The debate in the House of Commons had raged for several weeks. The failures of the coalition government of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith – Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, the failure of the British offensives of the fall of 1915, and a shortage of munitions in the spring of the same year – had been thrown at the PM’s feet. The conservatives in Asquith’s coalition had begun calling for his head, as men he had dismissed from the War Cabinet, like Churchill and Lord Kitchener, attempted to speak directly to the public about what they deemed the PM’s lapses in judgement.
The measure before the House of Commons had been intended to blunt such criticisms. It was a measure Asquith had fought against, both publicly and privately within the War Cabinet. Asquith had tried for months to stall such a vote, commissioning studies in the vain hope of proving it unnecessary. Instead, Asquith’s commissions had proven the opposite. Placed between his principles and his ability to prosecute the war, Asquith chose the war.
The vote wasn’t even close. By a margin of 383 to 36, the Military Service Act of 1916 passed on January 27th. The proud tradition of the small, professional British Army had vanished. Britain had joined the rest of Europe in embracing conscription.
Since the Battle of the Marne in the fall of 1914, most British authorities – both civilian and military – had understood that the British system of volunteerism had reached its logical limitations in a modern war. The only question was the best way forward. Continue reading