Rallying Recruits

Event at Town Hall, c.1910
Jon Mein

Voluntary recruitment in St Albans, 1914-16

One of the most remarkable facts about the First World War is that around two and a half million men voluntarily enlisted in the British Army during the first 19 months of the war – that is between August 1914 and February 1916.

Dig deeper though and the recruitment statistics reveal a complex story. Locally and nationally, there was no rush to the Colours when war was declared on 4 August. The St Albans District Recruiting Office opened in St Peter’s Street on 11 August 1914 but by the end of that first month fewer than 100 men had enlisted out of a population of around 5,000 men potentially eligible for military service in the district.

If there was a period of enthusiasm it was in the first two weeks of September 1914. About one third of the men who enlisted voluntarily in the Army at the local recruiting office between August 1914 and 1915 did so during this fortnight.

This spike in numbers was due in part to the late August battering the British army had apparently suffered during the retreat from Mons in northern France, as reported in detail in The Times newspaper. This described the dominance of the German Army and the beleaguered British in retreat. The report came as a shock to the country as a whole and it seems this was the catalyst for the surge in recruitment.

At this time we get more of a feeling for the enthusiasm to enlist from the recruitment figures published in the Herts Advertiser, stating that in the first week of September the St Albans office enlisted a further 214 men. A week later a further 224 enlisted, making 538 in just a fortnight.

But to ascribe the spike simply to the Army’s problems at Mons is perhaps a limited view. Halfway through this busy fortnight, on Friday 4 September, a large recruitment rally was held in St Peter’s Street – right in front of the Town Hall.

An eyewitness report by a Herts Advertiser journalist described it as a ‘mass meeting’, though we don’t know how many attended. He reported that: “Loud applause greeted each young fellow as he made his way across the open space kept clear by several companies of soldiers”.

This description of an open arena, which the prospective recruits had to cross, is reminiscent of the format used for large Temperance gatherings in St Albans in the early 1880s when people were encouraged to cross a large open space to sign the Temperance pledge (to give up alcohol), and were loudly acclaimed for doing so by hundreds of bystanders.

The only difference in 1914 was that the men didn’t sign a pledge which they could afterwards renege upon; instead they enlisted into the Army from which there was no backtracking. That these rallies had overtones of English religious revivalism was deliberate. One of the most successful recruiting officers, John Coulson Kernahan, a former pupil at St Albans School, observed that this was necessary to bring the crowd to fever pitch and drive men to do something they would not do otherwise.

Speeches at the September rally were recorded in great depth by the Herts Advertiser and varied in their subject matter. To modern eyes, the most successful were those describing the problems in France, a rational argument, and also those which played on the emotions of those attending.

German atrocities committed on Belgian civilians, some fact, others fiction, were described at length. Speakers linked the burning of the medieval library in Louvain with the fact that the medieval cathedral city of St Albans was little more than 100 miles from the front.

The 4 September rally in St Albans marked the high point in voluntary recruitment in the city. Within a week, the numbers declined as indeed they did nationally – a trend that an increasingly sophisticated marketing campaign failed to reverse.

In August 1915, only 54 men volunteered at the St Peter’s Street office. Desperate for more men, within six months the Government had introduced conscription: all men of military age not already serving or otherwise exempt were deemed to have enlisted.

This article was originally published in October 2014 in the Herts Advertiser newspaper in a series of articles contributed by members of the SAHAAS Home Front research group. We are grateful to the newspaper’s editor for his permission to republish it here.