Conscription in Lewisham and Deptford

On March 2, 1916, all single men between the ages of 18 and 41 in Britain were enlisted into its army and liable to be called up. Only men in Ireland, then a part of the United Kingdom, were excluded, because it was feared they would rebel and the Irish members of Parliament needed to be appeased. The promise that married men would not be conscripted did not last long, they were included in May 1916, and in April 1918, following the initial success of the great German offensive, men up to the age of 51 were liable to conscription.

Until 1916, Britain, unlike most other European powers, had no compulsory military service and the country had made do with professional soldiers. This had been something its generals, politicians, and people had been proud of and conscription had been seen as unnecessary and associated with illiberal societies such as Prussia and Russia; a sentiment expressed by the conscientious objector E W Harby when he told the Lewisham Military Services Tribunal:

We are willing to give our lives for the cause of liberty and freedom for the tribunal can Russianise our bodies, but it cannot Russianise our souls. [1]


Conscription was introduced because by 1915 its military and political leaders felt that if Britain was to remain in the war, bogged down as it was in the trenches of the Western Front, and win it unconditionally there was a need for more men. In 1914 Britain's army was tiny compared to the armies of Germany and France and by the end of 1914 most of its men, both regulars and reservists, had been killed as had most of the Territorial Army soldiers sent to replace them. Such was the overwhelming demand for men to fill the trenches that a Royal Naval Division, formed of sailors, was sent to fight in France and other battlefields. The War Office believed that more men, other than those volunteering, were needed and would continue to be needed as long as the war lasted.

Appealing against Conscription

Starting at the end of February and the beginning of March 1916, men due to be called up were able to appeal against their conscription to the local Military Service Tribunals (MST). No complete set of statistics of those who appeared before tribunals exists, but contrary to popular belief today the majority were not conscientious objectors, who made up less than 2% of the men who sought exemption from conscription. Appeals could be made on the grounds of work of national importance, business or domestic hardship, medical unfitness, or conscientious objection, or a mixture of causes. Many conscripts in Lewisham were initially excluded before even reaching a tribunal because they were simply too unhealthy. Men who appealed, or were refused on medical grounds, were widely seen as "shirkers" and liable to attack. Throughout the country, it was so common to insult and even assault young men not in uniform, that a Silver War Badge was issued to service personnel who had been honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness in order to protect them.

Supporters of the War and Conscription

The Government and the majority of its people, particularly those not actively engaged in fighting, wanted the complete defeat of Germany, seemingly regardless of the loss of life. The huge death toll of Deptford and Lewisham men was being honoured, rather than questioned, by the Kentish Mercury and the Lewisham Borough News when they discussed the need for conscription.

Other than conscientious objectors, those seeking exemption from conscription before the local Military Service Tribunals are reported as expressing support for the war, and emphasizing that they are not 'slackers' nor shirking from doing their duty. Conscription also placed quite a strain on business, particularly small and one-man businesses. A meeting of 100 small shopkeepers in the Elephant and Castle Theatre on Sunday July 30, 1916 complained that the Military Representatives considered "nothing but munition making" to be of national importance to the detriment of their business. They were, however, careful to note that they were grateful for the way in which the war was being conducted by the "great genius who was now in charge of the War Office" to the cries of "Hear, hear". [2]

Opponents of War and Conscription

There was some organised opposition and dissent against the war and conscription, although to openly argue against conscription led to the risk of being deemed a traitor and arrest under the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). When the No-conscription Fellowship distributed around 750,000 copies of a leaflet asking for repeal of the Act in the Summer of 1916, all its committee members were arrested and charged for inciting others to resist. [3] Opponents of the war and conscription also had to face the wrath of the "jingo mobs". [4]

Local opposition was led by the Dulwich Branch of the No-conscription fellowship. By the summer of 1915 public meetings opposing the war and conscription became increasingly difficult to hold and violent attacks on halls in nearby Bermondsey and along the Old Kent Road are recorded. [5] Riots started in Deptford as early as October 1914 with the mob attacking those perceived to be pro-German. The riots lasted four days and spread into Camberwell, Bermondsey and Southwark. There was to be more rioting throughout the war when anti-German feeling was stirred by events such as the bombing of Deptford and Lewisham and the sinking of the Lusitania.

Not all areas in South London, however, seem to have been equally affected by those willing to use violence to express their anger against those perceived to be pro-war. The Dulwich Branch of the ILP and the No-conscription fellowship appears to have freely advertised its weekly meetings at Hansler Hall in East Dulwich, despite being very actively opposed to the war and conscription.

South London Press, July 7, 1916 reported a meeting of the South London Federal Council Against Conscription held at the Friends' Meeting House Peckham and attended by delegates representing 49 trade union and labour bodies under the sub-heading Tribunals' "Ghastly Stupidity". The South London Press made its opinion and no doubt that of the majority of its readers clear, however, by juxtaposing the report against an analyses of the conscientious objector by the Rev. A.J. Waldron with the heading Coward, Fool or Criminal and the subheading Growing Fat on Others Sacrifices.

Did Conscription Work?

Lloyd George's Government obviously thought conscription worked. Following the decisive breakthrough of the Allied line by the German army in March 1918, and in a state of panic, they proposed extending it to Ireland, then on the brink of the "War of Independence". Major-General Childs, who was in charge of army discipline, felt that the extension of conscription would succeed if Sinn Feiners and "anarchical atheists in this country" were shot, and only those appealing on religious grounds were exempted. [6] Fortunately the German success proved short lived, and his theory did not need to be proved.

Because of the absence of records it is difficult to assess how successful conscription was in Deptford and Lewisham. Some statistics of the tribunals' work can be found in the local press. The Lewisham Borough News of July 20, 1916 reported that 3,393 men had appealed to the Lewisham MST, of whom 2,119 had previously attested. Of the 1,274 men who appeared solely because of the Conscription Acts, it is not known how many were enlisted into the army or how many might have volunteered without conscription. It is also not reported how many had appealed on grounds of conscience, but the figures given in the Pearce Register show some 113 conscientious objectors in total, while another 26 names men were reported as having appealed on grounds of conscience in the local press.

Of the 113 Lewisham and Deptford men listed on the Pearce Register of British Conscientious Objectors, the majority accepted conscription into the Non-combatant Corps or undertook alternative service under the terms of the Pelham Committee. Of the remainder, 40 COs from Lewisham and 12 from Deptford had no intention of accepting the decision of the local Military Service tribunals and in some cases they did not even bother to attend. All 52 were eventually arrested, tried in the local magistrates court, fined and handed over to their regiments where they were court-martialled for refusing to obey orders and imprisoned. Some 21 became absolutists and remained imprisoned for the duration of the war while 31 others accepted the provisions of the Home Office Scheme.

1. Lewisham Borough News, March 17, 1916
2. South London Press on August 4, 1916.
3. Edward Grubb, War Resistance in Julian Bell, Ed. We Did Not Fight, London Cobden-Sanderson 1935, pp. 143-153.
4. Fenner Brockway, Inside the left : thirty years of platform, press, prison and parliament : London: New Leader, 1947, pp. 65-67.
5. Fenner Brockway, Bermondsey Story:The Life of Alfred Salter, Alan Sutton Publishing Stroud, 1995 edition; on attacks in Bermondsey, pp. 57-73
6. John Rae, Conscience and Politics: The British Government and the Conscientious Objector to Military Service 1916-1919, London OUP, 1970 pp. 156-157

John W. Graham, Conscription and Conscience, (1922). Augustus M. Kelley reprint NY, 1969
John Rae, Conscience and Politics: The British Government and the Conscientious Objector to Military Service 1916-1919, London OUP 1970.
Jo Vellacott, Conscientious Objection:Bertrand Russell and the Pacifists in the First World War, Spokesman Books London, 2015 edition
Jerry White, Zeppelin Nights, Vintage Books, London 2014

Image taken from and reproduced with their permission.

Ann O'Brien, Volunteer at Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre, April 2014, Revised September 2015

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