MUCH debate in the Craven Herald in the early weeks of 1916 focussed on the Asquith government's plan to introduce conscription to compensate for the reduced number of men volunteering to serve on the Western Front. It led to the introduction of the Military Service Act in March 1916.

It had not taken long for the powers-that-be to realise that it was not possible to continue to be engaged in the First World War by relying on voluntary recruits even though millions of men had volunteered to serve in the British armed forces during the first two years of the war.

By January 1915, six months into the conflict, more than one million men had enlisted, encouraged by Lord Kitchener's campaign promoted by his famous Your Country Needs You poster. Fantastic as this seems, it was not enough to keep pace with the mounting casualties.

The plan to send out "call-up" papers deeply divided Parliament but the government saw no alternative especially in the face of the imminent collapse of the morale of the French army. So, in March 1916, the Military Service Act was passed.

This imposed conscription on all single men aged between 18 and 41, but exempted the medically unfit, clergymen, teachers and certain classes of industrial worker.

Conscientious objectors – men who were against fighting on moral grounds – were also exempted and were in most cases given civilian jobs or non-fighting roles at the front. A second Act passed in May 1916 extended conscription to married men.

There was opportunity to win exemption from service by appealing to a military tribunal, but it was necessary to convince the board your civilian work was vital in helping win the war. Exemption from service was usually conditional or temporary. Few people were successful.

Quakers were exempt from carrying firearms because of their religious ethos but many volunteered to become stretcher bearers whose chances of being killed were in many cases equal to the fighting troops.

Conscription was not popular and, in April 1916, more than 200,000 people demonstrated against it in Trafalgar Square. Many men who got their call up papers just failed to turn up but despite this 1.1 million enlisted in the first year of conscription.

On January 21, 1916, the Craven Herald set out its own case in supporting the bill then going through Parliament.

It accused objectors of "gathering in battle array round the shirkers and the shirkers only banner under which they fight was the Kaiser's banner."

The editor wrote: “The problem which the bill is designed to solve is quite simple. Our soldiers in the trenches have performed miracles of heroism and endurance. They are pitted against the toughest and the best organised foe that British manhood has ever had to meet.

"The nation is determined that the splendid efforts and unexampled sacrifices of our men and our woman shall not fail, and in order to put failure beyond the bounds of practical likelihood a considerable augmentation of the great forces already raised by the country is imperatively necessary.

"On that point we have the clear statements of Mr Asquith and Lord Kitchener. We cannot get this augmentation of numbers unless we call a great additional levy of married men to the Colours.

"In no case should it be fair and just to demand that these men should leave their home and jeopardise the future of their wives and children, while a considerable body of single men refuse to do their duty in the great emergency and resolve to remain in safety and profit by the employment which married recruits would vacate.

"And in order to make a fair appeal to the married men from whom self-sacrifice is demanded, Mr Asquith gave an explicit undertaking, on behalf of the Government, that the single men would be compelled, if the need arose owning to the backwardness of a proportion of them, to take their place in the ranks before the married men were summoned from home. The bill is a redemption of the Prime Minister’s pledge.

"The only just and honourable alternative is to release the attested married men from their obligation, sacrifice everything for the shirkers, throw an enormous further burden on the patriotic men now fighting our battles and subject them to jeopardy of defeat even when they have borne the strain of endurance and tenacity to the extreme limit of human power.

"Every objection to the Bill put forward with a semblance of reason has been eliminated."

Men or employers who objected to an individual's call-up could apply to a local Military Service Tribunal. These bodies could grant exemption from service, usually conditional or temporary. There was right of appeal to a County Appeal Tribunal.

In 1918 during the last months of the war, the Military Service (No. 2) Act raised the age limit to 51.

Conscription was extended until 1920 to enable the army to deal with continuing trouble spots in the Empire and parts of Europe.