Enlisting into the army

The expansion of the British Army from the small professional force to a vast citizen army, capable of defeating the world’s most formidable military machine, was a truly extraordinary national achievement. How was it done? What can you learn about the way your soldier joined up?

Recruits having their service uniforms fitted. Probably taken 1917. Imperial War Museum image Q30069.
Recruits having their service uniforms fitted. Probably taken 1917. Imperial War Museum image Q30069.

Types of service available: up to the declaration of war

Since 1908 the British Army had offered four forms of recruitment. A man could join the army as a professional soldier of the regular army or as a part-time member of the Territorial Force or as a soldier of the Special Reserve. Finally there was the opportunity to join the National Reserve. There was a long-running battle, with politicians and military men taking both sides, about whether Britain should have a system of national conscripted service. By 1914 this had not come about and Britain’s army was entirely voluntary.

Regular army

A man wishing to join the army could do so providing he passed certain physical tests and was willing to enlist for a number of years. The recruit had to be taller than 5 feet 3 inches and aged between 18 and 38 (although he could not be sent overseas until he was aged 19). He would join at the Regimental Depot or at one of its normal recruiting offices. The man had a choice over the regiment he was assigned to. He would join the army for twelve years, typically for a period of 7 years full time service with the colours, to be followed by another 5 in the Army Reserve. (These terms were for infantry: the other arms had slightly different ones- for example, in the Royal Field Artillery it was for 6 years plus 6 – although there were variations and changes at times). When war was declared there were 350,000 former soldiers on the Army Reserve, ready to be called back to fill the establishment of their regiments.

Special Reserve

The Special Reserve provided a form of part-time military service. It was introduced in 1908 as a means of building up a pool of trained reservists in addition to those of the regular Army Reserve. Special Reservists enlisted for 6 years and had to accept the possibility of being called up in the event of a general mobilisation and to undergo all the same conditions as men of the Army Reserve. This meant that it differed from the Territorial Force (below) in that the men could be sent overseas. Their period as a Special Reservist started with five months full-time preliminary training (paid the same as a regular) and they had 3-4 weeks training per year thereafter. A man could extend his SR service by up to four years, but could not serve beyond the age of 40. A former regular soldier whose period of Army Reserve obligation had been completed could also re-enlist as a Special Reservist and serve up to the age of 42.

Territorial Force

The Territorial Force came into existence in April 1908 as a result of the reorganisation of the former militia and other volunteer units (the Haldane Reforms). It provided an opportunity for men to join the army on a part-time basis. Territorial units of most infantry regiments and of each of the Corps (Artillery, Engineers, Medical, Service and Ordnance) were formed. For example, most county regiments of the infantry formed two Territorial battalions. These units were recruited locally and became more recognised and supported by the local community than the regulars. Recruits had a choice of regiment, but naturally the local nature of the TF meant that in general the man joined his home unit. The TF County Associations, the administration of the local TF, were planned to be a medium by which the army could be expanded in wartime. Men trained at weekends or in the evenings and went away to a summer camp. Territorials were not obliged to serve overseas, but were enlisted on the basis that in the event of war they could be called upon for full-time service (“embodied”). The physical criteria for joining the Terriers was the same as for the Regular army but the lower age limit was 17.

National Reserve

See our page on Reserves

Types of service available: from August 1914 to the introduction of the Group Scheme

On his appointment as Secretary of State for War shortly after the declaration of the war, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener issued a call for volunteers to increase the size of the army. He did not believe that the Territorial Force was an appropriate structure for doing this. The public response to Kitchener’s appeal was rapid and at times overwhelming but soon died down to average only 100,000 men per month. Steps soon had to be taken to encourage further enlistment.

Regular army

It was still possible to enlist into the regular army on standard terms, usually twelve years as described above, throughout the war. In addition to this, on Lord Kitchener’s instructions in August 1914 a new form of “short service” was introduced, under which a man could serve for “three years or the duration of the war, whichever the longer”. Men joining on this basis, including all of “Kitchener’s Army” and the “Pals” units were technically of the regular army and were serving on this basis.

A call to arms

The wartime volunteers continued to have, in theory at least, a choice over the regiment they joined. They had to meet the same physical criteria as the peace time regulars, but men who had previously served in the army would now be accepted up to the age of 45. There are many recorded instances of underage and indeed overage men being accepted into the service. It was not necessary to produce evidence of age or even of one’s name in order to enlist.

Recruitment by Political Recruitment Agencies

Special Reserve

Enlistment into the Special Reserve remained open. The SR was mobilised in August 1914 and its men were on full-time service.

Territorial Force

Enlistment into the TF remained open. The TF was mobilised in August 1914 and its men were on full-time service (“embodied”). Men joining from September 1914 were expected to sign the “Imperial Service Obligation”, which gave the army powers to send them overseas or transfer them to a different TF unit if required.

Fall in

The Group Scheme (or “Derby Scheme”)

By spring 1915 it had become clear that voluntary recruitment was not going to provide the numbers of men required for the continued prosection of the expanding war. The Government passed the National Registration Act on 15 July 1915 as a step towards stimulating recruitment and to discover how many men between the ages of 15 and 65 were engaged in each trade. The results of this census became available by mid-September 1915.

National registration

On 11 October 1915, Lord Derby – who had played a major part in raising volunteers, especially for the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment – was appointed Director-General of Recruiting. He brought forward a scheme five days later, often called the Derby Scheme although officially it wa sthe Group Scheme, for raising the numbers. It was half-way to conscription.

See our detailed page on the Group Scheme (Derby Scheme)


What type of recruit was your soldier? When and how did he join? If you need help, contact us at fourteeneighteen|research

The Military Service Act 1916

Disappointed at the results of the Derby Scheme, the Government introduced the Military Service Act on 27 January 1916. All voluntary enlistment was stopped. All British males were now deemed to have enlisted on 2 March 1916 – that is, they were conscripted – if they were aged between 19 and 41 and resided in Great Britain (excluding Ireland) and were unmarried or a widower on 2 November 1915. Conscripted men were no longer given a choice of which service, regiment or unit they joined, although if a man preferred the navy it got priority to take him. This act was extended to married men, and the lower age dropped to 18, on 25 May 1916.

This was not the first time in British histiory that there had been compulosry military servic but it was the first time that it was universally applied (except for Ireland).

See our detailed page on the Military Service Act

A system of appeals tribunals was established, to hear cases of men who believed they were disqualified on the grounds of ill-health, occupation or conscientious objection. Some trades were deemed to be vital to the war economy: the were called starred occupations

The Act initially failed to deliver: only 43,000 of the men called up qualified for general service in the army. Another 93,000 failed to appear when called up, filling the courts. 748,587 men claimed some form of exemption, filling the tribunals. In addition were the 1,433,827 already starred as being in a war occupation, or those who were ill or who had already been discharged on these grounds. The manpower of the army never caught up with its planned establishment.

From September 1916, men called up were first assigned to a unit of the Training Reserve. It had been found that the traditional regimental means of training was not keeping up with the flood of men coming through, and the TR was established as a means of doing so.

See our detailed page on the Training Reserve

A further extension of the Military Service Act on 10 April 1918, followed a serious political crisis concerning the provision of manpower – which along with a large extension of the British section of the Western Front, was cited as a prime cause of the defeat of the Fifth Army in March 1918. This act reduced the maximum age of recruitment to 50 and allowe soldiers aged 18 years and 6 months to be sent overseas as long as they had had six months training..

The introduction of conscription made it very much more difficult for a recruit to falsify his age and name.

Conscription ceased on 11 November 1918 and all conscripts were discharged, if they had not already been so, on 31 March 1920.

Re-enlistment and post-war incentives

Faced with the need to demobilise and get industries back to work, but at the same time still being involved in conflict in North Russia, a difficult situation in Ireland and with new garrisons to man in the old Empire, Palestine and Germany, the government offered incentives for re-enlistment.

See our detailed page on the incentivised re-enlistment


“Did you receive a Notice?”

Instructions for the physical examination of recruits