Posts Tagged ‘Conscription’

Labour history uncut: More men for the meat-grinder please!

06/02/2013, 05:20:49 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

In January 1916, when Labour was wobbling over whether to stay in a wartime coalition that wanted to introduce conscription, prime minister Asquith had made a promise that his proposals would exclude married men.

Admittedly, just 7 months earlier, when the Labour party was wobbling about whether to join the wartime coalition in the first place, the same Asquith had said there would be no need for conscription at all. But surely this time Asquith meant it, having pinkie-sworn it and crossed his heart and hoped to die?

In April 1916, Asquith’s government brought forward a new conscription bill to call up married men.


This Australian war recruitment poster, handily doubles as a Soho cinema listing

After the usual “we do. we don’t.” hokey cokey from Labour on whether to support the bill, the leadership of the unions swung decisively behind the measure.

And so the bill passed with fulsome Labour backing.

Conscription had been (and continued to be) a difficult issue for Labour,  and the party may have changed their minds more frequently than they changed socks, but in one sense it was just a symptom of a more deep seated problem: the position in the war.

Bloody stalemate on the continent was devouring Britain’s resources. It had made conscription necessary and the resulting manpower shortages were fomenting rebellion within the Labour movement against the leadership.

In March 1916, shop stewards at Beardmores engineering works on “red Clydeside” in Glasgow went on strike in objection to the “dilution” of labour. This involved semi-skilled labour and unskilled labour, and often, god forbid, women being used to fill roles normally occupied by skilled labour. It enabled the skilled labour to be freed for more important activities, such as getting blown up at the front. (more…)

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Labour history uncut: Labour gets conscripted

29/01/2013, 10:53:57 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

“Conscription? Why would we need that? Who wouldn’t volunteer for a free trip to Europe and the chance to shoot foreigners?”

This was the comforting assurance given to Labour leaders, by prime minister Asquith as they trooped into the coalition government in May 1915. Surely a Liberal leader wouldn’t make a pledge and then do the absolute, exact opposite?

To be fair to Asquith, whatever he personally believed was largely irrelevant. Losses were outstripping recruitment at a staggering rate thanks to the British army’s patented “run through that withering hail of bullets and bombs would you old chap?” technique for conducting modern warfare.

At the start of the war, Britain was the only major European power to not have conscription in place. Having to compel your army to maintain an empire seemed a trifle arriviste, un-British and, frankly, the sort of thing the French would do.

Then again, as the war dragged on, it was clear more men were needed, and losing a major European war was definitely un-British too, and most certainly the sort of thing the French would do.

In the press, calls for conscription were growing in volume, with the Times leading the charge condemning Britain’s “great army of shirkers,” identifying, even then, the mortal threat to national well-being from a fifth column of skivers undermining the strivers.

At the end of September 1915, worries across the Labour movement that conscription might become reality prompted the party’s national executive committee (NEC) to summon a special meeting. Labour Parliamentarians and union officials were addressed by prime minister Asquith along with Lord Kitchener, the chief of staff and, quite literally the poster boy for World War One.

Lord Kitchener models Edwardian smart casual


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