20 July 2015

The worst possible year to join the British Army

I have a huge admiration for the British Army in general and for the late Victorian and early twentieth century British Army in particular. However, I wonder just how many men, when they were signing up as regulars in the 1890s and 1900s, bothered to read the small print of their attestation papers, and in particular, the following clause which could add an extra year to their terms of service and make it an unlucky thirteen:

Typical terms of enlistment were 12 years, served as a combination of colour service and reserve service. How much colour service and reserve service a man served was dependent on the corps with which he served and the year when he enlisted. Typical terms of service for the infantry from the mid 1900s was 7&5: seven years with the colours and five on the reserve. For most men, this actually meant eight years with the colours and four on the reserve because the period of colour service was extended by a year if the man happened to be serving overseas - and most regulars would have been serving overseas.
But to get to my point, I have often thought that of all the years that a man could have chosen to enlist, the year 1903 must have ranked among the worst. For a start, the terms of enlistment for the infantry had been reduced to 3&9: three years with the colours and nine years on the reserve. That would have meant that under normal, peacetime, circumstances, a man's obligation to the Crown would have ended in 1915.  However, Britain's declaration of war on Germany in 1914 changed all that.
Let's take a hypothetical example of a man enlisting in a county regiment in April 1903. He signs up for 3&9 and after 18 months training in the UK, is shipped out to India, returning to the UK in April 1907 prior to transfer to the Army Reserve. He obtains civil employment and, by August 1914, he's remembering his service in India seven years earlier and at the same time looking forward to the termination of his first period of engagement in April 1915 when 'the balloon goes up'. He is immediately recalled to the colours.
For a start, despite his annual training obligations, he's a little rusty in matters of the army. Furthermore, if he thought that his recall would only be until his 12-year commitment had been fulfilled, he'd forgotten (or maybe not been made fully aware of) the clause above which automatically extended his service for a further 12 months. This 'bounty year', which a number of veterans explained to me when I met them in the 1980s and 1990s, must have been a most unwelcome surprise for many.  Furthermore, by the time the bounty year had expired there would have been another surprise in store.
The Military Services Act had been introduced in January 1916 and conscription had been in force since 2nd March that year. Our April 1903 recruit, having completed his 12 + 1 years' service would now be liable for further service under the Military Services Act, and I have come across many records which show this unfortunate path. If he was lucky and managed to survive, our 1903 recruit may not have finally been discharged from the army until 1919 or 1920, some five or six years later than he may originally have computed. I wonder, having been along that path, how many men of those 1903 men chose to extend their service to complete 21 years and therefore obtain a pension for their efforts.
Captain Bruce Bairnsfather's Old Bill courtesy of The Old Bill Newsletter and Wikipedia.
I offer a fast, efficient and cost-effective military research service. Have a look at my military research page and drop me a line if you think I might be able to help.

No comments: