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.

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

15 Game of Thrones Products Every Fan Needs

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Though Game of Thrones might be coming to its official end, that doesn’t mean that your fandom can’t—or won’t—carry on. Whether you’re a years-long defender of House Stark or have been rooting for House Targaryen since the beginning, there’s a candle, collectible pin, coffee mug, card game, and pretty much anything else you can imagine with your name (and preferred sigil) on it.

1. A Song of Ice and Fire Book Series; $46

Bantam's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' book series

Bantam, Amazon

If you’ve never read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the series is based, plenty more Westerosi drama awaits. And just because you’ve seen every episode of the series 10 times doesn’t mean you know which way the books will turn. (The TV show diverged from their narrative a long time ago—and dozens of the characters who have been killed off on your television screen are still alive and well in the books.) Plus, as Martin has yet to complete the series, you may just catch up in time for the newest book.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Map Marker Wine Stopper Set; $50

Nobody solves a problem like Tyrion Lannister … and his thought process usually includes copious amounts of wine (Dornish if you’ve got it). Something tells us you’re going need some vino yourself to get through the giant, hour-long hole left in your Sunday nights once Game of Thrones officially ends. Make sure you don’t let a drop of it go to waste by keeping one of these six wine stoppers—each one carved to represent the sigil of the most noble houses in the Seven Kingdoms—handy.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

3. Winterfell Coffee Mug; $25

If coffee is more your speed—we get it: the night is dark and full of terrors—this simple-yet-elegant Winterfell mug is an easy way to communicate to your co-workers why you’re typically a little bleary-eyed on Monday mornings.

Buy it: HBO Shop

4. Hodor Door Stop; $12

A 3D-printed Hodor door stop, inspired by 'Game of Thrones'

3D Cauldron, Amazon

An important part of being a Game of Thrones fan is accepting that showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have no problem killing off your favorite characters, often in brutal ways. One of the series’ most memorable deaths was that of Hodor, Bran Stark’s personal mode of transport, who we loved despite the fact that the only word he ever uttered for six seasons was “Hodor”—and who we loved even more when, in the final moments of his life, we learned why that was the case. Pay tribute to the gentle giant, and his backstory, with this 3D-printed door stop.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Tarot Card Deck; $25

A 'Game of Thrones' tarot card deck, from Chronicle Books

Chronicle Books, Amazon

Channel your inner Maggy the Frog and see what the future holds for you and your loved ones (your enemies, too, if the mood strikes you) with Chronicle Books’s gorgeously packaged tarot card deck. The tarot tradition and Game of Thrones mythology blend seamlessly together in this box of goodies, which includes an instruction book and illustrated cards featuring your favorite characters and most beloved scenes from the show.

Buy it: Amazon or Chronicle Books

6. Fire and Blood Candle; $12

Mad Queen or not, show that you still stand behind the Mother of Dragons by filling your home with this House Targaryen-inspired votive candle. Best of all: Just wait to see the look on the faces of your guests when they ask “Mmmm … what’s that smell?” If you’d prefer not to answer with “fire and blood—doesn’t it smell delicious?,” there are other scents available: one called "Moon of My Life My Sun and Stars," another called "Be a Dragon," and one inspired by the Iron Throne itself (which must smell like victory).

Buy it: HBO Shop

7. Clue: Game of Thrones; $50

Margaery Tyrell with the battle axe in Cersei’s bedchambers. Rewrite the rules—and brutal deaths—of Game of Thrones with this special edition of the classic board game, which tasks you with figuring out who murdered whom, using what weapon, and where the incident took place. A double-sided playing board lets you choose whether you want to set the game in The Red Keep or Meereen.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

8. Game of Thrones Monopoly; $24

'Game of Thrones Monopoly' game board

Hasbro, Amazon

Who wants to be the Lord or Lady of Winterfell when you can become the preeminent real estate mogul of all the Seven Kingdoms? This special-edition Monopoly board puts a distinctly Westerosian twist on the classic game, with silver tokens to represent the sigils of each of the main houses and a card holder that plays the series’ haunting score whenever you press it.

Buy it: Amazon or Best Buy

9. House Stark Hoodie; $60

If you really wanted to dress like a Stark, you’d have a master blacksmith on hand to help customize your armor—or at least turn your IKEA rug into a luxurious cape. If you’re far less crafty, there’s always this full-zip hoodie featuring an embroidered direwolf on the front and an outlined illustration of the same on the back. The minimalist design is a way to show your fandom in a way that, to the untrained eye, might just look like you’re a fan of wolves. But the rest of us will know better. And approve.

Buy it: ThinkGeek

10. Deluxe Iron Throne Funko Pop! Set; $130

Funko's Iron Throne Pop! set of five

Funko, HBO Shop

Though it seems unlikely that a few of these characters will ever sit on the Iron Throne (either because they’re dead or have gone mad), a fan can always hope. And buying them as part of this five-piece set is an easy way to collect them all. If you don’t see your favorite character here, Amazon has got plenty more squat-headed figures to choose from, including Arya, Brienne of Tarth, Rhaegal (poor Rhaegal), and Ghost (poor Ghost). If you ever happen upon a headless Ned Stark Pop!, grab it; this hard-to-find figure can sell for more than $2000 on eBay.

Buy it: HBO Shop

11. Iron Throne Bookend; $60

After devoting more than eight years of your life to seeing Game of Thrones all the way through, maybe it’s you who deserves the Iron Throne. You can’t sit on this 7.5-inch replica, the base of which features sigils from all the noble houses, but you can show off your fancy George R.R. Martin book collection … or all that dragon fan fiction you’ve been working on.

Buy it: Best Buy or the HBO Shop

12. Game of Thrones Music Box; $13

'Game of Thrones' music box

Shenzhen Youtang Trade Co., Amazon

Channel your inner Arya by psyching yourself up with the iconic Game of Thrones theme song whenever you feel the need to hear it with this hand-cranked music box.

Buy it: Amazon

13. Iron Throne Tankard; $70

Show your guests who's boss at your next dinner party—or raucous feast—as you take your place at the head of the table and guzzle your mead (or giant's milk—we don't judge) from this Iron Throne-themed tankard, completed with sword handle.

Buy it: HBO Shop

14. Game of Thrones Socks; $8

It gets cold in the North. Keep your tootsies warm with this six-pack of stylish ankle-cut socks.

Buy it: Target

15. Living Language Dothraki; $16

A copy of the Living Language Dothraki language course

Living Language, Amazon

By now, you've surely learned at least a handful of common Dothraki words and phrases. But if you wan to become fluent in the (fictional) language, this language course is one way to do it. Now: Finne zhavvorsa anni?

Buy it: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER