Military tribunals during World War 1
Guest post by Robbie Mitchell, Enquiries Assistant.
Following on from the previous post on conscientious objectors, this post provides more details on the military tribunals that many of these men had to face.
The records of the Military Service Tribunal system in Scotland – established after the Military Service Act 1916 introduced mandatory conscription – offer detailed evidence of those who objected to conscription into the armed services, whether that was on grounds of health, occupation, hardship or conscientious objection. The Military Service Act required all adult males, aged 18-41, to register for military service unless they possessed a certificate of exemption; however, by April 1918 the age range was extended, meaning men aged from 17 to 55 could be called up, and so exemptions were further restricted.
Some of the objections come from employers appealing for exemption on behalf of their employees, but they had to obtain conditional exemption to avoid service; for example, you might get exemption from a Local Tribunal which could be overturned by a National Tribunal. Most famous of those who objected to conscription were those conscientious objectors – there were 16,500 such registered conscientious objectors during the War; for example, the future Secretary of State for Scotland, Arthur Woodburn – who donated his collection of Soviet posters and ephemera to this library - was one such objector who would be imprisoned for his refusal to serve in the military. Another example was Arthur Naysmith, a Postman from Musselburgh, whose objection was refused and who reacted so angrily to the ruling that one of the Tribunal opined, “This man would make a splendid soldier. He has a fine physique and just wants the nonsense knocked out of him”!
There is an online guide available to the records of the Military Service Tribunals that are held by the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. It includes links to examples of some of the Tribunal proceedings and testimonies. The National Library of Scotland also holds a copy of a recently published book on the subject. James McDermott’s ‘British Military Service Tribunals, 1916-1918: ‘A very much abused body of men’ (2011) provides an in-depth history of these events.