Attestment, Conscription and Tribunals

Attestment, Conscription and Tribunals

The initial flood of volunteers over, recruitment was becoming a problem by the end of 1915.

First, in October 1915, the so-called Derby Scheme was introduced whereby men could attest ie express willingness to serve. Then, in January 1916 the Military Service Act made all single men liable to call up and by March the married men also.

Local tribunals were set up to hear the cases of individuals, and their employers, who objected to call up either on economic grounds, being vital to their family or workplace, or as conscientious objectors on religious or political grounds.

The cases of “stars” ie those who had previously attested and been given exemption or delayed call up on these grounds, perhaps due to working in a restricted occupation, were also reviewed. Sometimes the exemption was extended for a relatively short period to enable the employer to make alternative arrangements.

These were reported in the local press and reflect the rural and tourist economy of the area as well as the degree of manpower and physical labour needed to run a variety of businesses, from working the land to town centre grocers and garages.

The reports included a certain amount of verbatim as regards the responses given to questions such as had the employment of women been considered as an alternative? These responses indicate a view of women’s capabilities and propensity for employment which was put to rest by their mass involvement in factory work and the Land Army during the Second World War.

The detail of these schemes is complicated but these extracts from a summary from the Great War London WordPress site help to explain the terminology which in turn borrows from The Long Long Trail website,

The ever-useful Long, Long Trail website describes what the scheme entailed administratively: “Men who attested under the Derby Scheme, who were accepted for service and chose to defer it were classified as being in “Class A”. Those who agreed to immediate service were “Class B”. The Class A men were paid a day’s army pay [2 shillings and 9 pence] for the day they attested; were given a grey armband with a red crown as a sign that they had so volunteered; were officially transferred into Section B Army Reserve; and were sent back to their homes and jobs until they were called up.”

1 Armband
Armlet given to Derby attestees 1915

In essence there were two prongs to the so-called ‘Derby Scheme’: the first was a systematic survey of all military-aged men on the National Register who were not in ‘starred’ employment (i.e. war-related work). This meant sending canvassers out again to the houses of men on the register.

The other prong to the campaign was a renewal of the general recruiting campaign but calling for men to sign up either as new recruits for immediate enlistment or as attestees willing to go when called. Again recruiting meetings were held and posters went up across the country; now the threat of conscription was greater than ever as a back-drop to these meetings.

As part of the campaign, the Government stressed two things: first, that men would be able to appeal against their call up, with the strong implication that men who had not attested would be unable to appeal against their later conscription. It was stressed that men should leave the decision over whether their personal or work situation meant they should stay or go to the local tribunal. This was important for many men who joined up, since it meant that they could attest on the assumption that their circumstances would keep them out of the army – they would appear patriotic but not actually have to fight. It probably also increased the number of ‘starred’ men attesting.

The second strong message was even more important: the single men would go first. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith made an explicit pledge to married men to this extent: On 2 November, he told the House of Commons:
“I am told by Lord Derby and others that there is some doubt among married men who are now being asked to enlist whether, having enlisted, or promised to enlist, they may not be called upon to serve, while younger and unmarried men are holding back and not doing their duty. Let them at once disabuse themselves of that notion. So far as I am concerned, I should certainly say the obligation of the married man to serve ought not to be enforced or held binding upon him unless and until – I hope by voluntary effort, but if it be needed in the last resort by other means – the unmarried men are dealt with.”

2 Poster image for blog
Official recruiting poster including Asquith’s pledge to married men. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5062)

Like the potential for exemption, the promise that men could patriotically attest without actually having to serve (at least until the single men had gone) may have allowed men to attest on the assumption that they would not actually have to serve.

January 1916 brought the Military Service Act, which made all single men of military age liable to being called up.

Alongside the Derby Scheme the Government asked all local authorities to create tribunals to hear the appeals of men against their call up.

In theory the only difference in the right to appeal was that while both attested men and conscripts could appeal on the basis of medical unfitness, exceptional business or personal circumstances (such as the potential collapse of their business, or that they were vital in caring for elderly relatives), and work of national importance, only conscripts could appeal on the basis of conscientious objection. This was logical since attested men had sworn that they were willing to serve, but since men had been told (at least implicitly) that military service could only be avoided by attesting and going to the tribunals, it is not surprising that some attested despite being conscientious objectors or being so unwilling to serve that they felt it better to be tarred with the label of ‘conchy’ than to join up.

In March, the married men were called for. There was uproar (from the married men at least) that Asquith’s pledge had not been fulfilled and there were still large numbers of single men who were not serving. What was more, those ‘unpatriotic’ married men who had not attested were not to be called up at all. The obvious point that the attested men had attested their willingness to serve and shouldn’t have done if they were not actually willing to serve did not sway the campaigners. A second Military Service Act was passed, extending conscription to married men. I can’t tell whether the ‘married men’ dispute was an error on the government’s part or a brilliant scheme to get a result that would have been thought impossible 18 months: compulsory service for married men. Either way, full conscription was the result.
Tribunals in North Devon in 1916

3 Saunderson

The case of S A Saunderson was referred to the Devon Tribunal at Exeter.
Saunderson, a conscientious objector working as an accountant in Barnstaple, argued that his occupation was of national importance within the meaning of regulations which stipulated for employment of service. He went on to state that he was a Plymouth Brother and could not take life.
The tribunal was not convinced and certified him for combatant service.

Samuel Alfred Saunderson, chartered accountant, is recorded as living in Exeter in the 1911 Census. There is no record to show that he was killed in the war and the medal record for a Samuel A Saunderson of the Queens Own Regiment shows that his Victory Medal was unclaimed or returned which would concur with his religious views.
4 Torrington


The Chairman of the Torrington Tribunal suggested to farmer Richard Burrow that he give female labour a trial when he asked for exemption for both himself and his cattleman Albert Lee as only three of five men were left working his land.
Burrow replied that he did not think women much good for farm work. He was given 6 months exemption and told that Lee would have to join up when called.


Albert Lee is recorded in the 1911 Census as a Labourer on farm living in Merton with his wife Sarah. There are no records which show his participation in the war and so perhaps he was lucky and stayed at home.

5 Lee Census

6 Bple TribunalThe Barnstaple Borough Tribunal heard cases from a variety of applicants – Messrs Prideaux, motor engineers, on behalf of one of their taxi drivers, Thomas Dennis – every man on the firm having attested and seventeen had joined, they were only asking for exemption for three men. Both Prideaux and Henry Scott, haulage contractor of Rolle Quay, were engaged in government work but also needed to continue their trade despite a shortage of drivers.
The military authorities applied for the removal of the exemption granted to Robert Cowie, employed as a foreign traveller and designer by Shapland and Petter. The firm argued their case and the Mayor announced that the Tribunal’s previous decision held and the military authorities were refused.
Robert was undoubtedly the son of William Cowie, head of the Design Room at S&P and who is said, in Historic England’s assessment of the factory buildings, to have had links to the Glasgow School of Art. The 1911 Census shows the family at home in Ashleigh Road. Robert is absent although another son, John Grandisson Cowie, is also listed as a designer (furniture) as is his father.

7 Northam Tribunal


The conditional exemptions granted at a Northam Tribunal meeting in May reflected the seasonality of the appellants’ occupations with a hotel and boarding house keeper given to September 1st, a dairyman and market gardener to August 8th, and a smallholder two months.


8 Ilf Tribunal


Ilfracombe Tribunal heard a mixture of farming and dependency cases. One of the Richards brothers of Warcombe farm was granted exemption, the younger, Sidney Percy, refused.

Sidney’s service record survives but only shows his personal details on joining (the word enlistment is overwritten) and no record of action other than the award of the Victory Medal.

WW Bailey, who said he had been reproached as a slacker had a widowed mother and an invalid sister in a sanatorium, to support. Reg Lancey had parents in their 70s, mother delicate and… father mentally afflicted. Both were conditionally exempted while their circumstances remained the same, decisions received with loud applause by the large number present in the hall.

9 Lynton Tribunal


The Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway applied for absolute exemption for their three conductors, all in their thirties.
Despite their solicitor’s arguments that to comply with Board of Trade regulations they needed a third man in case of sickness, one, John Creek, was refused exemption – the Company were to appeal.

The appeal was adjourned in June, then again in December 1916, and eventually in February 1917 John was given conditional exemption as long as he remains in the same employment.

John Creek died in April 1940. As the foreman of the Cliff Railway the service was suspended whilst the funeral took place and, as also sub-captain of the Fire Brigade, his coffin was conveyed to church by the Council’s fire engine.


10 Bideford tribunal


At Bideford two stars were withdrawn on the application of the military.
Those appearing were engaged in a mix of occupations and included a bootmaker, painter, horseman, cowman, draper and a motor and cycle engineer.

11 SM Tribunal


The appeals to South Molton Rural Tribunal took up two columns of the North Devon Journal in March 1916 reflecting the intensive manpower needed to run a farm in those days.
The dialogue reported here in the case of Reginald Rew illustrates the determination of the military authorities to “get their man” and one wonders how the farm families felt having to argue their case against those of better education and a more privileged background.




Ancestry Library Edition – Census records; WW1 service records (available free online in the Local Studies Centre and in any Devon library)

British Newspaper Archive – North Devon Journal (available free online in the Local Studies Centre)


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