Verses From The First World War: Conscription

Published in Solidarity 396, 2 March 2016.

One hundred years ago this week, conscription came into force in Britain. The Military Service Act placed men between 18 and 41 years of age into the army reserve unless they were married (this exemption was removed later in 1916), widowed with children, serving in the Royal Navy, a minister of religion, or working in a “reserved occupation”. The initial rush of volunteers had dried up by this time, and while poverty continued to make signing up as a soldier an attractive option for some men, recruits were being killed at a faster rate than they could be replaced. These three poems were published in socialist weekly The Herald during 1916.

S Gertrude Ford’s poem, The Unfit, addressed the fact that many men previously certified as unfit were being conscripted. One example was a man whose doctor wrote that his heart was probably “give out” on his first route march. He was not exempted. Ford was an active feminist, whose poetry appeared in the Poetry Review and other publications, as well as in books including A Fight to a Finish and Other Songs of Peace Sung in War Time.

The Unfit

Can they fight for us? The ranks scarce know them,
Battle knows not, ere they fall and faint. Yet at home they fought indeed out battle,
Warred with famine’s pest and fever’s taint; Held at bay the wolf that slays the children,
Life of England’s life, her very breath; Served and shielded us and saved us living –
Now they die; what profit in their death? Still, we “comb” (the nobler words have perished, “Rallying,” “mustering,” with the nobler aim) Weaklings from the work the weakest treasured;
Still on us the crime is and the shame; Say not that their doom is unregarded!
One regards the wrong He shall requite. Fear Him! When He maketh inquisition
Precious shall their blood be in His sight. O my England! I, thy child and lover,
Hear, in winds through woods grown sore and sad, Evermore a knell, a word of warning — “Whom the gods destroy they first make mad” So the Doom found out the elder nations,
Frenzied ere their failure, one and all; Shadowed in their sunset. Rouse thee, Engalnd,
Lest on thee, thee too, the shadow fall!

One of the grounds on which a man could claim exemption was that he was carrying out “work of national importance”. In this poem, C E Maurice urges the Tribunals to define this term very broadly, to the point of counterposing positive, life-improving labours to the destructiveness of war. C E Maurice was Charles Edward, biographer of social reformer Octavia Hall and son of the nineteenth-century leading Christian socialist Frederick Denison Maurice.

Work of National Importance

A Suggestion for Certain Committees

What can help the Nation’s weal, Marred by fire and hate and steel?
What the tasks they can fulfil, Who would save, and may not kill?
All that strengthens heart and hand; All that makes a nobler land; All that stirs the mind of youth
To new hopes for light and truth; All that cleanses Britain’s air From foul fogs that breed despair; All that rescues each man’s life
From the pains of useless strife; All that calls each human heart
To be worthy of its part;
These are works that build a State;
Then come nations wise and great.

Dora Sigerson Shorter was an Irish poet (and sculptor) who was 49 and living in London when conscription began. She was a prominent figure in the Irish literary revival of the late nineteenth century. Although the 1916 Military Service Act did not apply to Ireland, this poem addresses the fear that it may be extended there. The Kathleen ni-Houlihan named in the refrain line is a mythical figure representing Ireland personified as a woman. The government went on to attempt to conscript Irish men in 1918, but failed due to mass resistance.


There is a shadow on the head I love,
There is a danger lurks thy path upon,
It murmurs low as coos the mating dove,
It calls in grey and gathered clouds above,
For thee, for thee, Kathleen ni-Houlihan.

It hides in seas that beat about thy shores,
The wind in passing whispers and is gone,
And the brown leaf no summer will restore,
Flutters this cry on Winter’s russet floor,
Danger to thee, Kathleen ni-Houlihan.

God of the seas disperse the gathered gloom,
God of the skies smile her sweet path upon,
God of the earth this danger swift entomb,
Slay the wild beast that creeps to bring her doom.

Save her, save her, Kathleen ni-Houlihan!

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