How were soldiers recruited in World War One?

In August 1914, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, realised Britain needed a bigger army.

He made a direct appeal to the men of Britain. Posters were displayed showing him pointing his finger at anyone passing by.

Men felt proud to fight for their country.

  • 54 million posters were issued.
  • 8 million letters were sent.
  • 12,000 meetings were held.
  • 20,000 speeches were given by military spokesmen.

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

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

Original recruitment poster of Lord Kitchener pointing at the viewer

Who could join the army?

Photograph of a man giving his name to an officer at a recruitment drive in Trafalgar Square during World War One

Recruitment drives were held in places like Trafalgar Square

Only men aged between 18 and 41 could become soldiers. (The age limit was increased to 51 in April 1918.)

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The Government wanted as many men as possible to join the forces willingly.

But in 1916 a law was passed to say men had to join whether they wanted to or not. This was called conscription.

What were Pals Battalions?

Lord Derby, a politician, encouraged men to join up with their friends as a way to recruit more soldiers.

People who already knew each other would be good for the army. They would keep each others' spirits up. These groups became known as 'Pals Battalions'.

Watch our video to find out more about men from workplaces, churches and villages who joined the army together.

The Accrington Pals

One famous Pals Battalion was a group of around 700 men from Lancashire.

When the Pals left the small town of Accrington over 15,000 people crowded the streets, waving flags and cheering.

1 July 1916 was the first day of a battle near the river Somme. In just 20 minutes, 235 of the Accrington Pals were killed and over 350 were wounded.

Everyone in Accrington was shocked and sad. In some families all the men died on the same day.

Who were conscientious objectors?

Some men refused to fight for moral or religious reasons. They said their consciences would not allow them to kill.

There were about 16,000 conscientious objectors.

Some were allowed to do non-fighting work, such as farming or as stretcher-bearers on the battlefields.

Thousands more were sent to prison. They were often treated harshly there.

White feathers

A white feather was used as a symbol to mean a man was a coward. They were presented to men in the street or on the bus if they weren't wearing uniform.

The idea was to shame the man and make him join the army. This was unfair. There were many good reasons why a man might not be in uniform.

A white feather
A group called The Order of the White Feather tried to make men feel ashamed.

How did life change?

Millions of British men were injured or died in the war. The government needed to replace them so recruitment became a part of everyday life.

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

Street urchins in London dressed as soldiers with paper hats and canes as guns stand to attention during World War One

Where next?

World War One