Getty Images
Getty Images

Britain Adopts Conscription

Getty Images
Getty Images

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 222nd installment in the series.  

January 27, 1916: Britain Adopts Conscription 

Among the Great War’s many other casualties, one of the most symbolic was Britain’s long, proud tradition of an all-volunteer military. With British losses mounting rapidly on all fronts and insufficient numbers of young single men volunteering to fill the spots left vacant, the failure of the Derby Scheme in October to December 1915 meant Parliament had no choice but to pass the Military Service Act, mandating compulsory military service or conscription. 

The Derby Scheme, in which every means short of outright compulsion was used to persuade single men to enlist – including public shaming – produced 215,000 direct enlistments while another 420,000 men (who were not physically unfit or in exempt occupations) declared themselves ready to serve if called, for a total of roughly 635,000 new and potential enlistments. 

This was far short of the additional million men called for by Secretary of War Lord Kitchener (in December the House of Commons authorized an army of four million men, up from the current total of around 2.7 million). Meanwhile, out of around 2.2 million single men of military age, over a million had stayed away during the Derby Scheme, refusing to enlist or make a declaration of willingness to serve, including around 650,000 not in exempt occupations. 

At first the Liberal cabinet led by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was understandably reluctant to consider a politically unpalatable measure like conscription, but after Asquith was forced to form a coalition government in May 1915, some of the holdouts began to change their stance under pressure from Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George and the Conservative lawmaker Leo Amery, supported by a growing number of dissident Liberals and Unionists. 

As Lloyd George and Amery began drawing up the Military Service Act in late December 1915, last-ditch opponents resigned from the cabinet in protest, including Home Secretary John Simon, later replaced by Herbert Samuel. Undaunted, Asquith introduced the bill to Parliament on January 5, 1916, proposing to automatically enlist all unmarried men, including widowers without children, ages 18-40 (the law did not apply to Ireland due to fear of rebellion following the deferral of Home Rule). On January 27, 1916, King George V signed the act into law and Britain took another step towards a fully militarized society. 

The new law included exemptions for men in occupations deemed crucial to the war effort, who in 1915 were estimated to number around 1.5 million, but mechanization and the employment of women in war factories would allow the government to whittle this number down over time, freeing up more manpower for military service. Another law, passed in May 1916, would extend compulsory military service to married men as well. 

While most British men submitted to compulsory service as expected, producing 2.5 million additional enlistments by the end of the war, the law was highly controversial. Indeed, broad sections of society remained bitterly opposed to conscription, with some of the most prominent voices coming from trade unions, where socialist anti-militarism went hand in hand with distrust of authority; at a more self-interested level, they also hoped to use the threat of collective action to protect their dues-paying members. In January 1916 the South Wales Miners Federation voted to go on strike in protest against conscription, and the British Trades Union Congress also voiced its official opposition to the law. 

There was an overlapping strain of anti-conscription sentiment among progressive idealists, drawing on the Quaker pacifist tradition. At the beginning of the war some of these conscription opponents had formed the No-Conscription Fellowship, while other dissidents formed the Union for Democratic Control, also opposed to conscription.

One prominent member of both groups was the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who would earn fame (or notoriety) for his speeches and articles in the NCF’s Tribunal newspaper against conscription and in defense of conscientious objectors. Russell was branded a traitor, banned from speaking, fined and eventually jailed for six months for his NCF activities. 

Liebknecht, Luxemburg Found Spartacus League

Britain was hardly alone when it came to growing grassroots (but by no means universal) opposition to the war. In Germany the leftist Social Democratic Party split over the issue of support for the war, reflecting a deepening schism that would eventually give rise to the German Communist Party.

In the febrile days of July and August 1914 the German Social Democrats, like other European socialist parties, had abandoned their longstanding pacifism and voted for war, reflecting their own nationalist fervor as well as intense pressure from conservative officials who’d long distrusted them as subversive, anti-patriotic agitators. Later they expressed their continuing support by voting to approve war budgets, including new taxes and loans subscribed by the general population. 

The socialist support for patriotic measures was part of the “Burgfrieden” (“fortess truce”) that prevailed at the beginning of the war, when Germans from across the political spectrum supposedly came together in a display of national unity. However this unity was a façade that soon began to crumble under the stress of a prolonged war, with factory workers protesting stagnant wages, rising prices, and food shortages, as well as the threat of conscription and displacement by female labor. The growing tension was evident in developments including the formation of the radical German Workers Union by aggrieved workers in Düsseldorf in May 1915, and the SPD’s own call for an end to the “Burgfrieden” the following month. 

Moderate German Social Democrats now found themselves in the uncomfortable position of supporting the war (with conditions, most notably a peace without annexations) but also renewed class struggle, putting them at odds with both the government and their own radical wing. Indeed, growing numbers of party members were gravitating to the SPD’s leftwing faction, led by the obstreperous Karl Liebknecht (below), who had opposed the war from the beginning. 

Much of the pressure came from women who faced growing privation on the home front. In October 1915 female protestors disrupted a SD party meeting with calls for an immediate end to the war and food shortages, while a visiting foreign socialist, the American Madeleine Zabriskie, recalled meetings with German counterparts in June 1915: 

Their gatherings are secret. We meet in out-of-the-way places. I find that my telephone messages are intercepted; that a perfectly harmless letter is never delivered. I am watched… The most revolutionary talk is uttered by a gray-haired woman, the mother of grown children. A burning flame, this woman… In a secluded corner of a restaurant she whispers the great heresy: “Germany’s salvation lies in Germany’s defeat. If Germany wins when so many of her progressive young men have been slain, the people will be crushed in the grip of the mailed fist.” 

The growing rift in the Social Democratic Party burst into the open on December 21, 1915, when 20 Reichstag delegates voted against a new war loan while another 20 abstained, and deepened on January 9, 1916, when the moderate Social Democrats denounced their own party newspaper, Vorwarts, for its pacifist stance. Finally on January 12 they voted to expel Liebknecht, the radical ringleader, for his opposition to the war. 

Liebknecht, no stranger to political upheaval, vowed to rebuild the socialist movement from the ground up, by organizing the grassroots members against the party elite. Towards this end, on January 27, 1916 he joined forces with Rosa Luxemburg, a radical intellectual of Polish descent imprisoned since February 1915 for encouraging resistance to conscription, to found the Spartakusbund or “Spartacus League” (replacing the earlier Spartakusgruppe or “Spartacus Group,” which had existed within the party). 

For their manifesto the Spartacus League adopted Luxemburg’s “Theses On the Tasks of International Social Democracy,” written while she was in prison, which called for a new “Third International,” or global socialist organization, to replace the failed “Second International,” which had crumbled with mainstream socialists’ support for the war. The “Theses” began by stating: 

The world war has annihilated the work of forty years of European socialism: by destroying the revolutionary proletariat as a political force; by destroying the moral prestige of socialism; by scattering the workers’ International; by setting its sections one against the other in fratricidal massacre; and by tying the aspirations and hopes of the masses of the people of the main countries in which capitalism has developed to the destinies of imperialism. 

Luxemburg continued with a blistering critique of the current socialist leadership: 

By their vote for war credits and by their proclamation of national unity, the official leaderships of the socialist parties in Germany, France, and England… have… assumed their share in the responsibility for the war itself and for its consequences… This tactic of the official leaderships of the parties in the belligerent countries, and in the first place in Germany… constitutes a betrayal of the elementary principles of international socialism, of the vital interests of the working class, and of all the democratic interests of the peoples. 

In somewhat more emotional language, Liebknecht wrote in his screed “Either/Or” in April 1916, that “the proud old cry, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’ has been transformed on the battlefields into the command, ‘Proletarians of all countries, cut each other’s throats!’ Never in world history has a political party gone so miserably bankrupt, never has an exalted ideal been so disgracefully betrayed and dragged through the mud!” 

Thus the Spartacus League called for mass action by workers and soldiers in all the belligerent countries to bring an immediate end to the war – in essence a continent-wide strike coordinated by the Third International, accompanied or followed by a peaceful democratic revolution in each country. Liebknecht’s anti-patriotic stance was unmistakable in a pamphlet from 1915: “The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.” 

This non-violent approach put Luxemburg and Liebknecht at odds with bloody-minded revolutionaries like Lenin, still in exile in Switzerland, who hoped that the war would first trigger the collapse of the old regimes in violent national uprisings and class warfare, with peace following only once the bourgeoisie and elite of each nation had been more or less “liquidated.” Lenin was also willing to act unilaterally, beginning with revolution in one country, Russia, even if there were no complementary uprisings abroad. 

Strikes In Russia

The situation in Russia was unquestionably growing worse, triggering increasingly harsh measures by the Tsarist regime to suppress dissent. On January 11, 1916, strikes erupted at the Black Sea naval base of Nikolayevsk, followed on January 22 by another strike by 45,000 workers in Petrograd, commemorating the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in the 1905 revolution. Then on January 26, 1916, 55,000 workers across Russia went on strike to protest rising prices and shortages. 

The Tsarist okhrana or secret police acted swiftly to crush the workers’ movements by arresting scores of activists including the entire central committee of the Bolshevik Party, on January 13, 1916. This was a major setback for Lenin’s plans in Russia, but the general situation was undoubtedly becoming more favorable for a revolution, as reflected in letters from the Estonian revolutionary Alexander Kesküla to his contacts in the German government, who were considering increasing their funding to Lenin’s organization. On January 9, 1916 Kesküla wrote urging their support for more organization: 

Today, or in the next few days, some highly interesting revolutionary documents from Russia are  being sent to Lenin… They call for an armed rising  and for the organization of military mutinies… On the ideological side, the present Russian revolutionary movement must be regarded, in its essentials, as being perfectly mature and ready. All that can possibly remain to be done is some further formulation of details. The transformation of the revolutionary movement into an active one is now only a question of agitation and, above all, of organization. 

Individual accounts from Allied observers corroborated Kesküla’s belief that anger was growing among soldiers and peasants as well as industrial workers. Thousands of miles away, in February 1916 the British correspondent Philips Price talked with Russian soldiers on the Caucasian front, including one who declared that landlords were using the war to keep the peasants down: 

“This is good for our lords and masters, because it keeps us from getting strong at home”; and then he treated us to a long story of how in his village on the Volga his brother peasants had only so many dessatines of land; how the landlord’s land lay all around, and how the peasants worked for a few kopecks a day, the produce all going to the landlords; how all power was in the hands of the zemsky nachalnik [government-appointed land overseer] who was under the thumb of the landlords. “Is it not likely that they want us to fight?” he added. “If we stay home, we think about all this too much.” 

See the previous installment or all entries.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
The Annual Festivals That Draw the Most People in Every State
iStock
iStock

Every state has that one big event each year that draws residents from across the region or even across the nation. Louisiana has Mardi Gras. Kentucky has the Kentucky Derby. South Dakota has Sturgis. Genfare, a company that provides fare collection technology for transit companies, recently tracked down the biggest event in each state, creating a rundown of the can't-miss events across the country.

As the graphic below explores, some states' biggest public events are national music and entertainment festivals, like Bonnaroo in Tennessee, SXSW in Texas, and Summerfest in Wisconsin—which holds the world record for largest music festival.

Others are standard public festival fare. Minnesota hosts 2 million people a year at the Minnesota State Fair (pictured above), the largest of its kind in the U.S. by attendance. Mardi Gras celebrations dominate the events calendar in Missouri, Alabama, and, of course, Louisiana. Oktoberfest and other beer festivals serve as the biggest gatherings in Ohio (home to the nation's largest Oktoberfest event), Oregon, Colorado, and Utah.

In some states, though, the largest annual gatherings are a bit more unique. Some 50,000 people each year head to Brattleboro, Vermont for the Strolling of the Heifers, a more docile spin on the Spanish Running of the Bulls. Montana's biggest event is Evel Knievel Days, an extreme sports festival in honor of the famous daredevil. And Washington's biggest event is Hoopfest, Spokane's annual three-on-three basketball tournament.

Mark your calendar. Next year could be the year you attend them all.

A graphic list with the 50 states pictured next to information about their biggest events
Genfare

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios