Eva Isaacs, writing to her officer husband, 12 August 1914
After the outbreak of war in August 1914, Britain began to raise a huge volunteer citizens’ army. Lord Kitchener, the new war minister, spearheaded an extraordinary public campaign to recruit volunteers into this New Army.
Unlike most people, Kitchener believed this would be a long war. And Britain could no longer just rely on its small, professional army.
Why did men volunteer to fight? Many men joined Kitchener’s Army out of a sense of duty or patriotism, even anger at German atrocities. Some saw the war as a chance to leave dull lives for adventure. Others enlisted to escape hardship and unemployment for a steady wage. In just eight weeks, over three-quarters of a million men in Britain had joined up. Thousands more would come from Britain’s empire.
When Britain went to war, so too did its empire. Young men across the globe enlisted to fight for the ‘mother country’.
In the self-governing ‘white’ colonies, such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, many had been born in Britain or had British ancestry. They saw it as their duty to fight. In the ‘non-white’ colonies, such as India and the West Indies, some also believed that they might win a greater say in the running of their countries by proving their worth in battle.
Australian recruitment poster
On the outbreak of war the Prime Minister of Australia, Andrew Fisher, pledged that his country would ‘stand beside Britain to help and defend her to the last man’. Overall 416,000 Australians enlisted to fight, more than one in ten of the country’s population.
Around twenty per cent of the volunteers who joined the Australian Imperial Force in 1914 had been born in Britain.
South African recruitment poster
In South Africa 136,000 white troops enlisted. 43,000 black South Africans, prohibited from combat service because of their race, served as labourers.
Some of South Africa’s Dutch-speaking Boers objected to fighting for Britain, whose troops had conquered them in the Boer War of 1899-1902. Prime Minister Louis Botha had to crush a rebellion by them in October 1914.
Indian Army recruitment poster
War united India. Nearly one million Indian men of all religions and castes enlisted to fight Britain’s war, trebling the size of the Indian Army. Indian nationalists believed that by fighting Britain’s cause India might show that it was ready for self-government. Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi, an Indian lawyer, proclaimed Indians’ ‘desire to share the responsibilities of membership of a great Empire, if we would share its privileges’.
West Indian recruitment poster
Despite the king’s call to ‘men of every class creed and colour’, Britain was concerned about recruiting black men to fight white men. Although a British West Indies Regiment was formed from volunteers, the number of black troops from Britain’s African and Caribbean colonies could have been higher. But commanders claimed that imperial prestige was best upheld by white troops.
New Zealand recruitment poster
In New Zealand just over half the men eligible for service volunteered: 122,000 in total from a population of just over a million. The country’s Maori were divided over the issue of fighting for a nation which had taken their land in the 1860’s. Having volunteered to fight, racial discrimination meant that Maori in the first ‘Native Contingent’ found themselves working as labourers instead of as front line combat troops.
Canadian recruitment poster
Nearly 1.5 million British men, women and children had emigrated to Canada in the ten years before the war. Of the 458,000 men who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the war, nearly half were British-born. French-speaking Canadians were not so enthusiastic in their support for the war because of pre-war government attempts to suppress their language and culture.
Come along boys and join the army…our cheery lads need your help.
Recruiting poster, November 1914
The Army was unprepared for the stampede of volunteers wanting to fight for King and Country. The Kitchener volunteers would fight alongside professional soldiers and the part-time Territorial Army, which now signed up for overseas service.
Cities, towns, professions, businesses and sports clubs set up their own ‘Pals’ battalions so friends could fight together. Some men and boys who were unfit or underage managed to join up in the rush
How were men made into soldiers? The new recruits were given months of basic training in camps all over the country. There they learned the ways of the Army.
Conditions were often rough and ready, and there were few proper rifles or uniforms.
These enthusiastic volunteers would have to wait months before being tested in battle.
Photo of Dorothy Lawrence
Are you male or female? Women were not allowed to become soldiers. But would-be journalist Dorothy Lawrence, seen in this photograph, dressed as a soldier and posed as the non-existent ‘Private Denis Smith’.
Lawrence worked for ten days with soldiers laying mines in tunnels. But she became increasingly ill in the difficult conditions. She gave herself up to the authorities, who arrested but later released her.
Can you keep a promise?
Every Kitchener volunteer had to make a solemn promise to do his duty.
In a ceremony led by recruiting officers, new soldiers swore an oath of allegiance to the king upon a Bible. But, with so many men eager to join up, the process was often chaotic, with many men having to recite the oath at the same time to speed up things up.
Kitchener’s first appeal on 7 August 1914 was for ‘an addition of 100,000 men’ to the Army. Within eight weeks nearly 750,000 men had enlisted. They pledged to serve as long as the war lasted.
Most volunteers became infantrymen in new battalions, each numbering around a thousand men, which were attached to existing regiments. Many of the new units were ‘Pals’ battalions, in which friends, workmates or those with some other common bond could fight together.
17th Service (1st City and Liverpool Pals) Battalion, King's Liverpool Regiment, was the first ‘Pals’ battalion.
It was formed on 28 August 1914. Its founder, Lord Derby, declared that, ‘friends from the same office will fight shoulder to shoulder for the honour of Britain and the credit of Liverpool’.
Some ‘Pals’ units represented occupations and trades. The 16th Service (1st City) Battalion, Manchester Regiment, recruited office and warehouse workers.
Shoulder title and collar badge
The ‘1 RF’ shoulder title shown here was worn by the upper- and middle-class men who joined the 23rd Battalion (1st Sportsmen’s) Royal Fusiliers at London’s Hotel Cecil, where volunteers were quizzed about their sporting achievements. Lord Rosebery, who raised the 17th Royal Scots, took his family name ‘Primrose’ as inspiration for their primrose collar badge. It was one of 24 battalions for men under 5 feet 3 inches tall, known as ‘Bantams’ after the small aggressive chickens.
Tyneside Scottish and Royal Irish Rifles badges
The Tyneside Scottish badge was worn by four ‘Pals’ battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers. The clamour to join them stopped traffic in Newcastle. These battalions were open to all men, not just those of Scottish descent. In Ireland, both unionists and nationalists volunteered. This shamrock cap badge with the hand of Ulster was worn by the 14th Royal Irish Rifles, formed from members of the unionist Ulster Volunteer Force.
A recruit’s transformation from civilian to soldier began in one of the many camps which were set up all over Britain. Over months of tough training, the volunteers learned discipline, drill and how to fight with rifle and bayonet.
Men from every walk of life, from clerks and teachers to factory and shop workers, were crammed together. For many it was their first time away from home.
Temporary kit for Britain’s ‘New Army’.
The Army struggled to supply volunteers with everything on the army uniform and equipment list.
Many wore the ‘Kitchener Blue’ uniform – the example here is an approved War Office ‘sealed pattern’ which manufacturers had to copy - and a cardboard cap badge. Recruits thought these substitute uniforms made them look like postmen.
Weapons were also in short supply. Many volunteers had to use a wooden ‘rifle’ in drill.
Message from Lord Kitchener
Troops departing for the Front were waved off by patriotic civilians. One family, following an old custom, threw this child’s shoe after their soldier relatives to bid them good luck.
The first citizen soldiers landed in France in May 1915. For most men in Kitchener’s Army, it would be their first time abroad. Each carried this message from Lord Kitchener reminding them of the behaviour expected of British soldiers.
Diary of Sydney Fuller
New recruit Sydney Fuller recorded his thoughts about his training and sub-standard kit in his diary. New soldiers were pressed to have an inoculation against typhoid before going to the Front. Fuller noted that some men in his unit had refused the injection, which was often painful and was rumoured to cause impotence.
In a country defined by class, only ‘gentlemen’ from the upper- and middle-classes were expected to be officers. This handbook provided advice to young officers on how to control and care for their men while also commanding their respect. The most junior infantry officers, second lieutenants, were often only teenagers. Each had to lead a platoon of around 30 men, many older and from much tougher backgrounds than themselves.