22 OCTOBER, 1915: Derby Day


Broadly speaking, the autumn of 1915 was a terrible time for the great powers at war. For the second time in a year, all their apparently infallible plans to bring the conflict to a victorious end had failed.

Superior Allied manpower and material strength had made absolutely no difference to the position on the Western Front, and the vast swathes of territory taken by advancing German and Austro-Hungarian forces had simply moved the stalemate on the Eastern Front some 350 kilometres to the east. Attempts to approach the War from other angles – whether prompted by broad strategic considerations, by the greed or desperation of smaller belligerents, or by the belief that victory could be achieved through the side door – were all turning into pocket nightmares. Campaigns taking place in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Salonika, the Caucasus, Serbia and Italy all fell into this category one way or another, and none of them offered any real hope of a happy ending any time soon.

Meanwhile the cost of the War – in manpower, money and resources – was escalating out of control and showing no sign of a slowdown.  To meet it, all the major players in Europe were being compelled to warp their social and economic systems to create  war machines.  On top of mounting carnage and repeated military disappointment, this enforced combination of rapid social change and relative deprivation was steadily eroding popular enthusiasm for the War.

Popular discontent was mounting in all the main belligerent countries, but in most of them it hardly mattered.  In Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, for instance, governments could and did expect workforces to do as they were told and conscripts to take up arms when ordered. Any misbehaviour could simply be suppressed, such was the weakness of their democratic structures. In France, where popular democracy did hold genuine power to influence strategy, the invader at the gate ensured that, no matter how fractious the sociopolitical landscape, continued commitment to the fight at an individual level was never in doubt. In Britain, things were different.

The British war effort depended on the consent and cooperation of the population as a whole, albeit heavily filtered through the mechanisms of representative democracy. And in 1915, Britain still depended on volunteers to do the fighting, so signs of war weariness were a potentially fatal problem for the government.

In the relatively optimistic days of the spring, British volunteer recruitment to the armed forces had been running at 100,000 men per month. This was barely enough to meet military requirements, and no matter what the military prognosis nobody thought it could be sustained. In May 1915 the age limit for volunteers was raised from 38 to 40, and in July the government began the very public process of compiling a national register of able-bodied civilian males between the ages of 15 and 65, in the vain hope that it would stimulate recruitment.  When the register was complete in mid-September it showed that almost five million men of military age were still civilians. About 1.6 million of them worked in reserved occupations and were exempt from service, but something had to be done to get the rest into uniform.

The obvious answer was conscription, but unlike their neighbours the British had never been subject to conscription, and it remained a dirty, politically dangerous word. Instead, the coalition government went for a half measure. Lord Derby, known for his successful drumming up of volunteers for the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, was appointed Director-General of Recruiting, and a hundred years ago today his response to the challenge, officially called the Group Scheme but known to one and all as the Derby Scheme, was announced to the nation in a blaze of publicity.

The scheme’s main purpose was to create a reserve of men who had agreed to fight, but only if and when needed. Men were invited to ‘attest’ in return for a day’s pay and an armband showing the world their intentions, with the added incentive that married men were promised no call up until the supply of single men was exhausted.

The Derby Scheme failed miserably, persuading only 350,000 men to attest before it was abandoned in December, and accurately reflecting an increasingly pessimistic popular mood. On the other hand it was a resounding success as a test of whether or not Britain could fight on with a volunteer army, and clinched the argument for those few senior politicians bold enough to openly advocate conscription.

So 22 October 1915 marked the last, convoluted attempt by a British government to hold off the reality of modern, total warfare by attempting to fight a global conflict as a volunteer nation. I just thought you should know.

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