Volunteers or Conscripts – equal in death in the bloodbath of Passchendaele.
The social and cultural history of the Great War and immediate post-war years relegated to a lower level of public esteem the millions of men conscripted without choice to feed the insatiable need of the British Expeditionary Forces for evermore civilian-soldiers.
The public attitude to military recruitment on the outbreak of war was that of ‘men doing their duty’ by their country and family, in defence of the values of British fair play and rejection of the perceived aggressive Prussian militarism of the enemy. Those who were forcibly enlisted under the Military Service Acts of 1916-18 were regarded as somehow lacking the values, moral courage and self-sacrifice attributed to those who had willingly signed up to do their bit in the fevered days of early autumn 1914 through to late 1915. The reality of the manpower crisis which faced the British army throughout the war is a somewhat more complex matter than merely a question of ‘true patriots’ and ‘backsliders’ compelled to do their bit.
The men who rushed to volunteer, urged on by ‘Kitchener’ posters declaiming “Your country needs you” were men with no military background from a society with no history of mass compulsory military training for young men. Unlike the enemy and our allies, Britain had a tiny army, relying on the Navy to protect its vital political and commercial interests. The Army was an alien organisation with its own ethos, drawn from a narrow upper class stratum of officers and filled in the ranks by those of poor general education and often regarded with suspicion and contempt by the population as a whole.
It was against this background that Kitchener’s New Armies were recruited, often by committees of well-meaning and patriotic middle class businessmen. These battalions of ‘Pals’ and supplementary units of the county regiments drew in hundreds of thousands of volunteers who, in the hysteria of the war’s outbreak were accepted without question as to their civilian occupation and the effect upon the needs of the war economy to provide for the burgeoning demands of the vastly increased ranks they themselves had swelled.
Many men were ‘encouraged’ to enlist by propaganda which played upon the concepts of you’re only a ‘true man’ if you join up; and aided by popular music hall songs — “Oh we don’t want to lose you (but we think you ought to go)”. Add to this the none too subtle encouragement of the press and suggestions that the women folk of Britain would only consider a soldier or sailor as a future husband rather than a man in civilian clothes, produced an atmosphere which would have been hard to resist if constantly reinforced by informal chiding in the street and the handing out of ‘white feathers’ to allegedly laggard men not ‘doing the right thing’.
In reality, by early 1915, the supply of willing volunteers was drying up and the need to adopt a properly managed system of labour and military recruitment was introduced, if spasmodically. The demand to bring back home early volunteers needed more urgently at home in vital skilled work rather than filling the ranks of foot soldiers, led to the National Registration Scheme of August 1915. This provided a loose but not very accurate pool of persons — there was no body available to enforce or police compliance — from which the later Military Service Acts could classify men into those eligible for ‘call up’ and those in restricted categories; based upon age, occupation or personal circumstances e.g. widowers with dependents.
Once registration was introduced and recruitment based principally on age and employment/family categories then the concept of the ‘volunteer’ disappeared. Young men of 18 could only join up when called and therefore they were ‘denied’ the opportunity to demonstrate their ‘patriotism’; being absorbed into the armed forces by the military conscription scheme.
After the disasters of the Somme and the early years of war the army was increasingly filled at the ‘sharp end’ by men serving on the basis of compulsion; and depending upon medical condition, allocated to frontline or home service units, irrespective of personal preference. The army became a total organisation and the conscripts were denied any feeling of attachment to local or sub-national units.
From 1917 onwards the army was almost totally reliant upon these ‘forced’ recruits, although in reality many men might have volunteered and thousands were denied the opportunity, for reasons of economic necessity or being in skilled occupations.
The reasons for the disparagement of those who ‘only went because they were conscripted’ are hard to comprehend today — in the fevered atmosphere of the time perhaps less so. The fact remains that more men were conscripted than ‘volunteered’ but only a handful of memoirs published were written by the conscripts. So we know little of what they felt or thought about their forced service. Without them the war could not have been sustained and finally brought to a conclusion. In the mud of Flanders, fighting in intolerable conditions, the concept of being a volunteer or conscript doubtless lost any meaning at all.
Young and old, victims alike – some volunteered, others were just doing their job.
The story of ‘boy’ soldiers who lied about their age to enlist, often under the complacent eye of recruiting sergeants anxious to fill the battalion ranks, is well documented.
The youth of certain recruits may have been difficult to detect in a time when records were not always available to check. The primary evidence of age was and remains the birth certificate but this would not always be required to be produced if a man was evidently of military age.
However, there were also many instances where men over the age for enlistment would seek to join up to do their bit for ‘King and country’; anxious not to be seen as shirkers and unwilling to fight for their country. One man’s determination to serve led to a tragedy that haunted the family for decades. Joseph Forster of Albert Terrace is a tragic example of the consequences which flowed from the determination to join up on the part of one man.
The maximum age for enlistment, prior to the introduction of conscription in January 1916, had kept men over 40 out of the army. Keen to serve, Joseph Forster, aged 44, was helped by his daughter who, because she had a very neat hand, was able to alter her father’s birth certificate, taking 10 years off his actual age. Unfortunately, Joseph was killed and his daughter had to live with the consequences of her complicity in his refusal to be denied his opportunity to serve.
Left with a large family to support, his widow was forced to work night and day with little or no support from the state. Retired local businessman Peter Grant, who was the proprietor of Pringles Auto Centre in Church Way, brought several family mementoes to the project including a photograph of his grandfather and grandmother.
Peter has related how his mother had to live into her nineties with the knowledge that she had been an agent in the death of her father, aiding him in his wish to serve, by altering his birth certificate.
At the other end of the scale, the youth of some victims of the war was not the result of lies told in a rash of patriotic enthusiasm but the ever present perils of routine service in the merchant navy.
Recently, there has been considerable press coverage about two wartime wrecks — one from the Second World War and another from the First World War — both located at great depth in the Atlantic Ocean, and which were sunk whilst carrying very valuable cargoes of precious and other metals.
A similar story surrounds the ss Astoria sunk off Norway, in October, 1916. Built at Stockton on Tees in 1901, the Astoria had gone through two changes of name before she was torpedoed en route to Archangel from New York on 9 October, 1916. A young 18 year old galley steward from North Shields, Charles Carr Cobb of 40 Low Lights, on the Fish Quay was lost when his ship was sunk by the German submarine U46, 120 miles NW by W of the North Cape in the icy waters of the northern ocean. The ship was carrying thousands of tons of vital metals to Russia. The websites which record details of the ship state that the cargo, if ever recovered, would be valued in millions.
Charles Cobb was not even allowed the protection afforded to soldiers of being kept out of harm’s way until they were at least 19 (later on, only 18 and-a-half years old). Service at sea in the Merchant Navy meant the ever-present threat of being attacked and sunk by the enemy.
The numbers of men from Tynemouth who were employed at sea is one of the factors which contributed to the severe loss of life and family tragedies which the war produced in the local community.