joined up in that way.

Posters, films and public appeals urged the men of Britain to do their patriotic duty. Kitty Morter’s husband was won over by a recruitment drive at a theatre performance. He was later killed on the Western Front. 

He didn't have any need to go to the war, really, but anyway he was very patriotic, and during the interval they had this recruiting campaign. Vesta Tilley was there and all the band on the stage, recruiting officers with the sashes and what have you, and she came out in the audience, walked all down, the men was getting up out their seats following her. She also had a big Union Jack wrapped around her and she introduced that song ‘We Don’t Want To Lose You But We Think You Ought To Go’, and we were sat at the front and she walked down and she hesitated a bit and she put her hand on my husband’s shoulder and all the place was full of the boys following her down. And he was with one of them and he got up and he went with her. And then he came home, we came home that night and I was terribly upset and I said I didn’t want him to go and be a soldier, because I didn’t wasn’t to lose him, I didn’t want him to go at all. But he said, ‘We have to go,’ he said, ‘There has to be men to go and fight for the women otherwise where should we be?’ And he eventually persuaded me that it was all for the best.

Percy Webb listed his reasons for joining the Dorsetshire Regiment in December 1915.

Well, all my friends and you know the young men about the area simply went on. But under the circumstances, well, I just got fed up. I thought to myself, ‘Well, there's hardly anybody about’; everybody seemed to be joining up. So I had my brothers, two brothers: one in the Dorset Regiment, another one in the Hampshires. And I, well, I just got fed up and joined up.

The British suffered heavy casualties in the opening battles of the war, and pressure was soon put on the men at home to swell the army ranks. Women handed out white feathers to young men not in military uniform, to shame them as cowards. S Lang recalled receiving one, even though he was too young to legally enlist.

I was walking down the Camden Town High Street when two young ladies approached me and said to me ‘Why aren’t you in the army with the boys?’ So I said ‘Well I’m sorry but I’m only 17.’ ‘Oh, we’ve heard that one before and I suppose you are also working on work of national importance?’ ‘It so happens to be that I am working at the Camden Loco’. ‘We’ve also heard that one before.’ She put her hand in her bag and pulled out a feather. I raised my hand thinking she was going to strike me when this feather was pushed up my nose. Then a sergeant came out of one of the shops and said to me ‘Did she call you a coward?’ I said ‘yes’ and I felt very indignant at the time. He says ‘Well come across the roadway to the drill hall and we’ll soon prove that you’re not a coward.’

After the initial recruitment surge of 1914, the numbers of men volunteering to fight tailed off. In October 1915, Lord Derby introduced an enhanced recruitment scheme. Men were asked to register their intention to serve at a later date. Londoner Charles Miller was one of thousands who did just that.

There was introduced a thing known as the Derby Scheme, after Lord Derby who was a war minister. And the Derby Scheme said that young men who wanted to volunteer for military service, but who were underage, could register. And I suppose we went to some registry that was set up and I went and registered and said that I would serve whenever I was needed.

Despite the recruitment drives, by early 1916 it was clear that voluntary enlistment alone was not going to keep Britain in the war. In January, the government introduced the Military Service Act. British men would now be forced to join up. William Davies remembered how people reacted to conscription.

On, or after, or about, one’s 18th birthday, one would receive notification from the War Office, I presume, to report on – for me – the Horse Guards Parade for military service. That was how the Conscription Act worked would be, I presume, for everybody. And of course conscription was very hard to swallow by everybody in those days, because never before had it happened. Although of course, to those who thought much about it, it was absolutely essential. The majority of people, as far as I can remember, had no idea of the fact that war had to be total. And except for men who were in it, nobody in the country had any real idea of what was involved.

As an army officer reads out the oath, four young men hold Bibles and confirm their allegiance at a recruitment office. Taken at Treaty Lodge, Hounslow, the HQ of the 8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, in September 1917.
As an army officer reads out the oath, four young men hold Bibles and confirm their allegiance at a recruitment office. © IWM (Q 30071)

Army numbers were boosted, but many thousands of men avoided the call up. Exemption from conscription could be sought if a man was physically unfit to serve; had dependents to look after; worked in a reserved occupation or objected on the grounds of conscience. As a schoolchild in Hoxton, Edwin Hiles witnessed the impact of conscription in his community.

At one time, every male in the street was in the services. Because there were very few tradesmen living in the street that would make them reserved occupation. They were in the services: after the 1916 Conscription Act, everybody went and there were hundreds of men in the street between 18 and 40, 45, 50, whatever it was. I must've seen the police coming down the streets and, if necessary, breaking down the street door to haul out somebody who had not reported when he should have done. And when the police came down the street – I was told this, I never saw it – but, when the police came down the street those who were due to be called up used to go out the back door, cross the backyard and out escape like that. ‘Course the war, which they rushed to the colours in 1914 – no doubt because of the slum-like conditions they were living in – but that had changed towards the end of the war. And men avoided military service if they could.

Leonard Hewitt didn't wait to be conscripted and enlisted – in the Leicestershire Regiment – before he was legally required to do so.

Well you see, we enlisted, in fact I volunteered. I didn't need to go up until a month after I was 18 but I was so determined to go in that I went in, I volunteered a month before. After all, we had all been, always been a military family – I mean, we traced back right beyond my grandfather and we'd always traced it right back and we do today. And as such I suppose it was inbred, call it whatever you like, it was inbred and I wanted to go. The exact reason I wouldn’t determine except for the fact that I was going; I was determined to go. At the same time – I'm hesitant to try and be big-headed in any way – but I must say this: there was an element of there that we'd got to do our bit. They'd done their bit for three years; it was up to us to carry it on. That was our attitude and I don’t wish to be… whatever the term is. I must say that, in all truthfulness. But there again, as I say we did it, and I'm glad we did.

Philip Murray remembered being conscripted into the King's (Liverpool Regiment) in 1918.

I was called up – got papers. I received the calling up papers probably a week after my 18th birthday, accompanied by a railway warrant to Chester, where I reported. Medically examined there. After a while, I was posted to Kinmel Park in north Wales, kitted out with uniform. We were so very, very green and innocent that, although it was June, part of our kit was a heavy cardigan to wear under the tunic in winter. Poor young devils, we put those on and were sweltered until somebody told us – we thought we had to put the lot on!

Britain's wartime armed forces were mostly composed of civilians, unused to military life. Strict discipline was essential to keep these huge numbers of inexperienced men in line. Walter Ostler recalled how he disliked having to obey orders during his training with the Royal Flying Corps at Farnborough.

It was hell. The first week I found it very, very hard. I had never been subject to discipline like this, and all our drill instructors were ex-Guardsmen. Most of them had been wounded in Mons and the Retreat from Mons, had been in hospital, recovered, transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as drill instructors, and, boy, did they know their job! I remember one corporal. He was six foot-odd of brute strength and he would come and put his face by your cheek, within two or three inches. And he would yell at you at the top of his voice. And if you moved your head and looked across at his face, he would have you immediately for moving and inattention on parade. Now, that was discipline.

Strict discipline was also in place at the fighting fronts. Henry Oxley had to enforce it in his role as an NCO with the Middlesex Regiment on the Western Front.

Discipline was strict. We had to obey the code of regimental army life, irrespective wherever one was. And it was up to the particular non-commissioned officer or officer to exercise it according to his discretion. And in my particular case, I had a rather distressing instance where I had to charge a man for disobeying an order. I gave him three chances, but finally I found that I had to charge him, otherwise I lost face. And he became on a charge and court martialled.

There were instances of men rebelling against military orders. Mutinies broke out at Étaples in 1917, involving troops from a number of different countries. There was also unrest amongst French troops on the Western Front in 1917. British officer Edward Spears related his memories of this.

Anxious about all these rumours concerning mutinies, I decided to go out and see for myself, and I arrived in a part of the country near Soissons which I knew very well, and there I was met by the most amazing sight. Regiment after regiment was in open mutiny, by which I mean there were degrees of mutiny. In many units, all the men wore red rosettes. The officers were confined to a section of the village, had no authority at all. And the men had established posts. I asked what was going on and got rather evasive answers, but in the main I found that the line taken by the men was that they were prepared to occupy the line, but they were not prepared to fight. After what had happened, after the bloodbaths they had been submitted to, after all one could understand their point of view.

The type of punishment a man would receive depended on the nature of the misdemeanour he had committed. For smaller matters, such as being unshaven or untidy, he might be given extra duties. But for slightly more serious offences, he could be fined, detained or given a ‘Field Punishment’. Canadian private W Underwood explained ‘Field Punishment No 1’.

I was given seven days No.1 Field Punishment, which consists of being crucified on a wagon wheel; that is you’re handcuffed, spread-eagled, with the hub of the wheel in your back and your legs handcuffed to the wheel and your wrists spread out. And you’d do two hours up and four hours down for seven days, day and night. And when you got through you wondered why and while you’re there you wish you could contact anybody that created the thing and made it possible, as you’d sure kill them. And the cold, it was January 1915 and to get, when they took you down they had to rub you to get the circulation going in you limbs because it was really cold, January. And the reason was only I missed a roll call.

For more extreme cases of ill-discipline, more serious punishments were carried out. If a man was found guilty of desertion or cowardice, for example, he could be sentenced to death. In total, 346 men under British command were executed during the war. Gertrude Farr’s husband, Harry, was one of these.

They sent me a letter and the letter from the War Office and all it said was, ‘Dear Madam. We regret to inform you that your husband has died. He was sentenced for cowardice and was shot at dawn on the 16th of October.’ They were the exact words. That was all I got. I got hold of that letter and I had a blouse on at the time, and I pushed it right down in my blouse, so petrified I was in case anybody saw it. And nobody did see it, nobody knew; my mother didn't know. And I should have gone up and told my mother but I didn't want to tell her, I didn't want nobody to know what happened. And they did not know until my pension stopped at the end of the six months. Then they all knew that I hadn't got a pension and I had to tell them the reason why.

The number of those who were shot at dawn was, comparatively, very small. But, as J Shone explained, the fact that executions could be carried out kept him and others mindful of the importance of obeying orders.

And another thing that struck me as ruthless and it was, I don’t know, you couldn't help but think, wondering if you were going to get anything the same. They used to post up the sheets – the foolscap sheets – in the unit every so often, listing men gives you the rank, name and number. The charge might be absent from the line or something like that. Tried by field general court martial. The sentence of the court was to suffer death by being shot. The sentence was duly carried out, so and so. I thought, ‘Well, this is what's happening to comrades,’ but as I've said it was really drastic. But if you've got no discipline, you're not going to get anywhere. And I expect it was a lesson to some of the people and that was why there wasn't so much crime.

Strong discipline underlined the need to keep fighting the enemy. Without this, the war couldn't have continued. Frederick Plimmer of the Machine Gun Corps outlined his attitude to the German troops he was facing.

We were in the trenches, we wondered when the war would be over, we didn't like it there: we wished it would end. We didn't have any particular feeling, I had no attitude towards the bloke in the other trench, I didn't care two hoots about him. I never saw him. He was there the same as me. People’s attitude varied a great deal. There may have been occasions when a unit had been very badly treated and might have been out for some sort of revenge and they would probably behave more viciously towards the enemy than otherwise. But, generally speaking, my attitude to the Germans was non-committal; I didn't feel much about it. Mind you, I didn't hate him; I probably loved him enough to shoot him if I got a chance. But if I shot him, I wouldn’t shoot him with any hatred in my heart. I'd shoot him because I was conditioned to do so and also bear in mind that if I didn't shoot him, he'd probably shoot me! But when it came to attitudes, I don’t think I had any particular bad feeling towards them. I knew that they were in the same position as we were.

Belief in victory was as important at the fighting fronts as on the home front, and was an essential part of keeping up morale. Alfred Stammers of the Army Service Corps described why he thought the British had the edge over the Germans.

Well you could see it, the stuff we had and the stuff they had. And the canteens. Our canteens was full of everything: soap, tooth powder, beer, biscuits, sweets, everything, shaving material. Oh, there was never any question about that. You'd see lorry-loads of beef; lorry-loads of bread. No question about it. Well if they had tyred lorries with steel bands and bicycles with a leather band and springs. And then as I say, you’d see the harness and the stretchers made of paper. Of course no doubt the idea was very good with the shortage. And they didn't have boots like our fellows had, they had like little jack boots, like little wellingtons.

British officer Bill Haine also never thought his country would lose.

No, never! Not for a moment. Not in the worst time of the whole lot did we think. It’s not heroics that, it’s fact. Not the slightest doubt at all. At we at that time, of course, I know it’s all wrong, completely wrong, now but we thought, well, we’re not nearly as efficient as the Germans – we knew they’d got all… their trenches were so much better than ours – but we were brought up so that one Englishman was worth ten Germans, and that’s what kept the war going. I know it’s a stupid thing to think of now, but it did happen.

Despite the poor conditions, dangers and the pressures of trench warfare, British soldiers kept their fighting spirit. If this had ever seriously broken, Britain's ability to stay in the war would have been in jeopardy. John Grover, of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, realised the importance of this.

I think above all the extraordinary cheerfulness of the troops under conditions which were sometimes quite appalling in discomfort – apart from the shelling. In the Ypres Salient you literally lived in mud and at times – fortunately I was never there in the winter – but at times, trenches were even knee deep in water, even with drainage. But the troops never seemed down-hearted; they were always marvellously cheery.

Comradeship was a key part of how British soldiers kept up their morale, as Clifford Lane, who served on the Western Front, recalled.

But there is that feeling of comradeship which can't be understood by anybody unless they’ve actually been, were actually in, the front line in the 1914 war. It was a sort of trust between men that rarely occurs. There was no reason for any hatred or rancour of any kind. Everyone was out to help each other. And that’s the one good feature of the 1914 war that you'll never get in civilian life. It can only occur in situations of great stress, of rigorous conditions and can only be acquired in wartime.

Morale could also be improved by visits from well-known personalities and leaders. British NCO Arthur Hemsley described the effect of a visit from King George V.

The king’s retinue drove up, the king stepped out and my parade presented arms. And he walked quietly along them without stopping and went straight in to see the general. He had a very busy day before him, because he was trying to visit all the generals in the one day. So that, very shortly afterwards, he was out again and walked through my files into his car and away. The point, of course, was that we were going through a rather difficult time. The Battle of the Somme had been a difficult one and not much of a success and I think things were a bit down at the time. The king felt it wise to go round and encourage his generals, which he did because everybody was glad to have been seen by him.

Gallantry awards, such as the Victoria Cross and Military Cross, also played a part in boosting morale. As well as rewarding an individual for his bravery, they gave pride to those who served in the unit. George Jameson of the Royal Field Artillery recalled his reaction to receiving a Military Cross.

That was where the notice came into Part Two Orders that I'd got this Military Cross. I felt scared stiff in case I let it down! You know, I had the sort of feeling, gosh you know this is something you've got to live up to. When you've got nothing there, it doesn't matter; you can sort of be a bit more natural. You wonder whether you've got to be a little tin hero all the time when you've got a medal on.

The First World War had a huge impact on the lives of those who lived through it. From compulsory military service to restrictions on everyday life, people were affected by it in many different ways. British private William Gillman remembered how much everyone at the time was influenced by this total war. 

Well everybody was taken up with the war, you see, and the war was the only thing that mattered, then. Because all, everybody’s life was being affected by the war. We were getting casualties and there was these telegrams were coming saying that we regret to inform you, you know, that your son is missing presumed dead or was killed in action etc. etc. And neighbours all round, you know, were getting these messages and they became more or less commonplace, you know. Every week or fortnight, you would hear of somebody who'd received a telegram, some neighbour that you knew or had heard about or was passed on by gossip, you know.  Funnily enough, it didn't affect us in wanting to go, you know. There was always a high degree of patriotism.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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Episode 50: For millions of people, the effects of the First World War did not cease with the end of hostilities in 1918. Physical and mental trauma endured long after the armistice and the economic, social and political consequences of the conflict were felt long into the future.