Wednesday, January 29, 2014

First World War Military Service Tribunals

The National Archives has launched a rare collection of First World War military service tribunals. These are 11,000 case files from Middlesex, where people applied to the local tribunal for exemption from compulsory military service (which was introduced in 1916, some two years after the start of the war). Most of the applications for exemptions fall into four categories: moral (conscientious objectors); medical (disability); family (looking after dependents) and economic (preserving a business).
As the First War dragged on, fatalities and casualties climbed far beyond anyone’s expectations. News about the horrible conditions on the front line slowly filtered back home. Much of it contradicted the official propaganda. This created a significant amount of tension on the home front. Still, only an estimated 10% of the applications for exemptions were based on moral grounds.
Only a very small number of these military tribunal papers survive. After the war, the UK government issued explicit instructions to local tribunals to destroy all these types of records due to their sensitive nature and the risk to the government.

The Middlesex collection was specifically held back from destruction and retained to be used as a possible benchmark in case military conscription was ever required in the future. The collection can be searched by name, occupation and location. Access is free.

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