3 COUNTDOWN TO CONSCRIPTION
There was an unusually large turnout in the House of Commons that afternoon. The air of expectation grew as the first business of the day was rapidly dealt with. The moment all had been waiting for came just after 3.00pm, when the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, rose to propose a short and what seemed like an uncontroversial motion: ‘That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision with respect to the Military Service in connection with the present war.’ However, everyone present that day in January 1916 knew precisely what it meant – a call for the introduction of military conscription for the first time in British history.
Huge numbers of soldiers had been killed during the first two years of the war. The dead
men had to be replaced. The government had promised not to introduce conscription, but now the supply of volunteer soldiers was running out: compulsory call-up of men who had not volunteered now looked to be the only answer.
1916 Guardian report 6 January
2003 Guardian Leader 10 November
In the days that followed there was much discussion: about the nature of liberty and freedom, about the importance of adequate manpower for the final push to victory, about the need for a ‘slackers’ charter. Some wondered what use ‘liberty and freedom’ was if the country was going to be ‘run over by the Hun’. Some saw conscription as a conspiracy. Members of the trades unions feared that it might be used to strip them of the workers’ rights they had struggled to get. When the unions were canvassed, well over 2 million members were against the Bill, saying it was ‘servitude’; 541,000 said they were for it. In fact opposition soon faded when the government promised that union members carrying out ‘necessary work’ would not be called up.
People and organisations opposing conscription continued to make their voices heard, and urged members of Parliament who agreed with them to keep on saying so. But it became increasingly clear that the Bill was going to become law. Now what was important was getting decent provision for the exemption of men whose conscience forbade them to fight.
On January 24 the Military Service Act was approved by 383 MPs. Only 36 voted against it; 30 of them were Liberals. The Labour members who objected had given in. 60 Irish Nationalists abstained from voting: they had been promised that conscription would not apply to Ireland.
In the House of Lords the bill passed with no amendments.