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‘A very much abused body of men’
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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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James McDermott

This book provides a discrete analysis of Military Service Tribunals. The Appeals Tribunal files and supplementary material, now held at Northampton Record Office, constituted the principal primary sources for this book. The book explores the character, functions and developing policies of the county's Tribunals generally, and of the Appeals body in particular. It then investigates how the idiosyncrasies impacted upon the consideration of cases, and, in consequence, upon local Tribunals' relationships with the Appeals body, in whose hands laid responsibility for the correction of aberrant decisions. ‘Sovereignty’ is the unifying theme of this book. Its expression within the Tribunal process evaluates the interplay of government intention, the practical application of legislation and the Tribunals' appreciation of their relative responsibilities to nation and community.

in British Military Service Tribunals, 1916–1918
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Provenance, characteristics and issues
James McDermott

This chapter discusses the provenance, characteristics and issues in the Tribunal system. The Derby Scheme proved to be the failure that Lord Derby had anticipated. Despite its promoters' decisive parliamentary victory, Herbert Henry Asquith and his government remained extremely sensitive to the political pitfalls of a compulsory system. The Military Service Act introduced compulsion, but also a statutory right to avoid that compulsion. Derby voluntarism had not been explained adequately to those it sought to mobilize. The Tribunals were armed with an option that government had omitted to stress should not, barring truly exceptional circumstances, be used. The manpower crises of late 1916 further impacted upon the Tribunals' business. The charges that Tribunals were too ‘lenient’ with applicants, or that they represented the civilian face of an unpitying war machine, are equally unsatisfactory.

in British Military Service Tribunals, 1916–1918
James McDermott

This chapter argues that the social context cannot be discounted when assessing tribunalists' responses to pacifist sentiments. Their hostility to expressions of conscience was often apparent; less obvious, but equally prevalent, was their anxiety not to excite local grievances by demonstrably inconsistent or inequitable judgements. The broader criticism of the Tribunals is more difficult to rebut. Defining ‘conscience’ was a further problem for the Tribunals. It is suggested that local Tribunals were dealing peremptorily with conscientious objectors. The Tribunal were prepared to take the initiative in setting the terms of their authority in cases of conscience. A conscience of palpable integrity might entice a notable degree of respect from a Tribunal. Northamptonshire was a predominantly rural county with a strong tradition of voluntary recruitment. The Tribunals' ability to bridge the resulting gap largely determined the utility of their respective policies on conscience.

in British Military Service Tribunals, 1916–1918
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James McDermott

This chapter describes the boot and shoe trade. The Northamptonshire Tribunals' treatment of the boot and shoe trade is difficult to place in a national perspective. The timing of conscription impacted greatly upon Northamptonshire's boot and shoe industry. Pressures were increasing upon both the industry and the Tribunals. Northamptonshire's Appeals Tribunal had not been troubled unduly by the boot and shoe trade. In Northamptonshire, National Service representatives were ordered to demand the removal of any conditional exemptions previously given to boot and shoe men. The most significant effect of the ‘clean-cut’ upon the boot and shoe industry was to make clear just how deeply manpower cuts had proceeded to date. The boot and shoe trade remained an attractive hunting ground for Eastern Command. The British and Allied armies suffered no ‘boot-crisis’ during the war.

in British Military Service Tribunals, 1916–1918
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James McDermott

The period of Herbert Henry Asquith's administration saw the continuance of a prewar laissez-faire attitude towards agriculture, reflecting the political temperament of government, optimism that the war would be of short duration and uncertainty as to how formal direction might be imposed upon an extremely individualistic industry. The official attitude towards dilution of the agricultural workforce was influenced by the Army's short-term needs and by fluctuating domestic circumstances. Non-military substitution presented distinct problems for agriculture. Northamptonshire's agricultural Advisory Committee summoned several ostensibly qualifying workers and told them that they would be exempt from military service for the present. Fundamental political and military developments brought mixed prospects for agriculture. The ‘plough policy’ and associated initiatives increased the tilled acreage in England by some 20 per cent in the two years to 1918. Agriculture can be regarded as one of the unequivocal success stories of the Home Front.

in British Military Service Tribunals, 1916–1918
James McDermott

Northamptonshire's Tribunals were much occupied with applications from important food-distribution or retail sectors. Urban Tribunals attempted to ensure that proprietors who remained out of uniform helped to support the businesses of their less fortunate peers. With the failures of Cecil Henry Rathbone, Arthur Percy Price, and other ‘indispensable’ businessmen, many applicants continued to regard their centrality within a concern as being in itself sufficient reason for their cases to be considered favourably. It is noted that the local sentiment regarding sole proprietors and heads of businesses exercised a powerful influence upon the Tribunals, even during periods in which recruitment pressures were mounting. Cases that show the continuing extemporary nature of the Tribunals' approach to one-man businesses are provided. In judging the Tribunals' motivation and actions regarding the businessman/sole proprietor, the potential return upon effort must be considered.

in British Military Service Tribunals, 1916–1918
James McDermott

Tribunalists came from widely different backgrounds and enjoyed markedly dissimilar expectations of themselves and their immediate society. In the early months of the Tribunal system, many single young men claimed to be the only, or sole remaining, support of a widowed mother or of incapacitated parents. The Tribunals were not part of that inadvertent social experiment. The cases presented offer evidence of the self-serving idiosyncrasies reported of tribunalists elsewhere. If Northampton Borough's treatment of W.P. Townley and Leslie Wiggins suggests a certain direction to their partialities, their quixotic behaviour upon other occasions makes simplistic conclusions problematic. The Appeals Tribunal matched Northampton Borough's predilection for the sentimental, even quixotic gesture. Appeals Tribunal were grateful to the Mayor for giving them the opportunity to affirm so robustly their egalitarian pretensions in the glare of local publicity.

in British Military Service Tribunals, 1916–1918
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James McDermott

The implementation of the Derby Scheme, under which more than 1.1 million men attested their willingness to serve, imposed a massive new burden upon medical officers, and previously brief examinations became positively fleeting. Many men unsuitable for any sort of military life were waved through as fit for front line service, and returned, in due course, to add to the Tribunals' workloads. There were few cases brought before Northamptonshire's Tribunals during their early months that turned primarily upon an applicant's fitness. The chasm of mistrust between Army Medical Board and Tribunal was reflected throughout England and Wales. The developing relationship between the Tribunals and Army Medical Boards affords more than a series of salutary anecdotes regarding military incompetence and arrogance. In effect, the Tribunals became the public voice that ensured that private injustices should not disappear within the vast anonymity of the recruitment process.

in British Military Service Tribunals, 1916–1918
James McDermott

The Volunteer Training Corps (VTC) was born to protect the homeland from a German invasion. The Central Association of Volunteer Training Corps (CAVTC) acted principally as an advisory clearing-house for the multitude of queries and suggestions that poured in from local corps, and as a lobbying body dedicated to extracting from government a commitment to define the role of the VTC. The Tribunals were advised that they could attach a ‘requirement’ that a man being offered an exemption certificate should join the VTC, though the requirement in itself should not constitute the condition of the exemption. The Appeals Tribunal were not deeply involved in the early struggle to establish a consistent VTC policy. Tribunals in Northamptonshire who imposed the VTC requirement had overwhelmingly directed fit men into Section B. The evolution of the Royal Defence Corps from 1916 had the effect of dragging up its least respected component, the VTC.

in British Military Service Tribunals, 1916–1918