First World War Galleries Table of contents

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Saving France

They know that they are saving France, but also that they are going to die on the spot.

French military censor’s report, July 1916
The widening of the war still did not bring the victory both sides wanted. By late 1915 they turned again to the Western Front as their best hope.
Germany struck first, with a ferocious attack on the French fortress city of Verdun.
German military leader Erich von Falkenhayn’s aim was to force France out of the war. This would leave Britain without a foothold in mainland Europe.
In February 1916 the attack on Verdun opened with a devastating artillery bombardment. German troops advanced.
French General Philippe Pétain was ordered to save Verdun at all costs. The Battle of Verdun dragged on for ten months at a cost of 700,000 French and German lives.
To the French troops who fought there, Verdun was the ultimate in patriotic self-sacrifice, but also the last word in horror.

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French Poster

This French poster shows the Battle of Verdun.
The Germans attacked the fortress city, winning a series of victories in the spring of 1916.
For France’s army and its people, the defence of Verdun became the greatest test of their resolve to win the war.
Stereoscope viewer

This stereoscope viewer shows photographs of the Verdun battlefield. Stereographs offered a three-dimensional viewing experience. They were one of the ways in which the public could see images of the war fronts, and were particularly popular in France.

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A French colour slide of the ‘Saviour of Verdun’, General Philippe Pétain

7.Feeding the Front

In 1915 Britain faced falling army recruitment and shells shortages at the Front. To win the war, a transformation was needed. A ‘home front’ was created to supply the fighting fronts’ constant demands for men, weapons, equipment and food.

A new government stepped up the effort at home. It built a network of factories for weapons production and recruited an army of men and women to work in them. It passed laws which controlled people’s lives in ways they had never expected. And no longer would the government ask men to volunteer for the army. From 1916, it would make them fight.

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Postcard, white feather and ‘Not at Home’ disc

Hate mail was sent to many men who had not joined up.
An anonymous ‘scoutmistress’ sent this sarcastic postcard to a ‘Mr Brooks’, a railway porter.
Some men received a white feather, symbolising cowardice, such as this one sent to pacifist Bernard Taylor.
A ‘Not At Home’ disc displayed in the window could shame neighbours with no relatives fighting.

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In August 1915 over two million single men of military age were still not in uniform.
A hostile public, whipped up by the press, saw all of them as ‘shirkers’ and ‘slackers’.
With Britain needing more troops, there was heated debate about how to solve the ‘manpower crisis’. The recruitment campaign now put moral pressure on men to enlist.
Official recruiting poster

This official recruiting poster was the idea of Arthur Gunn, director of the London printing firm that produced it. Gunn felt guilty at not having volunteered for service himself. He saw the persuasive potential of a child’s awkward question to a ‘shirker’ father once the war was over. Shortly after the poster’s publication, Gunn himself enlisted. But the public soured at the use of shame to boost recruitment, undermining the impact of such posters.

Registration form

In March 1915 80,000 women filled out a registration form to declare their willingness to do war work and release more men to fight.
But there was no real system for employing them. Two months later, fewer than 2,000 of the volunteers had been taken on.
Some men also felt left out. A Mr Day from Hampshire circulated this leaflet demanding that ‘perfectly fit’ older men like him should be allowed to fight.

These letters show the political tug-of-war over manpower in summer 1915.
New Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George needed to keep skilled war workers. War minister Lord Kitchener needed them as soldiers. Critics of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith felt that his failure to bring in conscription showed a lack of drive. If Britain were to meet the needs of both Front and factory, stronger leadership was needed.
War service badges and war work certificates

War service badges and war work certificates were issued to show that men were engaged on vital war work. They helped employers shield their male workers from the attentions of recruiting officers, zealous patriots and tiresome accusations of cowardice, The badges were tightly regulated to stop any ‘shirkers’ from wearing them fraudulently.

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Most men who had not enlisted were not ‘slackers’.
Many were already doing crucial work in Britain’s rapidly expanding war industries. Skilled workers feared that their families might suffer on low army pay. Coal miners and railwaymen were discouraged from enlisting. Other men were medically unfit for military service. But as long as serving in the Army remained a matter of personal choice, the government would not get the numbers of soldiers it needed.
Film ‘A Call to the Young’

The film ‘A Call to the Young’, excerpts of which are shown here, was made after the introduction of conscription. The origins of the film are not clear, but it reflects the crushing pressure on the more reluctant British men to do their bit.

Printed letter

Employers despaired at losing skilled workers to the Army. This printed letter was sent by a manager to his men at the Coventry Ordnance Works, a munitions factory. He implores them to ignore ‘well-meaning but misguided people’ and to stay at the Works. By early 1916 army recruiting officers had stripped Britain of nearly 30 per cent of its male workforce.


There was organised opposition to the growing calls for compulsory military service. The leaflets shown here were distributed by the pacifist Independent Labour Party and the No Conscription Fellowship, whose members believed that the war was wrong. Even some members of the government saw conscription as a grave threat to Britain’s longstanding tradition of personal choice and freedom.

Why are they not at war?

When one sees young men idling…one thinks: ‘Why are they not at war?

Arnold Bennett, British writer
By 1916 Britain needed more soldiers. But volunteer numbers had fallen. Compulsory military service, conscription, was made law.
Many argued that, in a war to defend freedom, men should freely choose whether to fight. But the demands of war had now become too great for a voluntary system. Conscription confirmed Britain’s commitment to total war.
Were all men now conscripted?

Many men were not called up because they were needed for vital war work at home. Others were exempted because their families would suffer real hardship if they went to the Front or because they were medically unfit.

A small number of men with ethical or religious objections could also appeal against conscription. These ‘conscientious objectors’ became social outcasts.

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After months of heated debate, the voluntary system finally collapsed.
From January 1916 onwards 2.5 million men were conscripted into Britain’s armed forces. Tribunals and medical boards exempted those who could prove they had families to support, were doing work of ‘national importance’ or were unfit for military service.
A number of ‘conscientious objectors’ refused to fight for moral reasons, and faced a barrage of public hostility.

This letter was sent by an employer to a conscientious objector looking for a job. The applicant was rejected for being ‘a servant of Germany’. ‘Conchies’ were regarded with downright contempt by most British people. One army officer described them as ‘England’s cowardly and most useless people’. Their numbers were relatively few. Of 2.5 million men conscripted, less than one per cent raised moral or political objections.

Military Service Act

The first Military Service Act on 27 January 1916 made conscription law for single men aged between 18 and 41. Four months later married men were called up. Over the course of the war standards were gradually relaxed to capture more men, eventually up to the age of 50. Conscription was never enforced in Ireland. While New Zealand and Canada followed Britain’s example, Australia and South Africa did not.


The Derby Scheme was a last appeal for volunteers. In October 1915 Lord Derby, Director of Recruiting, called upon men aged between 18 and 41 to sign ‘attestation’ forms declaring that they would serve, but only when absolutely necessary. These ‘Derby men’ wore brassards to prove they were ready to fight when called upon - khaki for the Army, blue for the Royal Navy.


In November 1915 Prime Minister Herbert Asquith issued this appeal. He was responding to the fury of married men who had attested under the Derby Scheme, only to find that thousands of single men still had not volunteered. Asquith hinted that conscription would be introduced if more men did not enlist. But by December 1915 fewer than half of the eligible 5 million men had registered. The door for conscription was now open.


This cartoon appeared in the rabidly patriotic paper ‘John Bull’. It shows a conscientious objector lazily smoking at his fireside while his entire family is fighting or on war work. His dandyish clothes and cigarette holder identify him as a ‘Knut’. These idle, fashion-obsessed young men had been the object of amused scorn in pre-war years.

Bernard Taylor

Bernard Taylor, a pacifist, refused to fight. Granted exemption, he worked instead as a non-combatant in France with the Quaker War Victims Relief Association. He wears their armband in this photograph. His friend, an ‘absolutist’ who objected to helping the war effort in any way, sent him the letter shown here from prison. 6,000 absolutists were imprisoned for their beliefs and often received brutal treatment.


These documents relate to William Harrison, one of 16,500 conscientious objectors who had to prove the sincerity of their beliefs before tribunals. Harrison argued that, ‘War inevitably means … that the nations involved degenerate and become like brutes’. A former colleague testified that Harrison had long opposed ‘all forms of militarism’. But the appeals were rejected and Harrison was later sentenced to hard labour by a court martial.

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