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First World War home page The First World War, 1914 - 1918
'Your country needs you'
Anti-war voices
Espionage, propaganda and citizenship
A patriotic home front
The war and the changing face of British society
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'Your Country Needs You'


In the summer of 1914, Britain was the world's strongest naval, colonial and financial power. When the First World War ended more than four years later, its place in the world no longer seemed so secure. Historians now generally acknowledge that the war contributed significantly to Britain's gradually declining status as a global power in the 20th century. How and to what extent did it also change British politics and society?

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In 1914, the British army was relatively small, consisting of just over 730,000 officers and men. One-third of them served in the Glossary - opens new windowregular army itself, with the greater part stationed in reserve formations, the most notable of which was the Glossary - opens new windowTerritorial Force. The majority of officers were recruited from Britain's long-established public school élite. Many of the army's rank and file were unskilled (and often unemployed) labourers.

The outbreak of war rapidly changed this situation. Increased recruitment to the British army suddenly became imperative. Glossary - opens new windowLord Kitchener, the newly appointed war secretary, decided not to rely solely on the Territorial Force as the basis for expansion. Until the end of 1915, volunteers for military service were instead organised into units of what became known as the Glossary - opens new windowNew Army.

The New Army - opens new window
The New Army

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Army recruitment poster - opens new window

Recruitment poster:
'Daddy, what did YOU do
in the Great War?


Film of King George V visting tank school - opens new window
Watch film of King George V
visiting tank school
Stills from film - opens new window

Of the three main components of the British army during the First World War - the regulars, the Territorials and Kitchener's volunteers - it was the last group that attracted the most attention. The New Army provided 30 additional infantry divisions in 1914 and 1915, many of which contained Glossary - opens new window'Pals' battalions made up of groups with shared local, professional or social backgrounds. Kitchener's volunteers were at the centre of the brief 'rush to the colours' of August and September 1914, a mood captured in the famous recruitment poster featuring a drawing of Kitchener next to the caption Glossary - opens new window'Your country needs you'.

Men from the British empire and Glossary - opens new windowDominions also rushed to enlist at the beginning of the war. The Australia Imperial Force, for example, was formed in September 1914. The Glossary - opens new windowIndian army was also quick to contribute. However, the British government delayed the formation of the Glossary - opens new windowBritish West Indies Regiment until 1915, and thereafter used the troops mainly as labourers.

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The introduction of conscription

Of all the major powers involved in the conflict, Britain was the only one still reliant on a volunteer army. However, given the high casualty rates on the Western Front, a policy of voluntary enlistment could not be sustained indefinitely. From the spring of 1915 onwards, the Glossary - opens new windowminister of munitions Glossary - opens new windowDavid Lloyd George, backed by the Conservative party and the newspapers of Glossary - opens new windowViscount Northcliffe, pushed for the introduction of conscription. Asquith attempted to delay or at least limit it - based on the long-standing Liberal opposition to a 'standing army' - throughout 1915. But he was fighting a losing battle.

In January and May 1916, two Glossary - opens new windowMilitary Service Acts were passed, ensuring that all British men were now eligible for conscription. Although it was only in 1917 that Britain finally had more troops on the Western Front than it did at home, conscription marked a new level of commitment to the war against the Central Powers. Its introduction did not, however, go unchallenged.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

CAB 1/11/3B: Memo on the expansion of the British army, Jan 1915.
EXT 1/316: Government posters on munitions workers and exemptions from war service.
MUN 5/19/221/4-5, 37: Military Service Act 1916.
MUN 5/62/322/1: Memo to all recruiting officers/Territorial Force Association secretaries on the categories of men exempted from enlistment to the army, May 1915.
WO 162/71: Proposed formation of the New Army, Nov 1914.


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