The 1916 Military Service Act

The Military Service Act of 27 January 1916 brought conscription into effect for the first time in the war. Along with the Defence of the Realm Act, it was possibly the most important piece of legislation in placing Britain onto a “total war” footing.

Every British male subject who

– on 15 August 1915 was ordinarily resident in Great Britain and who had attained the age of 18*  but was not yet 41 by 2 March 1916  and
– on 2 November 1915 was unmarried or a widower without dependent children

unless he met certain exceptions or had met the age of 41 before the appointed date, was deemed to have enlisted for general service with the colours or in the reserve and was forthwith transferred to the reserve. He now came under the controls specified in the Army Act. This was as of Thursday 2 March 1916.

Provision was made under Section 20 of the Reserve Forces Act 1882, for information being obtained from the man with regard to his preference for service in the Navy. The Admiralty had the first right of call on men who expressed this preference.

Men were encouraged to voluntarily enlist under the Group System (Derby Scheme) before the Act came into place.

This was defined as men who had reached the age of 18 by 15 August 1915.

Schedule of Exceptions (i.e. categories of men who were not deemed to have enlisted)

1. Men ordinarily resident in the Dominions abroad, or resident in Britain only for the purpose of their education or some other special purpose.
2. Existing members of the regular or reserve forces or of the Territorial Force who are liable for foreign service or who are, in the opinion of the Army Council, not suitable for foreign service.

3. Men serving in the Navy or Royal Marines or who are recommended for exception by the Admiralty.

4. Men in Holy Orders or regular ministers of any religious denomination.

5. Men who had served with the military or Navy and been discharged on grounds of ill-health or termination of service.

6. Men who hold a certificate of exemption or who have offered themselves for enlistment since 4 August 1914 but been rejected.

Claiming exemption from military service

An application may be made before the appointed date to a Local Tribunal for the issue of a certificate of exemption. There were four grounds for exemption:

– if it is expedient in the national interests that he should be engaged in other work, or, if he is being educated or trained for any other work, that he should continue; or

– if serious hardship would ensue owing to his exceptional financial or business obligations or domestic position; or

– ill health or infirmity; or

– conscientious objection to the undertaking of combatant service.

Certificates of exemption could also be granted by any Government department to men or classes or bodies of men in their employ, where it appears more convenient for this to take place than by individual application to Local Tribunal.

A certificate could be absolute, conditional or temporary. Exemptions for continued education or training and those on financial hardship grounds could only be temporary. If the conditions under which an exemption was granted changed, it was the duty of the person to inform the authorities. A fine of up to £50 could be applied if he did not do so. False statements or misrepresentation at time of application for exemption could lead to imprisonment with hard labour for up to six months.

A duplicate certificate could be issued on payment of one shilling.

A system of Local, Appeal and Central Tribunals was arranged. Each registration district as defined in the National Registration Act 1915 would have a Local Tribunal or Tribunals, consisting of between 5 and 25 members each. A Tribunal could work through a committee that it could appoint. There would also be Appeal and Central Tribunals with members appointed by the Crown. Any person aggrieved by the decision of a Local Tribunal could make an appeal.

Army Council Instruction 386 (19 February 1916) made it clear that official War Service badges issued to those on War Office, Admiralty or Ministry of Munitions work before 1 March 1916 would count as though they were a certificate of exemption.


Men were allocated into a Class, which was connected with the year of their birth, and were notified that they would be called up by Class.

Class 1 was for those born in 1897. They were 18 years old. They were told they would not be called up until they were aged 19. Class 2 was for those born in 1896, Class 3 for 1895 and so on up to Class 23 for those born in 1875.

A Public Proclamation was placed in prominent spots, advising the public the date on which a particular Class would begin call up. This was deemed to be sufficient notice, but in additional generally each man received an individual notice. It was the individual’s responsibility to be alert to such notices and to report himself for duty. There were penalties for not reporting and for inducing or assisting a reservist to absent himself.

Discharges of “time expired” men halted

On 27 May 1916 the War Office sent a telegram that rippled down and soon became Routine Orders in the divisions. It confirmed that in consequence of the Military Service Act having received Royal Assent, no soldier of the regular army or Territorial Force would now be discharged at the completion of their term of engagement unless they had served for a period of 12 years or more, together with the extra year they were liable to under Section 87 of the Army Act, and had also reached the age of 41.

“Straford Herald” (Courtesy of Stratford Library). An example, illustrating the fact that if the men did not report for his mobilisation as ordered, procedures commenced that may have resulted in his arrest and imprisonment.

Extension of the Act


A soldier’s life


Group Scheme

Procedure for call up under the Military Service Act