David Silbey | “Bodies and Cultures Collide: Enlistment, the Medical Exam, and the British Working Class, 1914-1916” | 2004


Article examines the military medical exam which working class volunteers underwent in the years 1914-16. The wave of enlistees at the beginning of the First World War brought the physical results of the Industrial Revolution home to doctors, the Army, and the British government in general. In a Social Darwinist age, the vision of malnourishment and physical stunting coexisted uneasily with the apparent zeal of the rush to colours of so many workers. But it was more than that. The medical exam was also an encounter for the working-class volunteers. It was, in fact, a gateway for them, in which they were measured and found either worthy of service, or wanting. Working-class volunteers fought to get into the military despite not meeting the minimal physical requirements, and Army doctors cooperated with them and even helped them subvert those physical requirements. It was thus not only a cultural confrontation for both sides, permeated by Social Darwinist attitudes that confused physical stature with moral ardor, but a moment of co-operation and negotiation between doctors and enlistees, with the careful veneer of medical science camouflaging them.”

Article structure:

Encounters and Infirmities


The War Starts

The Medical Exam During the Rush to Colours

The War Office Stems the Flow

The Creation of the “Shirkers”


Encounters and Infirmities 

During Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), wave of working-class volunteers sought to join British Army. Measured, weighed, found to be malnourished, unthrifty, stunted by experience of living and working in an industrialized economy. Provoked wave of dismay for upper-class British, worried for Darwinian fitness of race. Result: “quest for national efficiency,” with centerpiece = effort to improve health of working class. [See the Drink question in this context. See G.R. Searle, The Quest for National Efficiency: A Study in British Politics and Political Thought]

Prevailing notion that “population is power,” w/best way to test and demonstrate fitness = war. A time when Wyndham Lewis could declare “killing somebody must be the greatest pleasure in existence,” and be seen as a leader of avant-garde. War as apex of that thinking, w/human as Homo pugnax, physically verily evolution of Homo sapiens. War also seen as “well-managed pruning shears,” trimming all that was weak and unthrifty from the racial tree. [See C. Eby, Road to Armageddon, 1987, p. 2.] [See also Gardening. See also This Happy Breed, garden scene and offscreen violence, the car accident. See Lean and Gardening]

Medical exams confirmed post-Boer War fears that after a generation of factory work, working-class was underdeveloped. Allies and enemies seemed much healthier.

This article will now look at the experience of working-class volunteers taking medical examinations from 1914-16. It will look at how medical practitioners and working class volunteers came to conflate the moral and the physical.


One recruiter, S.T. Beggs, kept unofficial stats from 1909-1914. Between Beggs and the medical officers, of 1766 volunteers, rejection rate was 48 percent. Officers made moral judgments, often favoring rural workers. Beggs believed the “simplicity of country life” produced good results, and the urban environment “degeneracy.”

The War Starts

Both doctors and volunteers paid tribute to the image of the medical exam as impartial test of man’s capability. Both manipulated and subverted the exams’ intent to their own interests, but adhered to the form.

When war started, 1914, recruiting system seriously strained by wave of volunteers. Staggering rush to colours.

The Medical Exam During the Rush to Colours

Most enlistees received some form of medical exam, even if minimal. One example, Thomas Edmed, working class, recalled: “doctor gave us a medical exam by pressing his head against their chest and then saying, ‘Now, go and kill Germans.'”

Doctors paid “capitation fee” for each recruit who passed. Not paid for fails. Working class volunteers aggressively maneuvered around the exam, with doctors eager to help.

The War Office often issued “contradictory orders” about exactly what constituted a physical condition worthy of rejection. March 1915, Army Council recognized the problem, worked out consistent standards.

Many enlistees actually had serious medical problems, but were admitted anyway.

The War Office Stems the Flow

September 11, 1914, Secretary of War, Herbert Kitchener, raised physical standards for recruits. Most important, minimum height raised to 5’6″ from 5’3″. Effect was a message to the working class: You are no longer needed. Enlistment plummeted. Hadn’t 5’3″ been enough for those who had already fought and died?

The Creation of the “Shirkers”

In 1915, medical misapprehension led to moral condemnation. Government came to associate physical failings with failings of will.

Rejection rate, 1915: between 22.5 and 25 percent. Higher rejection rate in lower classes, probably between 30-35 percent. Middle and upper classes 5-10 percent. War Office assumed it was equal across classes.

Government assumed moral failing of those not enlisting. [Similar response to venereal disease, see E.H. Beardsley, “Allied against sin: American and British responses to venereal disease in World War I.”] “Shirkers” who avoided military service. Kitchener believed they were unmarried, working class men, “unmarried loafers.” In reality, shirkers were “unfit” men with “marked” or “partial” disabilities.


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