Conscription and the Sevenoaks Tribunals
Although conscription was the norm in most European countries, Britain had always prided herself on her volunteer army, but by the middle of 1915 it became clear that not enough men were volunteering to replace the army’s losses.
Over one million men had answered Lord Kitchener’s call in the first months of the war but by early 1915 it became clear that voluntary enlistment could not keep up with the slaughter in Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Lord Derby, Minister for Recruitment, devised a scheme that invited men between the ages of 18 and 40 to attest and agree to serve when called upon. If a man attested and was accepted he could defer his call up, he was then given an official armband, sent home and back to work. The armband showed his willingness to serve and prevented verbal and sometime physical attacks or being presented with a white feather in the street.
This approach did not result in sufficient new recruits and so, with great reluctance, the Military Service Act was passed in January 1916. In March 1916 every unmarried man or widower without dependent children and between the ages of 18 an 40 was deemed to be on the Reserve. The list of exceptions included men in holy orders, full time ministers of religion, the physically or mentally unfit and men who had tried to enlist but been rejected. The law was passed through parliament with very great difficulty, splitting the already weak Liberal Party which never again took office. Huge demonstrations were held in London and around the country with accusations that conscription was an attack on the working classes, an attempt to smash the Trade Unions and allegations that we were “no better than the Germans”.
Eligible men were allocated a “class” and had to keep an eye on the public notices to see when their class was called up, then report to the recruiting office. The Sevenoaks Chronicle started printing lists of men, as many as a hundred in one issue, who had not appeared when called and asked for information to enable these men to be found; “under no circumstances will the name of the informant be disclosed”. The usual reasons for non-appearance were that the family had moved or sons had left for pastures new or, in several cases, the man was already in the Armed Forces.
Meanwhile Tribunals were set up to hear requests for exemption from conscription and the Sevenoaks Rural Tribunals were faithfully recorded in the Chronicle. Farmers and their workers sometimes assumed they were exempt but this was not the case. In early 1917 several men from Weald found themselves before the tribunal pleading the case for themselves or their workers. When a farm worker was called up, the farmer was given time to find a substitute from the many men classified as unfit for the armed forces. Many of these were also unfit for farm work as a reference supplied with the man sent to Mr Renwick shows. This reference, which was produced at the Tribunal says,
“He would be absolutely useless. He is deaf, dull of understanding, of the navvy type and has not the slightest knowledge of any kind”. Let us hope the man was also illiterate and could not read his reference. Mr Renwick’s two cowmen were given three months exemption while he looked for a better alternative.
Albert Paige, a wheelwright in the village, also produced a piece of paper which he waved at the Chairman saying, “this will show you what we have got to do at the present time” but the Chairman replied, “and we are too busy to read it, there is no need as you have conditional exemption”.
Albert’s younger brother, Herbert Alexander, variously called Alex, Alec, Alick in the Chronicle, had enlisted under the Derby Plan in November 1915 and, after taking a trade test as a wheelwright, joined the elite Tank Regiment in April 1916. In spite of being badly wounded twice he survived the war.
Most farmers were finding it difficult to manage without their skilled workers. Mr Pearson, farming at Morleys Farm, found the conscientious objector assigned to him was “an ignoramus in agriculture” and was given another three months to find a substitute for his younger son, Kenneth. He retained the services of his older son as a ploughman but by September 1917 he too was called to the Tribunal and allowed 6 months exemption. Mr Campbell of Hatchlands Farm lost Edwin Boakes, his cowman, who ended up in the Grenadier Guards attached to a machine gun corps. He was wounded in early 1918 and sent to hospital in London. Mr Golding of Westwood Farm was given six months to find a replacement for his ploughman, F Webb. 18 year old William Chapman, in the opinion of the Tribunal, would be of more use in the army than working as a carter’s mate for Mr Sears and was “ordered up” within 21 days.
Some men appeared several times to ask for exemption. Mr. Jordan, a 40 year old butcher, first applied in April 1917 saying he was the only butcher in Weald and also worked as a farmer. He was allowed three months on condition that he assisted Sevenoaks butchers with slaughtering. In July he was granted another six months as he was a one man business and helped out at haymaking. The Kent War Agricultural Committee had the power to grant certificates to men they deemed to be full time farmers and so exempt. Mr Jordan applied for a certificate which was refused but in May 1918, he was referred to the Food Control Committee, presumably in his role as a butcher. As his name does not appear in any later reports it seems that this he managed to spend the war in Weald.
In 1918 Mr A C Gasson, 49, and Mr G Stanley, 36, were still waiting for their certificates to prove they were legitimate farmers so their cases were adjourned. Bureaucracy, it seems, has always been exceedingly slow. Mr J Reed, who cultivated 3 acres for Mr Young of Young’s Stores in Sevenoaks and supplied the indoor staff with vegetables, heard that this was not sufficiently important and was refused exemption.
However, on occasion, the Tribunal could show mercy as in the case of Mr E A Heath, a sweep of Westerham. His elderly, infirm father had already sent seven of his eight sons to the Front and relied on this last son to carry on the business. Total exemption was granted.
Tribunal reports between August and October 1918 contained no more reports of Weald men.