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.
 
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11 July 2015

Unpicking the 1911 census


If there's one thing I've learned over the years of studying the British Army, and regimental numbers in particular, it's that there is usually method in the madness. It just requires de-coding.

The 1911 census is a wonderful resource for anyone with an interest in the British regular army which would, to a large degree, form part of the regular element of the BEF of 1914 and to a lesser degree, part of the regular element of the MEF of 1915. Here we have not only those units that happened to be in England and Wales when the census was taken on Sunday 2nd April, but also those that were stationed overseas as well. I personally find it easier to search these overseas' records on Findmypast, and here's how I do it.

1. Go to the A-Z search and type 1911 in the search box. The 1911 Census is the first result that appears:

 
2. Click on the 1911 Census and in the screen that follows, start typing Overseas Military in the County field. As you type, the words Overseas Military will appear.
 
 

3. Click on the blue Overseas Military text and see it transform into a lozenge beneath the county box. This means that you have now successfully selected this criterion:
 
 
4. Now click on the search button to reveal just how many British soldiers, serving overseas with the British Army, are at your fingertips:
 
So to recap, this figure is for men serving outside England, Wales, the Channel Islands, Scotland and Ireland. To find men stationed at garrisons in England, Wales and the Channel Islands you'll need to run separate searches on the England and Wales Census. To find men in Scotland and Ireland you'll need to search the census returns for those two countries.
 
In any event, enough of the preamble. There was no uniformity of form-filling when it came to enumerating the British Army overseas. Some returns were completed alphabetically by surname; others by longevity of service; others in company order. Officers may be enumerated with their companies or enumerated separately. Pre-war trades and professions are recorded, in error, against some names and many men may be recorded more than once: on their regimental return and also when they appear as part of a detachment on a training course in another of His Majesty's far-flung outposts.
 
Remember too, that on many of these returns there is useful information to be found on the address page that may not have been indexed.  Going back to our results' page of 135,853 results, I clicked on the second name that appeared: Andrews. In actual fact, "Andrews" has been indexed as the forename but as the image reveals, this is of course the man's last name.
 
We see that this is 7955 Rifleman Andrews and - unusually - that his regimental number and all the regimental numbers for men of the Royal Irish Rifles have also been recorded.  Now click on the "Related Images" option at the bottom of the screen and on the menu that appears, click on the Address option.
 
 
The resulting image gives us another piece of additional information: the company he was serving with:
 
Note that companies are not always recorded so clearly, and many companies are not actually identified at all, but it is worthwhile going over this address page with a fine toothcomb as there may be small pen or pencil annotations which can provide vital clues.
 
For this post though, I want to focus on the 2nd Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment which, at first sight, appears to have recorded its soldiers in a random fashion. That is, until you start to look a little more closely at the ages of the men and start cross referencing the names against other surviving military records. Again, I use Findmypast to check records in WO 363, WO 364 and the pre-war WO 97 series and also the medal index cards index on The National Archives' site. I could run the same search on Findmypast's version of the MICs but I just find it easier and quicker to use the National Archives' option.
 
 
Here we can see already that a pattern is emerging. The lowest regimental number that I found was 2308 for 40-year-old Frank Hebb who had joined the regiment in May 1888. Next on the list is 2703 Alfred Higgs who joined the regiment in November 1889, and so on. All these annotated men on the screenshot above have surviving service records in WO 97.
 
Moving further along through the returns, it becomes easier and easier to find men and start building a picture of how long they had been serving with the regiment. There are thirty lines per page and by the time I reached men who had enlisted in 1908 I was finding the majority of these men on medal index cards:
 
 
Furthermore, because the Leicestershire Regiment was so fastidious in recording men in order of seniority of service, it becomes possible to fill in regimental numbers for some men even if they have no surviving service record or MIC. In the example above, if William Derry was number 8322 and Albert Black was number 8324, the man in the middle - Frederick Thomas Wheeler - can only have been 8323. Using this logic, I have been able to fill in numbers for men who have no surviving paperwork at all.
 
As for ascertaining the year that these men joined, you have three options:
 
1. Use the resources on this blog to gauge an approximate year of enlistment
3. Do the donkey work yourself.
 
As far as the Leicesters are concerned, these men stationed at Fort St George, Madras had a huge range of experience - from the old hand like Frank Hebb with nearly 23 years of service under his belt, to 8965 Edwin Day who had only joined the regiment in 1910.
 
Following Edwin Day's entry comes a mixed bag of 15 men, who were possibly languishing in the infirmary, and then the schoolmaster and armourer sergeant. Last but not least come the 27 officers, beginning with 49-year-old Lt-Colonel Lionel Copley Shearer and ending up with a somewhat seasoned second lieutenant and widower, 46-year-old Walter Frederick Hammond. 
 
Screenshots on this page courtesy of Findmypast and The National Archives. The man at the top of this post is 9732 Stan Brown who was a youngster with the 1st Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment in Ireland when Britain went to war in August 1914. Had he joined a little earlier, and had Britain gone to war in 1915 rather than 1914, Stan would have joined these men of the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment in India. As it was he, along with other young and inexperienced troops, augmented by reservists, were first out to the continent in September 1914 whilst the 2nd Battalion did not arrive back from overseas (via Suez) until October 1914. Such was the scenario repeated throughout the British Army. You can read more about Stan's war on my WW1 Veterans Blog.
 
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