Recruitment of Volunteers in 1914-1915

Football Battalion Poster

Football Battalion Poster (source wikicommons)

The recruitment of volunteers was begun in August 1914 on the recommendation of Horatio Kitchener, the Secretary of State of War, who contrary to popular belief foresaw the conflict lasting many years. Initially, 100,000 men were sought for voluntary service. The response was tremendous and enthusiastic: by the end of September, over 750,000 men had enlisted and by the end of 1914 the figure had grown to one million.   They were to become collectively known as the New or Kitchener’s Army.

To attract volunteers, a massive advertising campaign was organised with posters, spirited public meetings and press propaganda distributing news of German atrocities. Popular artists toured music halls to recruit men on stage in front of a cheering audience. Recruiting officers attended sporting events, cinema performances and other public gatherings, or made door-to-door visits in towns and villages. As recruitment officers were paid two shillings and sixpence for each new recruit, some of them turned a blind eye to volunteers below the official age limit of 19. Often, groups of men, such as members of a football team or workers from the same factory, were encouraged to join together to form so-called Pals battalions. The great drawback of this form of recruitment was that when such battalions suffered casualties, entire towns could lose all their military-aged men in a single day.

Not all recruitment was carried out in the spirit of patriotism. In some instances, employers forced their workers to volunteer. The threat of shame was also applied. The best known instance of this was the white feather handed out to men of military age on the streets as a mark of a coward by a division of the women’s suffrage movement.

Is Your Home Worth Fighting For

Recruitment Poster (source wikicommons)

Recruits were formed into complete battalions under existing British Army regiments. They received their kit from regimental depots and were then sent to training camps for rudimentary preparation. Recruits often trained in civilian clothing using obsolete weapons or wooden dummies as few if any regiments had the required stocks of uniforms or equipment. As a temporary solution, many regiments were supplied with emergency uniforms which became popularly known as Kitchener Blues. These shortages were corrected in the course of 1915.

There was also a shortage of suitable officers to train the new recruits. Reserve officers, such as Captain Harold Welch in our story, were often called up for the task. Recruits showing promise as potential leaders were rapidly promoted through the ranks and given responsibilities beyond their actual capacity.

By the end of the war, 2.67 million men had volunteered for military service, including 130,000 Irishmen. However, the initial enthusiasm for volunteering had collapsed by the beginning of 1916. In Ireland for example the recruitment boom of 89,000 volunteers between 1914 and 1915 dropped dramatically to 19,000 in 1916 and 14,000 in 1917. To maintain the supply of soldiers, the British government had no choice but to introduce conscription in 1916.