WWI Centennial: Britain Adopts Conscription

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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.

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