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Conscription: the hidden benefits revealed

04 March 2016

The Military Service Act came into force 100 years ago this week: its effects were far-reaching, especially for the Church’s mission, argues Robert Beaken

“THANK goodness — conscription at last,” the Revd Julian Bickersteth, an army chaplain in France in 1916, wrote. “The whole British Army out here gave a sigh of relief when the news came. Every man will now have to do his bit.”

When war broke out in August 1914, Great Britain was the only European power not to have compulsory military service. Conscription was widely regarded as alien, and Britain preferred to rely on a volunteer army. As the war dragged on, however, it became clear that voluntary enlistment would never provide enough troops.

In January 1916, the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith introduced a Military Service Act to Parliament, which came into force on 2 March 1916. Initially, men aged 18 to 41 were liable to be conscripted unless they were married, widowed, had children, or were ministers of religion, or in a reserved occupation. Two months later, conscription was extended to married men. In 1918, the age limit was raised to 51.

Conscription was opposed by a few members of the Church of England, including the Revd E. W. Barnes — later a controversial Bishop of Birmingham — but most clergy and laity welcomed it; and some felt that it should have begun earlier. Britain also introduced a system of tribunals, where men could appeal against being called up. In France, in contrast, pacifists refusing military service were shot, and their families curtly informed that they had died as cowards.


THE records of most tribunals were destroyed in 1922. I managed to recreate the proceedings of the Colchester tribunal from wartime newspapers. Between 1916 and 1918, the tribunal sat 95 times. It heard 2089 applications for exemption from conscription, of which 2058 were on domestic or economic grounds (for example, men worried about their businesses or sick relatives), 17 on moral or political grounds, and 14 on religious grounds.

This represented roughly one-fifth of the men of military age in the town, but four-fifths appear to have volunteered, or accepted conscription without demur. The moral and political applicants were mostly supporters of the Independent Labour Party. None of the religious applicants were Anglicans; most were Plymouth Brethren, Quakers, and Congregationalists (Features, 31 October 2014, 4 September 2015).

The tribunal dealt with applications fairly briskly. In most cases, conscription was deferred by a month or two to allow applicants to make alternative arrangements. Nationally, about 3300 conscientious objectors agreed to undertake non-combative work. Some 1500 “absolutists” refused to carry out any work.

Few Anglicans supported or really understood them, but bishops and others became concerned when tales emerged that conscientious objectors were being ill-treated. The Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Davidson did what he could to help them, but found many of them rather trying, as he described in a letter in 1917:

We have certainly managed to muddle the question of the conscientious objector. But he does make our helping him nearly impossible. When a man . . . won’t help to make bandages for the sick, or food for the hungry, or relief packets for the destitute, and then refuses to let the doctor examine him even superficially, and yet claims the rights and properties of a citizen, for whom the State is responsible, he puts despair into the hearts of those who want to help him, and have spent day after day trying to do it.


WAR-TIME parish magazines from Colchester are silent about conscription. Before 1916, they had frequently contained articles connected with recruitment, exhorting men of military age to volunteer for combatant service.

With the introduction of conscription, such articles disappeared, although magazines continued to print news and letters from parishioners in the army. It is almost as if the parishes joined in the collective sigh of relief that conscription had been introduced, as it allowed them to concentrate on helping troops in the town, and the wounded.

Conscription had the effect of further uniting the nation in the war effort. Women began to be recruited to fill jobs previously occupied by men. For the Church of England, conscription had an unexpected bonus.

By the end of the war, some eight million men had worn khaki. The army did its best to care for its men, including their spiritual welfare. The Army Chaplains’ Department was greatly expanded to cope. All troops attended compulsory church parades, which meant that they regularly experienced Christian worship and teaching. There are stories of officers or NCOs leading prayers when no chaplain was available. Troops also sometimes encountered chaplains in hospitals, casualty clearing-stations, and in the trenches.


DELVING into the wartime history of Colchester, an important garrison town, I was surprised to discover how many troops also voluntarily attended worship in parish churches. Sunday evensong attracted many soldiers, and worshippers were sometimes advised to arrive half an hour early to secure a seat.

Troops attended Bible studies, meetings of the Church of England Men’s Society, and other church organisations, and social clubs especially run for soldiers by parishes. Other troops helped with Sunday schools, played the organ in services, and sometimes asked parish priests for holy communion before going to France.

We should not overestimate this phenomenon — soldiers still got into trouble with alcohol, prostitutes, and gambling, and many remained indifferent to religion — but neither should we ignore or sideline it. At a difficult time in their lives, these soldiers encountered kindly clergy and laypeople who clearly had their own burdens to bear, but who offered them a welcome, and sought to help them.

The Church of England found itself with a sort of captive audience of several million civilians-in-uniform, who were away from their peacetime daily routines, and who had time to think — and much to think about.

If the awfulness of trench warfare, and the suffering experienced by men who had to go “over the top” led some people to turn their backs on religion, it led others to discover Christianity, or deepen their already existing faith. Many troops, for example, found that holy communion meant more to them as a result of their wartime experiences.

By the time of the Armistice in 1918, some 2700 troops were beginning to explore the possibility of a vocation to ordination. A few soldiers later entered Anglican religious communities. Others went on to serve as churchwardens, on PCCs, as the officers of church organisations.

It would be no exaggeration to say that many of the men who volunteered, or were conscripted to serve in the Great War, helped to keep the Church of England going for the next 40 years.


The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great Bardfield and Little Bardfield, in the diocese of Chelmsford.

He is the author of The Church of England and the Home Front 1914-1918: Civilians, soldiers and religion in wartime Colchester, published by the Boydell Press at £30 (CT Bookshop £27) (Features, Books, 6 November 2015). 

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