Britain Adopts Conscription

Getty Images
Getty Images

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 222nd installment in the series.  

January 27, 1916: Britain Adopts Conscription 

Among the Great War’s many other casualties, one of the most symbolic was Britain’s long, proud tradition of an all-volunteer military. With British losses mounting rapidly on all fronts and insufficient numbers of young single men volunteering to fill the spots left vacant, the failure of the Derby Scheme in October to December 1915 meant Parliament had no choice but to pass the Military Service Act, mandating compulsory military service or conscription. 

The Derby Scheme, in which every means short of outright compulsion was used to persuade single men to enlist – including public shaming – produced 215,000 direct enlistments while another 420,000 men (who were not physically unfit or in exempt occupations) declared themselves ready to serve if called, for a total of roughly 635,000 new and potential enlistments. 

This was far short of the additional million men called for by Secretary of War Lord Kitchener (in December the House of Commons authorized an army of four million men, up from the current total of around 2.7 million). Meanwhile, out of around 2.2 million single men of military age, over a million had stayed away during the Derby Scheme, refusing to enlist or make a declaration of willingness to serve, including around 650,000 not in exempt occupations. 

At first the Liberal cabinet led by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was understandably reluctant to consider a politically unpalatable measure like conscription, but after Asquith was forced to form a coalition government in May 1915, some of the holdouts began to change their stance under pressure from Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George and the Conservative lawmaker Leo Amery, supported by a growing number of dissident Liberals and Unionists. 

As Lloyd George and Amery began drawing up the Military Service Act in late December 1915, last-ditch opponents resigned from the cabinet in protest, including Home Secretary John Simon, later replaced by Herbert Samuel. Undaunted, Asquith introduced the bill to Parliament on January 5, 1916, proposing to automatically enlist all unmarried men, including widowers without children, ages 18-40 (the law did not apply to Ireland due to fear of rebellion following the deferral of Home Rule). On January 27, 1916, King George V signed the act into law and Britain took another step towards a fully militarized society. 

The new law included exemptions for men in occupations deemed crucial to the war effort, who in 1915 were estimated to number around 1.5 million, but mechanization and the employment of women in war factories would allow the government to whittle this number down over time, freeing up more manpower for military service. Another law, passed in May 1916, would extend compulsory military service to married men as well. 

While most British men submitted to compulsory service as expected, producing 2.5 million additional enlistments by the end of the war, the law was highly controversial. Indeed, broad sections of society remained bitterly opposed to conscription, with some of the most prominent voices coming from trade unions, where socialist anti-militarism went hand in hand with distrust of authority; at a more self-interested level, they also hoped to use the threat of collective action to protect their dues-paying members. In January 1916 the South Wales Miners Federation voted to go on strike in protest against conscription, and the British Trades Union Congress also voiced its official opposition to the law. 

There was an overlapping strain of anti-conscription sentiment among progressive idealists, drawing on the Quaker pacifist tradition. At the beginning of the war some of these conscription opponents had formed the No-Conscription Fellowship, while other dissidents formed the Union for Democratic Control, also opposed to conscription.

One prominent member of both groups was the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who would earn fame (or notoriety) for his speeches and articles in the NCF’s Tribunal newspaper against conscription and in defense of conscientious objectors. Russell was branded a traitor, banned from speaking, fined and eventually jailed for six months for his NCF activities. 

Liebknecht, Luxemburg Found Spartacus League

Britain was hardly alone when it came to growing grassroots (but by no means universal) opposition to the war. In Germany the leftist Social Democratic Party split over the issue of support for the war, reflecting a deepening schism that would eventually give rise to the German Communist Party.

In the febrile days of July and August 1914 the German Social Democrats, like other European socialist parties, had abandoned their longstanding pacifism and voted for war, reflecting their own nationalist fervor as well as intense pressure from conservative officials who’d long distrusted them as subversive, anti-patriotic agitators. Later they expressed their continuing support by voting to approve war budgets, including new taxes and loans subscribed by the general population. 

The socialist support for patriotic measures was part of the “Burgfrieden” (“fortess truce”) that prevailed at the beginning of the war, when Germans from across the political spectrum supposedly came together in a display of national unity. However this unity was a façade that soon began to crumble under the stress of a prolonged war, with factory workers protesting stagnant wages, rising prices, and food shortages, as well as the threat of conscription and displacement by female labor. The growing tension was evident in developments including the formation of the radical German Workers Union by aggrieved workers in Düsseldorf in May 1915, and the SPD’s own call for an end to the “Burgfrieden” the following month. 

Moderate German Social Democrats now found themselves in the uncomfortable position of supporting the war (with conditions, most notably a peace without annexations) but also renewed class struggle, putting them at odds with both the government and their own radical wing. Indeed, growing numbers of party members were gravitating to the SPD’s leftwing faction, led by the obstreperous Karl Liebknecht (below), who had opposed the war from the beginning. 

Much of the pressure came from women who faced growing privation on the home front. In October 1915 female protestors disrupted a SD party meeting with calls for an immediate end to the war and food shortages, while a visiting foreign socialist, the American Madeleine Zabriskie, recalled meetings with German counterparts in June 1915: 

Their gatherings are secret. We meet in out-of-the-way places. I find that my telephone messages are intercepted; that a perfectly harmless letter is never delivered. I am watched… The most revolutionary talk is uttered by a gray-haired woman, the mother of grown children. A burning flame, this woman… In a secluded corner of a restaurant she whispers the great heresy: “Germany’s salvation lies in Germany’s defeat. If Germany wins when so many of her progressive young men have been slain, the people will be crushed in the grip of the mailed fist.” 

The growing rift in the Social Democratic Party burst into the open on December 21, 1915, when 20 Reichstag delegates voted against a new war loan while another 20 abstained, and deepened on January 9, 1916, when the moderate Social Democrats denounced their own party newspaper, Vorwarts, for its pacifist stance. Finally on January 12 they voted to expel Liebknecht, the radical ringleader, for his opposition to the war. 

Liebknecht, no stranger to political upheaval, vowed to rebuild the socialist movement from the ground up, by organizing the grassroots members against the party elite. Towards this end, on January 27, 1916 he joined forces with Rosa Luxemburg, a radical intellectual of Polish descent imprisoned since February 1915 for encouraging resistance to conscription, to found the Spartakusbund or “Spartacus League” (replacing the earlier Spartakusgruppe or “Spartacus Group,” which had existed within the party). 

For their manifesto the Spartacus League adopted Luxemburg’s “Theses On the Tasks of International Social Democracy,” written while she was in prison, which called for a new “Third International,” or global socialist organization, to replace the failed “Second International,” which had crumbled with mainstream socialists’ support for the war. The “Theses” began by stating: 

The world war has annihilated the work of forty years of European socialism: by destroying the revolutionary proletariat as a political force; by destroying the moral prestige of socialism; by scattering the workers’ International; by setting its sections one against the other in fratricidal massacre; and by tying the aspirations and hopes of the masses of the people of the main countries in which capitalism has developed to the destinies of imperialism. 

Luxemburg continued with a blistering critique of the current socialist leadership: 

By their vote for war credits and by their proclamation of national unity, the official leaderships of the socialist parties in Germany, France, and England… have… assumed their share in the responsibility for the war itself and for its consequences… This tactic of the official leaderships of the parties in the belligerent countries, and in the first place in Germany… constitutes a betrayal of the elementary principles of international socialism, of the vital interests of the working class, and of all the democratic interests of the peoples. 

In somewhat more emotional language, Liebknecht wrote in his screed “Either/Or” in April 1916, that “the proud old cry, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’ has been transformed on the battlefields into the command, ‘Proletarians of all countries, cut each other’s throats!’ Never in world history has a political party gone so miserably bankrupt, never has an exalted ideal been so disgracefully betrayed and dragged through the mud!” 

Thus the Spartacus League called for mass action by workers and soldiers in all the belligerent countries to bring an immediate end to the war – in essence a continent-wide strike coordinated by the Third International, accompanied or followed by a peaceful democratic revolution in each country. Liebknecht’s anti-patriotic stance was unmistakable in a pamphlet from 1915: “The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.” 

This non-violent approach put Luxemburg and Liebknecht at odds with bloody-minded revolutionaries like Lenin, still in exile in Switzerland, who hoped that the war would first trigger the collapse of the old regimes in violent national uprisings and class warfare, with peace following only once the bourgeoisie and elite of each nation had been more or less “liquidated.” Lenin was also willing to act unilaterally, beginning with revolution in one country, Russia, even if there were no complementary uprisings abroad. 

Strikes In Russia

The situation in Russia was unquestionably growing worse, triggering increasingly harsh measures by the Tsarist regime to suppress dissent. On January 11, 1916, strikes erupted at the Black Sea naval base of Nikolayevsk, followed on January 22 by another strike by 45,000 workers in Petrograd, commemorating the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in the 1905 revolution. Then on January 26, 1916, 55,000 workers across Russia went on strike to protest rising prices and shortages. 

The Tsarist okhrana or secret police acted swiftly to crush the workers’ movements by arresting scores of activists including the entire central committee of the Bolshevik Party, on January 13, 1916. This was a major setback for Lenin’s plans in Russia, but the general situation was undoubtedly becoming more favorable for a revolution, as reflected in letters from the Estonian revolutionary Alexander Kesküla to his contacts in the German government, who were considering increasing their funding to Lenin’s organization. On January 9, 1916 Kesküla wrote urging their support for more organization: 

Today, or in the next few days, some highly interesting revolutionary documents from Russia are  being sent to Lenin… They call for an armed rising  and for the organization of military mutinies… On the ideological side, the present Russian revolutionary movement must be regarded, in its essentials, as being perfectly mature and ready. All that can possibly remain to be done is some further formulation of details. The transformation of the revolutionary movement into an active one is now only a question of agitation and, above all, of organization. 

Individual accounts from Allied observers corroborated Kesküla’s belief that anger was growing among soldiers and peasants as well as industrial workers. Thousands of miles away, in February 1916 the British correspondent Philips Price talked with Russian soldiers on the Caucasian front, including one who declared that landlords were using the war to keep the peasants down: 

“This is good for our lords and masters, because it keeps us from getting strong at home”; and then he treated us to a long story of how in his village on the Volga his brother peasants had only so many dessatines of land; how the landlord’s land lay all around, and how the peasants worked for a few kopecks a day, the produce all going to the landlords; how all power was in the hands of the zemsky nachalnik [government-appointed land overseer] who was under the thumb of the landlords. “Is it not likely that they want us to fight?” he added. “If we stay home, we think about all this too much.” 

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

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7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

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9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Feel Nostalgic With the New Hello Kitty-Themed Tamagotchi

Bandai America/Amazon
Bandai America/Amazon

Back in November 1996, Bandai released the cult favorite Tamagotchi, a tiny virtual pet that users could feed, play with, give medicine to, and more. The name itself is actually a combination of two Japanese words, tamago and tomodachi, meaning egg and friend—and it was the toy's egg shape that was key to its distinct design. They could fit in pockets, on keychains, and inside the backpacks of any kid who wanted a distraction during the school day.

According to NME, more than 82 million of these egg-shaped digital pets have been sold since their initial release in the ‘90s, with 10 million of those coming within the first year alone. Now, the handheld pets are back again in the form of a collaboration with another famous Japanese creation, Hello Kitty.

Hello Kitty first took over hearts starting in 1974 when a Japanese company called Sanrio put the design on a vinyl coin purse. More than 45 years later, Hello Kitty (her real name is actually Kitty White) has been developed into video games, cafes, hospitals, wine, and more. This new Tamagotchi is the perfect mixture of two of Japan’s most famous brands, both of which have reached a global audience.

Bandi America/Amazon

In these new editions, Hello Kitty will help you raise your Tamagotchi. You’ll be able to feed them Hello Kitty’s favorite foods, like apple pie or milk, and play a balloon game and piano game. Based on how well you raise your Tamagotchi from an egg to an adult will determine which of the seven surprise characters you receive.

These new Tamagotchis will be released on December 1, 2020, and are available to pre-order in red and white on Amazon for $20.

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