Conscription in World War One Explained

Today conscription may seem a desperate move, useful only in moments of national crisis, but in 1914 it was the norm in much of Europe. Even  Britain, which had traditionally stood apart from the conscript model, quickly realised that the volume of manpower demanded by the First World War required more men than even the most successful campaign for volunteers could produce

Conscription in Germany

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In Germany compulsory military service had been the norm since long before the war (and continued long after, ending only in 2011). The 1914 system was as follows: at the age of 20 a man could expect to serve 2 or 3 years of training and active service. After this they would return to civilian life, but could be re-conscripted in the event of war up to the age of 45, with younger, more recently trained men being called up first.

In theory this applied to all men, but the cost of maintaining an army of that size was unrealistic so only half of each year group actually served. By maintaining this large pool of trained men the German army could expand rapidly and in 1914 it grew in 12 days from 808,280 to 3,502,700 men.

Conscription in France

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The French system was similar to the German one with men undertaking compulsory training and service aged 20-23, followed by a period as reservists until the age of 30. Up to age 45 men could be tied to the army as territorials, but unlike the conscripts and reservists these men did not receive regular updates to their training and were not intended for front line service. This system enabled the French to mobilize 2.9 million men by the end of August 1914

Conscription in Russia

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The Russian system of conscription present in 1914 was introduced in 1874 by Dimitry Milyutin and was consciously modelled on the German one, although earlier systems had existed, including compulsory life-long conscription for some men in the 18th century. By 1914 military service was mandatory for all males over 20 and lasted for 6 years, with a further 9 years in reserve.

Britain Institutes the Draft

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In 1914 Britain had the smallest army of any major power because it comprised only voluntary full-time soldiers rather than conscripts. This system had become untenable by 1916, so in response the Military Service Bill was passed, allowing the conscription of unmarried men aged 18-41. This was subsequently extended to include married men and men up to the age of 50.

The number of men conscripted is estimated to be 1,542,807 at most or 47% of the British Army in the war. In June 1916 alone 748,587 men appealed against their conscription based either on the necessity of their work or anti-war convictions.

Alex is a history student at King's College London focusing on Europe and the Near East in the Middle Ages. He currently works writing and editing content for madefromhistory.