The Police as Ploughmen

Serious recognition was only given to Britain’s food crisis around September 1916, when an increasing number of ships carrying food supplies to Britain were sunk by German submarines.    From 1913 Britain was importing around 81% of its wheat supplies with 36 million acres of British farmland devoted to livestock and only 3 million acres to crops such as grain and potatoes. From around this date, farmers produced all the nation’s milk and three-fifths of the meat, but only one-fifth of the bread, a staple foodstuff for the lower classes. Further adding to the country’s worries in the autumn of 1916 was the poor harvest worldwide, so that imports of grain ceased, and Britain only had sufficient stocks to last for 4 months normal consumption. The British potato crop, another staple item of diet, also became diseased and rotted in the ground due to the bad weather. A manpower crisis had also developed in British agriculture. Up to December 1916 the focus under the Asquith government had been on the increasing need to recruit sufficient soldiers and sailors to fight the war, so that agriculture lost many of its fit young skilled labour. This loss of men from the land began to be recognised in autumn 1915 when protection was given to skilled farm workers who were given the status of indispensable civilian workers, not to be called up into the armed forces, although they could volunteer and would then be placed on a waiting list. However, by late 1916 with the army’s continuing need to recruit more men to fight, fit young farm workers were being specifically targeted by...

David Littlewood, Military Service Tribunals and Boards in the Great War: Determining the Fate of Britain’s and New Zealand’s Conscripts, Abingdon: Routledge, 2017.

In this new book, David Littlewood, takes the story of the First World War Military Tribunal beyond Britain’s borders to their role in New Zealand. On 7 October 1916, Albert Walker, a blanket raiser from Dewsbury, explained why he should be exempted from conscription into the British Army. He was the sole support of his father, who had been injured in a textile mill accident, and a sister who looked after the family home. Three of his brothers were serving with the forces and two others had recently been called up. In view of this precarious domestic situation, and the sacrifices made by his family, Walker was granted a conditional exemption. Seven months later, Charles Sneddon made a similar plea at Hawera in New Zealand. As well as owning an 897-acre farm, he was working his father’s property 12 miles away, which carried 400 breeding ewes and 40 head of cattle. The proceeds from these two holdings provided for his mother and father, who were aged 80 and 71 respectively. On the strength of this testimony, Sneddon was awarded sine die (indefinite) relief from military service. Although they both had to renew their claims in the years that followed, Walker and Sneddon were successful in obtaining further exemption and thereby spent the rest of the Great War at home. These accounts exemplify a critical aspect of recruitment in Britain and New Zealand, but one that has not been fully analysed by historians. While a plethora of studies have discussed why so many men decided to volunteer, the experiences of those who were called up under conscription have received relatively...