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My Dad’s at the Front; Where’s yours?

The early military actions in 1914, at Mons, on the Marne and at Ypres, left the opposing sides facing the stark prospect that this would be a war with no quick and decisive victory. Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, appointed Secretary of State for War on 6 August, knew that the British Expeditionary Force, highly skilled but numbering only 247,000 men, would eventually be overwhelmed by German forces. Predicting that a large-scale mobilisation of men would be necessary, he undertook to increase the army by half a million men. Unlike other European powers, Britain did not conscript men into the military and Kitchener launched the first of five appeals for 100,000 men to voluntarily enlist.

So ensued a nationwide recruitment drive involving countless persuasive posters and the influential weight of the press with any hint of dissension firmly eradicated by the censor. The ILN magazines were consciously active participants in this drive. Cartoons, illustrations and photographs celebrated those who had joined up and lampooned and criticised those who had not, branding them “nuts”, loafers and shirkers. Those who spoke out against the war were dismissed as “peace cranks”, while the Germans were depicted as monstrous barbarians, or simply ridiculed.

Recruitment offices were overwhelmed in the early weeks. New recruits trained and drilled in city parks and squares, and were accommodated in makeshift camps, sleeping in tents even in the depths of winter. As supplies struggled to keep up with demand, many men were dressed in basic serge uniforms of “Kitchener blue”.

The initial rush to enlist slowed, though there were spikes after outraged reporting on such incidents as the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 and the German execution of British nurse Edith Cavell in October that year. In autumn 1915, Lord Derby, Director-General of Recruiting, launched a scheme to encourage those who had still not joined up, asking them to “attest” (confirm a willingness to enlist if called upon) by 15 December. He also encouraged men from the same area or workplace to enlist together in “Pals” battalions. The Derby Scheme had limited success and in April 1916 full-scale conscription for all men of military age (18-40) was introduced.