What was it like in towns and rural areas?

Recruitment station at Trafalgar Square A man gives his name to an officer at a recruitment drive in Trafalgar Square
Children dressed as soldiers at a recruitment station Street urchins dressed as soldiers with paper hats and canes as guns stand to attention
A queue of men outside a recruitment station in central London Young men queue eagerly along the street outside a recruitment station

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When war came in August 1914, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, realised that Britain needed a bigger army.

He did this by creating a new volunteer army, which became known as 'Kitchener's Army'.

He made a direct and personal appeal to the men of Britain. Posters were printed showing him pointing his finger at passersby with the words 'Your Country Needs You'. Men felt proud at the prospect of fighting for their country and queued outside recruitment offices all over Britain to join the army.

Ready to fight

Lord Kitchener wants you poster

In the first weekend of the war in 1914, 100 men an hour (3,000 a day) signed up to join the armed forces.

54 million posters were issued, 8 million personal letters were sent, 12,000 meetings were held, and 20,000 speeches were delivered by military spokesmen.

By the end of 1914 1,186,337 men had enlisted.

Kitchener's Army

Soldiers had be at least 18 years old to join the army, and 19 before they could be sent abroad to fight, but lots of younger teenagers tried to 'join up' too. They wanted to be treated like men and thought war would be exciting.

They lied about their age, hoping the recruitment officer would believe them. Often they succeeded, and some boys as young as 13 or 14 went to war.

Over one million volunteers were recruited by the end of 1914, but more were needed.

Not everyone could enlist. Only men could go, and they had to be aged between 18 and 41 (the age limit was increased to 51 in April 1918). Priests and ministers were also exempt.

Some failed the medical test and others had 'reserved occupations'. This meant they did important jobs like drive trains, work in the coal mines, shipyards and munitions factories or were farmers, and had to stay in Britain.

'Your country needs YOU!'

Posters and newspaper reports tried to encourage other men who could go to volunteer.

The Government wanted as many men as possible to join the forces willingly. However in 1916, a law was passed to say men had to join the war whether they wanted to or not. This was called conscription.

An illustration of a recruitment officer and a queue of volunteers Men queued for hours outside recruitment stations across the United Kingdom for a chance to be part of the action

Those who refused to help the war effort risked being sent to prison.

Start Quote

It will be Hell to be in it; and Hell to be out of it.”

End Quote Rupert Brooke on the outbreak of war
'Don't lag! Follow your flag'

At the time, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom but some Irish people wanted to be independent and run their own country. The Government did not make Irish people fight for Britain but many volunteered.

line break

Posters and propaganda

A compilation of recruitment posters

Recruitment posters encouraged the public to join up and do their bit for King and Country. There are a wide range of recruitment posters in our image gallery.

Conscientious objectors

Order of the White Feather

A white feather

To be handed a white feather, in the street or on a bus, meant people thought a man was a coward - because he was not in uniform.

It was not fair to give anyone a white feather, since any man might have good reasons for not being in uniform.

People who refused to fight on moral or religious grounds were called conscientious objectors. They said their consciences would not allow them to kill.

When conscription was introduced in 1916, conscientious objectors had to appear before a kind of court, called a tribunal, to explain why they would not go to war.

There were about 16,000 conscientious objectors. Some were allowed to do 'non-combatant' (non-fighting) work, such as farming. Others went to the battlefields, not to fight but as stretcher-bearers, helping to rescue wounded soldiers.

Thousands more were sent to prison, where they were often treated harshly.

By the end of the war, almost one quarter of all the men in Britain had been in the armed forces.

Teachers' notes

Teachers' notes and classroom ideas looking at town and country life 100 years ago.

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