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Wednesday 22 February 2017

Feature: the records of military service tribunals

As we commemorate Armistice Day, the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) are pleased to announce the completion of a project to improve access to a hitherto little known series of records generated by Military Service Tribunals. These records were created during the First World War following the introduction of general conscription.

Abel Bernard Freeman, 7 April 1916. Conscientious Objection (NAS reference HH30/2/2/36 p3)

The Military Tribunal system was set up under the Military Service Act 1916 which set down terms for mandatory military service. This updated the Derby Scheme, a voluntary recruiting scheme devised by Edward Stanley, 17th Lord Derby, whereby men who 'attested', or voluntarily registered to serve in the military, would only be called upon for service when necessary. That scheme was unsuccessful and soon abandoned in December 1915. The new Military Service Act required all adult males, aged 18-41, to register for military service unless they possessed a certificate of exemption. By April 1918, the age range was extended, so that men aged from 17 to 55 could be called up, and exemptions were further restricted.

From 1916, men seeking exemption from military service could apply to various tribunals. There were three types: Local Tribunals, Appeal Tribunals and a Central Tribunal based in London.

Local Tribunals were appointed by the Local Registration Authorities designated under the National Registration Act 1915 (effectively local burgh and city councils). They dealt with attested (voluntary servicemen) and non-attested (conscripted) applications. Recruiting officers or other military representatives were also entitled to attend any hearing and to question applicants.

Appeal Tribunals were appointed by the Crown, and in Scotland these were located within sheriffdoms. Any applicant refused exemption by the Local Tribunal, or dissatisfied with the type of exemption granted, had a right of appeal to it. Conversely military representatives or recruiting officers could appeal against the exemption granted to an applicant.

A Central Tribunal was appointed for the whole of Great Britain. Any person dissatisfied with a decision of an Appeal Tribunal could appeal to it, but only provided they were given leave to do so by the Appeal Tribunal. The Central Tribunal frequently took over cases in which conscientious objection was made by men who had already been called up. These records survive in The National Archives at Kew.

Exemptions granted by tribunals could be permanent, conditional or temporary, and all were revocable.

Records of tribunals in the NAS
The records in the NAS belong to the category of Appeal Tribunals. In 1921 the Ministry of Health ordered that all papers relating to individual cases of exemption from National Service were to be destroyed. Most Scottish Tribunal applications were therefore lost, but those for the Lothian and Peebles Appeal Tribunal were deemed exempt, and retained as a sample. These papers are now deposited in the NAS (reference: HH30) and cover the Local Tribunal areas of Edinburgh, the Lothians and the Borders. Other chance survivals exist, including papers from the Ross, Cromarty and Sutherland (Lewis Section) Appeal Tribunal, which are preserved in the NAS as part of Stornoway Sheriff Court records (reference: SC33/62).

A two-year project has catalogued, repaired and digitised a total of about 6,400 applications from the Lothian and Peebles and Lewis Appeal Tribunals. Student volunteers from the University of Edinburgh assisted NAS staff with cataloguing. Data about applicants was captured and entered into individual descriptions of cases in the NAS online catalogue. In parallel, essential repairs were carried out and digital copies made of the papers, thus preserving them and making them more readily available to researchers.

The 6,400 surviving applications cover the period March 1916 to October 1918, and provide invaluable information about the individuals who appealed, revealing fascinating details about their personal and family circumstances, and the reasons given for seeking exemption. Frequently men, or their employers, might request exemption on the grounds that it was in the national interest to continue in their current work. Exemptions were also considered on personal grounds, for example hardship, ill-health or conscientious objection. It was certainly not the case that all applications submitted were from men who were unwilling to fight, as large numbers of applicants were previously attested men (volunteers).

The vast majority of appeals were refused and dismissed, after which appellants had little choice but to 'join the colours'. The NAS would like to hear from anyone who has more information about any of the men whose appeals are preserved among the Tribunal records.

The following examples illustrate the various grounds on which appeals were made. In each case you can download transcribed excerpts from the appeal papers and an Acrobat PDF with images of the original documents.

Conscientious objectors
Archibald Brown Naysmith, a 20 year old postman from Musselburgh. Appeal against his military service dismissed. The military representative on the Tribunal stated that 'This man would make a splendid soldier. He has a fine physique and just wants the nonsense knocked out of him.'

Alexander Ramage Carrol, clerk and stenographer, and conscientious objector, who died serving in the Non Combatant Corps, 9 October 1918.

Arthur Woodburn (1890-1978), who was imprisoned for his beliefs during the First World War, and went on to become Secretary of State for Scotland in 1947.

Serious hardship, occupation in national interest, ill-health
Frank Hamilton Cowie, a Glasgow warehouseman, was spared from overseas service because three of his four brothers had been killed in 1915 and the fourth badly wounded.

Will Fyffe (1885-1947), comedian and actor. Appealed against conscription in 1918 because of his occupation, serious hardship and ill health.

Duncan Campbell Cargill, Edinburgh apprentice lawyer: his appeal against conscription because of his occupation was dismissed. Won Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and was killed in action 2 November 1918.

Thomas Keir, cabinet maker in Edinburgh. Feared for his business if he had to go to war. Appeal granted.

Robert Gillon, worked for his mother's butcher's business in Balerno. She applied for him to be exempted absolutely as being in a certified occupation, claiming she would have to close the business, resulting in serious hardship. Gillon was killed in action in Belgium on 4 Oct 1917, aged 23, while serving with The King's Own Scottish Borderers. NAS holds his will, in which he left all his effects to his mother

Rinhold Charles Krause, a van driver of German descent, applied for conditional exemption from military service on grounds of national interest, serious hardship and illness. His brother, Richard Krause, died serving in The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).

Malcolm Martin, shepherd, who had returned form South America, where he had emigrated. He drowned in the sinking of HMY Iolaire on 1 January 1919.

Records elsewhere in the UK
Surviving Military Service Tribunal records exist for other parts of the United Kingdom. Those for Middlesex were retained as the sample for England, and are housed in The National Archives at Kew (reference: MH47). For Wales records of the Appeal Tribunal for Cardiganshire are housed in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth (reference: CTB3). Other chance survivals exist in local English county record offices (for example Northamptonshire and Staffordshire).

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