Matthew Hendley | “‘Help us to Secure a Strong, Healthy, Prosperous and Peaceful Britain’: The Social Arguments of the Campaign for Compulsory Military Service in Britain, 1899-1914” | 2001

William Le Quex The Invasion of 1910

Image from William Le Quex’s anti-German invasion fantasy The Invasion of 1910 (1906), a phenomenal bestseller.
“COPY OF THE ‘DAILY BULLETIN’ OF THE LEAGUE OF DEFENDERS. […] Those chosen knew that their last hour had come. Some clasped their hands and fell upon their knees, imploring pity, while others remained silent and stubborn patriots.”

Summary: The National Service League was a pressure group which argued the case for compulsory military service in Britain between 1899-1914. Initial impetus for its creation was Boer War. Concerns over British military strength, and existing schemes of recruitment, led to creation in 1902. Social arguments linking conscription to health Britain grew from fears of physical deterioration which arose from Boer War. Before 1906, National Service League pamphlets and speeches pointed to Germany as model nation combining compulsory military service with social reform. British conscription movement insisted conscription was not a departure from peaceful British traditions. Switzerland pointed to as model society.

Of all major industrialized nations of Europe before 1914, only Britain without some system of compulsory military service.

National Service League pamphlet, 1909: “Help us to secure a strong, healthy, prosperous and peaceful Britain.” Called on British citizens to join conscription movement in a wide reaching scheme which would have a variety of benefits for the nation.

This essay will examine how the conscriptionists tried to widen the scope of their appeal.


It is impossible to understand the mentality and development of the conscription movement without realizing how deeply its members were shaken by the Boer War. The Boer War’s initial setback, “Black Week” in December 1899, saw over 700 British casualties, 3 thousand wounded. Perspective: in the half century since the Indian mutiny, only twice had the British lost more than 100 men in battle.

Public reaction led to major efforts to strengthen British forces in South Africa. Also, ad hoc groups privately formed. Popular among public, criticized by military. Ex., The Imperial Yeomanry. More exclusive “gentleman corps.”

1900, Imminent Danger Act, broadened terms of service, allowed Volunteer units to be called up to positions outside UK.

Enlistment strategy changed: now, recruitment techniques like military tournament in Manchester, “Recruitograph” in London showing conditions of life in the army, new posters to make army life seem as attractive as possible. Old techniques, pre-1870: ALCOHOL and enlistment bounties. [Drink.]

First book arguing for compulsory military service = George F. Shee, self-proclaimed Liberal Imperialist, 1901, The Briton’s First Duty. Advocated raising home defense army, w/duty abroad still voluntary.

1902, National Service League founded to spread idea of compulsory service. Slow growth. At Boer War end, had 400 members. 1903-5, annual membership up 555 per year. Within two years, members included Field Marshal Lord Wolseley, Rudyard Kipling, Admiral Lord Charles Beresford.


Some of the most interesting literature to emerge from the conscription movement originates from its efforts to link compulsory military service to the health of the nation. High level of Boer War recruit rejection –> fears of physical degeneration. Conscriptionists addressed this.

1899, 32.9% recruits who were medically inspected were rejected as unfit. 1900, 28%. 1901, 29.04%.

Professor Ogston, presenting evidence to the Elgin Commission: “physically very inferior and more liable to disease– boys and weeds.” [Again, see Gardening, shears, pruning discourse.]

For conscriptionists, national efficiency and military strength were closely linked. Historian Bentley B. Gilbert wrote, “Usually national efficiency meant above all, physical efficiency.” [se “Health and Politics: The British Physical Deterioration Report of 1904,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. XXXIX (1965), p. 143.

Discussions of national efficiency almost always accompanied by reflections on its related scourge, “physical deterioration.” 

“Physical deterioration” meant two things.  1) physical term meaning roughly the opposite of “health” 2) moral connotation, inviting comparison to pre-industrial sturdiness, reflecting pathogenicity of urban environment, and the effect of deterioration on the relative position of Britain in the international sphere.

Social Darwinism prevalence linked health of individuals to national strength. [For an excellent discussion of the full implications of Social Darwinism across the ideological spectrum in Britain, Hendley recommends Greta Jones, Social Darwinism and English Thought]

Military recruiting entered debate over physical inefficiency in January 1902, w/famous article by Brevet Major Frederick Maurice (pseudonym “Miles”), Contemporary Review, “Where to Get Men.” He wrote, problem was not shortage of men, but poor physical condition. “Out of every five men willing to enlist only two are fit to become soldiers.” A year later, he wrote “National Health: A Soldier’s Study,” enumerating factors preventing creation of “effective soldier.” Heart weakness, lung troubles, rheumatism, flat feet, bad teeth. He made call for exhaustive investigation regarding physical deterioration. Those thoughts echoed by an army memorandum, April 2, 1903, SIr William Taylor, the Director-General of Army Medical Services, which called for commission to gather information “as to [the] causes of physical deficiency and as to the best available methods for remedying defects and improving national health.” Memorandum was referred to by Lord Meath in House of Lords, July 6, 1903, helped lead to formation of Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration on September 3, 1903.

Committee found that physical degeneration was not widespread. Argued that military recruiting statistics defined working class, and fitness, way too loosely. Significance, as Gilbert noted: it made the first “connection between evil environmental conditions in the slums and national securiy. An unhealthy citizenry meant declining national power.”

Committee recommended three things, which conscriptionists would echo. 1) anthropomorphic survey to collect data bearing on physical condition of population. 2) some form of training, to improve physical condition of population, though it denied need for “any suggestion of compulsory military service.” 3) Raised spectre of government coercion in the form of labour colonies as the key to improving behavior and thus lessening poverty caused by moral turpitude.

The conscriptionist argument in favor of improving the nation’s health had three general components. 1) In the absence of wide-ranging statistics on the nation’s health, the system of compulsory service would enable the army to become the record keeper of the nation’s physique. 2) Physical military training as antidote to physical deterioration. 3) Compulsory military service as necessary first step toward comprehensive social reform. These ideas prominent after Boer War, peaking around 1906, began to fade w/invasion scares of 1908-9.

George F. Shee, The Briton’s First Duty, 1901. Sharply contrasted Germany’s fit conscripts w/Briton’s sorry volunteers. Described many Britons as: “none of these would be considered fit for service in any of the Continental armies.” A German medical authority claimed that no recruit weighing less than 9 stone, 6.15 lbs. (60 kg.) would be accepted for the Kaiser’s army. Shee: such a figure “would have excluded more than half the recruits enlisted in the British army in 1898.” Did not bode well. Shee: The physique of the infantry was not up to the “standard of our race” and without remedial measures “it will sink lower and lower.”

Many conscriptionists looked to example of Germany for political, social, military system. Ex, Thomas Coghlan Horsfall, The Improvements of the Dwellings and Surroundings of the People: The Example of Germany (1904), National Service and the Welfare of the Community (1906). Praised German planning. German streets free of the “undersized, ill-developed, sickly looking people” one saw in poor districts of London, Manchester, Liverpool. British working class habits like betting, drunkenness [drink] comparatively rarer among Germans.

Horsfall, 1906, published under auspices of National Service League, National Service and the Welfare of the Community. Contrasted German w/British social systems. Pointed to large difference in drunkenness between Britain and Germany. Horsfall believe Germans and Swiss “keep those [lower] classes fit for military purposes.” Conscription instilled patriotism in upper classes, making them more willing to sacrifice. He believed conscription would lead to physical (and political) regeneration of Britain. Plus national solidarity w/class mixture in military.

Horsfall came under criticism. He overlooked upper class fear of democratization, needs of lower classes. Unbalanced portrayal of Germany. Etc.

1908-9, fear of invasion pushed aside social reform among chief concerns of the National Service League. References to social reform never completely went away, however. By 1912, social reform had lost its urgency for conscriptionists.


Summary: it is strange that conscriptionists ever tried to link conscription with national efficiency and health. Britons were used to free trade, volnteer army. Conscription smacked of militarism, and government interference with natural economic cycles. So conscriptionists changed tactics, tied their program to greater overall efficiency in economy, which would improve national performance.

Here article discusses some counterarguments to conscriptionists.


Another counterargument discussed: the claim that conscriptionists were militaristic. Fears of Germanizing Britain.

It wasn’t until January 1916, in midst of WWI, that British government felt secure enough to pass legislation making some form of limited conscription a reality. Public fear over invasion was finally enough to trump counterarguments.


Fear of invasion was the trump card of the conscription movement. Not health, prosperity, or counterintuitive slogan “peacefulness.” Strongest response came from graphically portraying the threat that invasion represented. National Service League supported books like William Le Quex’s Invasion of 1910 (1906), sponsored their own play, B.S. Townroe’s A Nation in Arms (1909). [For Le Quex discussion see Stafford, “Conspiracy and Xenophobia.” For invasion plays see Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind.]

Of course, conscriptionists had other arguments, aside from invasion rhetoric, & national efficiency argument. The point is they tried to use them all.


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