First World War conscription appeals go online

Video report by ITV News correspondent Paul Davies

Details of attempts by more than 8,000 men to avoid conscription into the First World War are released online by the National Archives today. Thousands of papers from the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal, which heard appeals between 1916 and 1918, have been digitised as part of events to mark the centenary of the war.

British soldiers at the Somme, 1916. Most appeals were dismissed and many were forced to see war service.
British soldiers at the Somme, 1916. Most appeals were dismissed and many were forced to see war service. Credit: PA Archive

The papers include an appeal by munitions industry worker John Gordon Shallis, who had lost four brothers during the war, and whose mother is described as a "cripple" on the appeal form, having broken her leg. He was granted an exemption.

London rioters protesting against Conscription Act, January 1916.
London rioters protesting against Conscription Act, January 1916. Credit: Topham Picturepoint/PA images.

Less lucky was Harry George Ward, whose appeal against conscription on "conscientious grounds based on his socialist beliefs" was dismissed. The tribunal chairman, it was noted, alleged that "as a socialist he could not possibly have a conscience".

The papers also reveal the attitudes of local communities to people who were seen as unfairly avoiding their duties. An anonymous letter about Charles Rubens Busby from a local resident, sent directly to the tribunal, questions why he is allowed to keep his butcher's shop and not serve, while "married men have had to shut up their shop and go".

A photograph of a shop belonging to Harry Harris, who hoped to avoid war service on economic grounds to look after his business
A photograph of a shop belonging to Harry Harris, who hoped to avoid war service on economic grounds to look after his business Credit: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

The conscription appeal records provide a different perspective of the First World War away from the battles, revealing the impact the war had on the home front

– Chris Barnes, records specialist at the National Archives
Many were desperate to avoid the horrors of the trenches. British soldiers at Somme, 1916.
Many were desperate to avoid the horrors of the trenches. British soldiers at Somme, 1916. Credit: Topham Picturepoint/PA

Of the 11,307 separate appeals heard between 1916 and 1918, only 577 were conscientious objection cases, or just over 5%. The majority of appeals were dismissed and many people did go on to see war service, the National Archives said.The sensitive nature of the appeals against compulsory military service during and after the First World War has meant that only a small minority of the tribunal papers survive.