British Military Service Tribunals, 1916–1918

‘A very much abused body of men’

Author: James McDermott

Military Service Tribunals were formed following the introduction of conscription in January 1916, to consider applications for exemption from men deemed by the new legislation to have enlisted. Swiftly, they gained two opposing yet equally unflattering reputations. In the eyes of the military, they were soft, obstructionist ‘old duffers’. To most of the men who came before them, the Tribunals were the unfeeling civilian arm of a remorseless grinding machine. This book, utilizing a rare surviving set of Tribunal records, challenges both perspectives. The Tribunals were charged with balancing the needs of the army with those of the localities from which their members were drawn; they received instructions, recommendations and polite guidance from their masters at Whitehall, yet each was in effect a sovereign body whose decisions could not be overturned other than by appeal to similar bodies. Wielding unprecedented power yet acutely sensitive to the contradictions inherent in their task, they were obliged, often at a conveyer belt's pace, to make decisions that often determined the fate of men, their families, and ultimately, their communities. That some of these decisions were capricious or even wrong is indisputable; the sparse historiography of the Tribunals has too often focused upon the idiosyncratic example while ignoring the wider, adverse impact of imprecise legislation, government hand-washing and short-term military exigencies. Evaluating in depth that impact, and illuminating the social dynamics which often marked proceedings in the Tribunal chamber, this study attempts to redress the balance of an enduringly damning historical judgment.

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‘The history, or rather histories, of the tribunals has remained largely unwritten, so it is a great benefit to have McDermott's excellent study of the system .... McDermott fulfils a double service to First World War literature: both providing a first monograph-length study of the tribunals and challenging, through in-depth research, the negative image of tribunals left by conscientious objectors and their supporters.'
Stuart Hallifax
English Historical Review
October 2012

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