Suddenly everybody’s sons and brothers and husbands were soldiers. And a song seemed to rise, ‘Tipperary’, which they all sang and whistled as they marched…

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

When war broke out in August 1914, Britain’s regular army numbered only 250,000. A recruitment campaign was immediately launched to swell the ranks. Irving Jones, from near Caerphilly in south Wales, clearly remembered the effect such propaganda had on him.

The only thing I can remember so well about it is Kitchener’s picture, large pictures, put all around every hall, or outside each hall. And it was pointing to, ‘We want you!’ And he was always pointing at me. Whenever I passed it; that was the idea. The artist had that in view. Whoever looked at that picture would think that it was pointing at… And I always used to think ‘He’s pointing at me!’ ‘We want you!’ And it was in my mind all the time. I was only a kid but I was an adult I think in my thinking at that time.

It wasn’t just posters that had an effect on the young men of Britain. The new medium of film was also used to encourage them to do their patriotic duty, as William Dove recalled.

War had been declared and the following Sunday I went with a friend of mine into Shepherd’s Bush Empire to see the picture show there and at the end of the show they showed the fleet sailing the high seas and played ‘Britons Never Shall Be Slaves’ and ‘Hearts of Oak’, and you know one feels that little shiver run up their back and you know you’ve got to do something. I was just turned 17 at the time and on the Monday I went up to Whitehall, Old Scotland Yard, and enlisted in the 16th Lancers.

Pressure to join up didn’t always result in young men enlisting. William Berry, 18 at the time, was prevented by his parents from signing up.

There were a lot of posters up with Kitchener with a finger pointing, ‘Kitchener Wants You’. There was all the recruiting meetings in Trafalgar Square. There were also recruiting sergeants who stopped you in the street and I was quite frequently stopped. ‘A young fellow like you, why aren’t you in the Army?’ sort of business. That was the general line, which was quite true and I resented it very much because I really wanted to volunteer. I wanted to go, but my parents weren’t very amenable.

Portrait length depiction of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, wearing a cap, his right hand raised to point towards the viewer. text: BRITONS 'WANTS YOU' ALFRED LEETE JOIN YOUR COUNTRY'S ARMY! GOD SAVE THE KING
The iconic Kitchener recruitment poster that Irving Jones couldn't avoid. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 2734)

Another tactic for persuading potential soldiers to enlist was to give them a white feather, marking them out as a coward.  For Norman Demuth, who was only 16, it was particularly unfair.

I was given a white feather when I was 16, just after I’d left school. I was looking in a shop window and I suddenly felt somebody press something into my hand and I found it was a woman giving me a white feather. For the moment I was so astonished I didn’t know what to do about it. But I had been trying to persuade the doctors and recruiting officers that I was 19 and not 16 and I thought, well this must give me some added bounce because I must look the part and so I really went round to the recruiting offices with renewed zeal.

The effects of the recruiting drive were soon felt. Londoner Olive Finch describes what she witnessed.

War broke out. One night it was declared, and it seemed as though the world had come to an end. And suddenly everybody’s sons and brothers and husbands were soldiers. And suddenly there were crowds of men rushing to enlist and hoards of men tramping along the streets in platoons and on top of trams.  And a song seemed to rise, Tipperary, which they all sang and whistled as they marched.

There were similar scenes in Germany, as Gustav Lachman recollects.

When the great earthquake came in 1914 – that is when the Great War broke out – a tremendous surge of national emotion swept the countries of Europe. And on that wave I was also carried. And I joined a Hessian cavalry regiment as a volunteer. The 24th Hessian Life Dragoons.

The reasons behind each man’s enlistment varied. For some, such as Helen Wedgwood’s father, Liberal MP Josiah Wedgwood, it was a sense of duty.

First of all he opposed the war, in his first speech. And then father wrote that he was enlisting at once. He went to Churchill and got Churchill to put him into the armoured cars which was the Royal Naval Division. He was not only overage but he was an MP! So there was no call on him to go. But he said afterwards – well the whole of the war – that they ought to start by taking the over-40s because they’ve had their life.

For others, like S G Little, it was a mixture of peer pressure – and a bit of Dutch courage.

I joined up on the 8th August 1914 after a night out with the boys and we all decided to enlist the next day cos there was appeals on the 7th. In the morning they retracted but I went on. I came up to London and enlisted at Scotland Yard on the 8th August. Got there about 10. There was a queue right up to Whitehall one side and Northumberland Avenue the other. I queued up, not feeling too good, I think I fell out and had a Scotch during the day. I got in front of the doctors about four o’clock in the afternoon and about four or five of us were sworn in together. 

British Army recruits march through Regent's Park in London as civilians look on, September 1914.
British Army recruits march through Regent's Park in London as civilians look on, September 1914. © IWM (Q 53298)

Although there was a minimum age of 19 for fighting with the Army overseas, this was not always enforced. Bill Haine’s friend had already joined the Honourable Artillery Company and managed to get him past the queue and straight to the recruiting officer.

So I went right up to the front and into the gates where I was met by a sergeant major at a desk. And my friend, he introduced me to the sergeant and the sergeant said ‘Are you willing to join?’ I said ‘Yes, sir’. He said ‘Well, how old are you?’ I said ‘I’m 18 and one month’. He said ‘Do you mean 19 and one month?’ So I thought a moment: I said ‘Yes, sir’. He said ‘Right-O, well, sign here please’.

In the case of Raynor Taylor’s brother, enlistment did not mean a guaranteed place in the Army.

I had a brother, I had a brother did it very early on. The problem we had at our house when he did it! He joined up in August. Now in Ashton under Lyne, it was a garrison town and the soldiers were principally noted for drunkenness and brawling at Saturday night. And my mother were born in Ashton under Lyne and she were brought up with a feeling of revulsion against soldiers. And when one of her lads comes home and said they’d joined the Army, oh, I thought my brother broke her heart! Dear, dear, dear. And me dad talked him out of it. He said, ‘Don’t go lad.’

Eagerness to enlist sometimes resulted in men joining the wrong regiment. Tommy Keele had been a jockey and was keen to join a horse regiment.

I hadn’t been in Whitehall five minutes before I was grabbed on by a recruiting sergeant. He said, ‘Hello sonny, are you going to join the Army?’ I said ‘Well I’ve come down to have a look at it; yes I might join the Army’. ‘What do you want to join?’ ‘Light infantry.’ ‘Right this way sonny Jim, sign here.’ I said, ‘This is a horse regiment isn’t it?’ ‘Oh, no! It’s light infantry, with march at 120 to the second. No, this is a marching regiment.’ ‘No’ I said, ‘not me.’ I’d never done any marching, I’d been a jockey. So I left him, I wouldn’t sign the paper, I went out. But I was grabbed very quickly by another recruiting sergeant. And again, ‘What are you going to do, son, you going to join the Army?’ I said ‘Well I nearly joined just now but I found out it was a foot regiment and I didn’t want that.’ I said ‘I have been a jockey and a trick rider and a show-jumper and what not and I know all about horses including doctoring of horses so that’s what I want to join.’ ‘Ah, horses’ he says, ‘yes, hmm, the Middlesex Regiment.’ I said, ‘Horses?’ He said ‘Lovely horses.’ Do you know, for the first year in the flaming army I don’t think I ever saw a horse. It was a foot regiment, again. I was hooked into that. And I would have loved for many years afterwards to have met that recruiting sergeant again who said ‘Lovely horses.’

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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