Rare archives shed light on conscription during WWI

Stories of conscientious objectors and how bakers, butchers and farmworkers fought conscription are amongst a rare collection of Military Appeal Tribunal records being published for the first time.

Tribunal manual

Conscription was first used by the armed forces in 1916 and those who sought exemption were brought in front of Military tribunals to make their case. After the war, the Ministry of Health ordered that all tribunal records be destroyed, but an oversight meant Staffordshire’s collection survived.

Kinson Family

Now, exactly one hundred years later, Staffordshire & Stoke-on-Trent Archive and Heritage Service have published this rare collection, making them available online.

It’s believed the tribunals were held in County Buildings in Stafford and the records were hidden away there only to be discovered many decades later.

Over 20,000 individual cases for the Local and Appeal Tribunals reveal the lives of the men called up to service and the stresses and strain it had on work and family life. Reasons provided by applicants are varied, including moral grounds, medical, family and on economic grounds.  They make for fascinating reading.

Jack Basham, aged 23 was a conscientious objector. He said: “I hold life to be sacred and cannot conscientiously perform any task which will directly or indirectly help to make the machinery of war more efficient. I would not take the military oath and will suffer any penalties which are put on me.”

The Local Tribunal were not satisfied that he honestly objected to combatant service and he was later sentenced to nine months hard labour at a court martial.

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George Astles was a van driver at a local bakery in St Edward’s Street in Leek. Bakery owner Jane Maskery said the business – and the people living in the surrounding area – would suffer if he was now called up as most of her staff had gone to war.

She said: “He is my van man and in my business it is absolutely necessary to have one. I supply bread to about 18 shops in town and country. When not on his rounds with the van he is otherwise fully employed in assisting me generally. My staff has suffered considerable depletion, three being now with the colours.”

Herbert Roe was granted exemption seven times on various grounds, including carrying out work of ‘national importance’ as a carrier. But a Yoxall woman, Sarah Hay, wrote to County Buildings in 1918 to accuse Herbert of being a skiver while other men in worse conditions served in the forces!

She wrote: “He is simply using the carrying business as an excuse for keeping out of the army. He has just brought a cow three weeks ago for nothing, only as an excuse if he should be called up. The men off the farms have had to go although they were working seven days a week on agriculture while he is left to strut about the roads like a gentleman.”

That’s him told.

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Gill Heath is the Cabinet Member responsible for archives at Staffordshire county Council. Gill said: “This is a fascinating collection of records that offer a real insight into the lives of those fighting conscription one hundred years ago.

“In almost every other area of the country these records were destroyed, so we’re very lucky to have them. This collection is of great interest both here in Staffordshire and nationally and having them available digitally means people from across the world can search through them. I would like to say a big thanks to our team of volunteers who made it possible.”

David Langrish, Head of Public History at The National Archives, said: “The papers of Military Service Tribunals from the First World War provide a direct insight into how this exceptional conflict impacted on individuals, families, local communities and businesses at home.

“Given the destruction of many records across England, Wales and Scotland after the war, the discovery and release of such a rare collection of case papers in Staffordshire will add significantly to our understanding of Home Front life, and the challenges and demands during this very unique period of British history.”

Thanks to a £37,600 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant, awarded in 2014, the collection has been preserved. Vanessa Harbar, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund West Midlands, said: “HLF is pleased to have supported the Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archives to preserve this important collection. Thanks to National Lottery players, these valuable archives about individual appeals against being conscripted into the forces will now be preserved for years to come.”

Conscription led to some 1.35 million Britons being called up. In the Stafford sub-area, Eustace Joy was appointed as Military Representative. Between 1916 and 1918 he appealed against over 200 exemptions issued by the Local Tribunal, often arguing that it was not in the national interest that individuals remain in civil employment.

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The project was supported by a team of over 50 volunteers giving 4,000 volunteering hours.

People can search the records online at http://www.staffsnameindexes.org.uk/ and request copies of the documents.  The story will also be retold in a new exhibition featuring examples of appeal records and recreated audio recordings of the hearings told by students from Stafford College.

The exhibition is set to tour the region. For dates and venues visit www.staffordshire.gov.uk/archives.

People can also follow the story on the blog at https://staffsappeals1918.wordpress.com/.  



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