** war and social upheaval: World War I age of soldiers

World War I: Age of Soldiers

Figure 1.--We do not know whon this boy was. He seems to be a new recruit in the German army. He looks to be about 16 years old. The lack of emblens suggest that he is a new recruit.

As estimated 65 million men were mobilized for World War I. We are unsure at this time as to the age of the soldiers involved in World War I. We are not sure at what age boys could join the military or at what age boys were conscripted. We are just beginning to acquire this information. One aspect we notice is that at the turn of the 20th century such as in the Bohr War (1899-1902), the Briish were still accepting quite young boys in the Army to serve as musicians. There were also boys in Royal Navy ships. This no longer appears to be the case by World War I, at least for the Army. We know the Royal Navy still had younger teenagers, but thjis does not seem to have been the case for the army. Many countries (Austria, Germany, France, and Russia) entered the War with conscription laws in place. Countries competing with these countries had to introduce conscription. Other countries (Australia, Britan, Canada, and the United States) had to intoduce conscription after entering the War. For America this was a major step. It only had conscription briefly during the Civil War and only supplied a small portion of the troops (about 8 percent) yhat foughtbthe War. In addition, mny Europeans came to America expressly to avoid military conscription.


Presiden Wilson decided that America would have to enter the European war to assist the depleted Allies. Even before getting Congressional approval, he concluded a draft would be necessary (March 28, 1917). Many would enlist after the declaration of War, but Wilson included raising an army of the size needed in Freance required a draft. I'm not sure what the minimum enlistment age was. (Currently it is 17 years old with parental consent.) Many recruiters were not real diligent about determining a youth's age unless he looked particularly young. The Army began secretly printing registration cards. They were mailed to sheriffs throughout the country as draft boards had not yet been established. The President Willson asked Congress to declare war (April 2). The United States declared war on Germany (April 6, 1917). America entered the War (April 17). Congress passed the Selective Service Act authorizing the registration and draft of all men between 21 years to 30 years (May 18, 1917). All men between the ages of 21 and 30 had to register for the draft. TYhis included resident aliens although they were not actally inducted. The only exceptions made were men already serving in the military. About 10 million men were registered by June 16, 1917. By September 12, 1918, all men between the ages of 18 and 45 (born September 13, 1873 to September 12, 1900) were to be registered. Eventually about 24 registered for the draft. A minority of those civilian men who registered was ever actually selected (called up) for military service. The draft was controversial step in the United States as in several other countries. President Wilson proposed the draft, suggesting that it was needed so that "shirkers" play their part. Wilson had a strong Democratic majority in Congress and was able to persuade the needed number to pass the selective service legislation. President Wilson announced that men who failed to register would be arrested and subject to 1 year in prison (June 1). Newspapers carried reports of arrests of persons trying to leave the United States to avoid the draft June 2-4).


Australia entered the War as a Dominion as a result of British action and not by a domestic declaration of war. As in other countries, there was a first considerable patriotic enthusism for the war. The first Australian troops to enter the War were volunteers. Battlefield losses depleted Australian units. The Government as the war progressed had trouble enlisting adequate replacements to main Australian units at full strength. Prime Minister Hughes proposed conscription to raise the needed number of new recruits (1916). The existing Defence Act gave the Governmrnt the authority to to conscript men for military service. The Act, however, restricted the deployment of conscripts to Australia itself, not deployment overseas. A revision of the Act required a vote in parliament. Elements in the Labour Party were oposed to conscription. (The Australian Labour Party like the British Labour Policy was essentisally a Socialist party supporting by the working class abnd left-wing intelectuals.) Hughes calculated he had the votes within the Labor and Liberal parties to pass the amendments have a majority in the House of Representatives, but he did not have sufficent votes in the Senate. Hughes decided to stage a national vote, hoping that public opinion would swong the recalcitrant Senators. The result was an acrimonious campaign on conscription. Each side presented its case as the mopral high ground and vilified the oposition.in the end, Australian voters were closely divided, but conscription was rejected in a 5- to 49 percent vote. Historians do not fully agree on why conscription was rejected. Apparently many issues affected the vote besides just conscription. There was opposition to the War itself, economic issues, and other matters. There is a substantial Irish populatoin in Australia which was horrified at British actions in Ireland. Hughes by 1917 had a parlimentary majority in both houses. He hesitated, however, to enact a measure rejected by the public. As a result, he ordered another national vote. The campaign was again bitter and devisive and conscription was again narrowly defeated by a slightly greater margin. A very vocal opponent of conscription was a young socialist, John Curtin. He would would introduce a much stronger conscrition law when he became prime minister during World War II.


The Austrio-Hungarian and German armies were both conscript armies, but the military ethos of the two principal powers was very different. The Astro-Hungarian officers viewded their conscripts with thinly veiled contempt. Here there werevboth class and ethnic differences. The vast majority of thec officers were German speakers (about 80 percent). The vast majority of the conscripts were non-German ethnics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The largely Austrian (German-speaking) officers had little interest or concern with the welfare of the soldiers in their command. After the War began, Austrian officers were astounded to find that German officers got the same food as their men. Austrian regiments were recruited from specific districts. Once the War began, replacements often came from different districts. Conscrips were drawn from men between 18-42 years of age. As losses mounted, the Austrians were forced to use younger and older men. The conscription age was extended to 50. Therec was also expanded use of convalescing wounded. The Army's lack of concern with the conscripts was reflected in the fact that the families of deceased soldiers were often never notified. There were also substantial losses due to poor nutritioin and frostbite, escpecially in the Carpathian Mountains.


England in contradt to the other major European powers maintained only a small fully volunteer, professional army. It was well-trained and disciplined, but very small. Britain relied principally on the powerful Royal Navy for military defense. One aspect we notice is that at the turn of the 20th century such as in the Bohr War (1899-1902), the Briish were still accepting quite young boys in the army to serve as musicians. This no longer appears to be the case by World War I. We know the Royal Navy still had younger teenagers, but this does not seem to have been the case for the army. No British Government had ever dared conscript men for military service--even during the Napoleonic War crisis. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith resisted army requests. The British Expeditionary Force was, however, being chewed up in the killing fields of the Western Front and the force by the end of 1915 could no longer be maintained by volunteers. Asquith finally saw no alternative. He finally introduce a conscription measure. Parliament passed the first Military Service Act (January 1916). This was the first conscription laws ever passed in Britain. At first only single men and childless widowers aged 18 to 41 were called up. The Act applied to men 18-41 years of age. The second Military Service Act made all men regardless of marital service eligible for military service (May 1916). The War Office was given authority to extend the service of men whose enlistments hadcexpired and re-examine men previously rejected for health reasons. The third Military Service Act gave the WarvOffice authority to further increase conscription (April 1917). This entiled the examination of Home Service Territorials, men earlier discharged, and individuals previously rejected. The War Office also announced a new list of Protected Occupations eccluded from conscription. Parliament passed the fourth Military Service Act which gave the Government permission to end occupational exemptions and the 2 month grace period for those whose exemptions had been terinated (January 1918). The last or fifth Military Service Act was a desperate measure taken by Parliament as the War in early 1918 reacged a critical stage (April 1918). The age range was lowered to 17 and extended to men age 55. The law was also extended to Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. In addition, released or exchanged POWs were no longer exempted. The British conscripted more than 2.3 million men during the War.


Canada sought to create a 0.5 million man army through voluntary recruitment, but this effort failed. Support for conscription to build this army grew. Prime Minister Robert Borden spoke out and insisted that conscription was a military necessity (19217). German successes on the Eastern Front made it clear that the Germans would have substantial forces to deploy on the Western front that could resolve the War in 1918. Borden saw the military necessity and he also wanted to strengthen Canada's voice within the Empire. Borden crossed the Atlantic to see the situation of the Canadian troops in France. Contrary to what might have been expected, there was no special connection of French Canadians with France during World war I. Brorden and the Government were not popular among French Canadians. There were no separate French Canadian units. Nor were their Frech Canadian officers among the senior commanders. Ethnic tensions in Canada worsened during the War. Especially troubling fror French Canadians was that guarantees for French language schools in Manitoba and Quebec were ressinded. This was part of the reason that recruitment in Quebec was especially disappoingting. Quebec was about a third of Canada, but contributed only about 5 percent of enlistments. As the war situation worsened even fewer French Canadians volunteered. Candian units sustained more than 20,000 casualties during Spring 1917. During that same period, fewer than 100 men volunteered in Quebec. Borden pushed a consprition law through Parliament--the Military Service Act, believing it necessary to support the army in France. The Act made all Canaian men 20-45 years of age eligible for military service. French Canadians saw this as the English drafgooning them into the War. There were draft riots in Montreal and in Quebec City. Borden attempted to form a coalition Government. He asked iberal leader Laurier to join the Conservatives to form a Government. Laurier refused, in part because of the conscription issues as well as other political concerns, but some Liberals did join the Union (Coalition) Government. Bordem introduced two new laws (the Military Votors Act and the War Time Elections Act). These two acts were highly controversial, but produced a massive majority for the Union Goivernment (1918).


Universal conscription was first adopted by France during the French Revolution. It provided the key to French victories in the early battles of the Revolutionary era. After their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the French replaced Napoleon III with the Third Republic. The instability of the French multi-party democracy was in sharp contrast to the stability of Imperial Germany. German military spending and French resentment at the loss of Alsace-Lorraine combined to cause both countries to maintain large conscript armies and ever increasing expenditures on armaments. The French could, however, not match the Germans on the size of the army or the level of military spending. French foreign policy was dominated the potential threat of Germany which forced them to seek needed alliances. Here they had limited success until Wilhelm II became kaiser and dismissed Bismarck.


Prussia adopted universal conscriotion during the Napoleonic Wars. After defeat at the hands of Napoleon, Prussian Army reformers Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, Boyen, and others sought to create a modern new army. Like the French, the Prussians maintained that every citizen has a moral obligation to the fatherland. Along with the defeat of Napoleon brought enormous prestige to the military. The military became perhaps the most prestigious careers in Prussian society. After the defeat of Napoleon and restoration of conservative regimes overseen by the Congress of Vienna, there was a militarisation of Prussian society. Citizens of all classess received military training. Germany was united under the Prussian monarchy. German military policy thus was largely conceived under Prussian influence. The German army with its core Prussian officer corps was the most influential institution in Germany--primarily because it had been the force that had achieved unification. Not only officer rank conveyed social status, but also reserve officer rank. The army's officer corps was drawn almost exclusively from the Prussian Junker aristocracy. The influence of the Prussian military and the policies of the monarchy resulted in Germany giving great priority to military power. Key to that policy was a massive conscript army and a high state of military readiness. United Germany had both the industrial capacity and population to make it the most powerful single European nation. This policy also fomented an armaments race which continued for over 40 years until the outbreak of World War I. The Imperial German Army had the most professional conscript army in the world when World War I broke out. [Fosten and Marrion]



New Zealand




Turkey had an elaborate conscription and reserve system establidhed under German guidance. Turkey's first Western advisers were French and during the Napoleonic wars the the Turks generally cooperated with Napoleon. The Prussians gradually replaced the French. Von Moltke was an early advidser. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877 changed the ballance of power in the Balkans. German Chancellor Bismarck at the Congress of Vienna forced the Russimns to return terriyory seized from the Turks. The Turks turned to the Germans foir military assistance. German engineers helped modernize fortifications at Adrianople, the Dardanelles, and Tchataldja and supplied modern artillery. The Germans also helped train the Turkish Army which began in earest with von der Goltz (1883). The Turkish Army was as a result organized along German lines and included conscription. The Turkish conscripts were inducted at age 19 for 3 years. This is followed by 6 years in the Ichtiat (Reserve). There is then 11 years in the Redif (two sections of the Landwehr), and for a final 2 years in the the Mutafitz or Landsturm.


Fosten, Donald and Robert Marrion. World War 1: The German Army 1914�18 (Men at Arms 80, 1978), 48p.


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Created: April 24, 2004
Last updated: 1:06 AM 11/9/2018