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Recruiting in Trafalgar Sq 1916.
'We are fighting for a worthy purpose and we shall not lay down our arms until that purpose has been achieved' The King


Many of those who came to be depicted on monuments and memorials as 'the glorious dead' after the First World War were the despised and feared urban poor who could be spared to maintain a social system of comfort and privilege for the few. Much has changed in 100 years but today the feared poor on whose existence the global economy and our comfortable lives rely are spread across the globe, not simply in the grim tenements of Manchester or Glasgow. The British army still has problems with recruiting and its major recruiting centres are still where the modern urban poor live.

Barefoot, hungry and poor

The war in South Africa revealed a profound weakness in the ability of the British army to police the Empire. What should have been a small and short war ended up as a lengthy conflict tying up 250,000 British troops. Despite brutality, scorched earth policy and pioneering concentration camps the British were forced to seek military assistance from Australia, New Zealand and Canada before finally bringing the war to an end. The Boer War was a watershed for the British Army. It also soured public opinion and started the long slow decline of support for the British Empire.

‘It is nevertheless true, and the fact is a disquieting one,’ reported W. Taylor of the Army Medical Services in 1903 the year after the war, ‘that a very large proportion of men who offer themselves for enlistment in the army are found to be physically unfit for military service.’ This was not exactly news as in 1899 according to the Inspector-General of Recruiting three out of every five volunteers for the army had been rejected as medically unfit.

The impact of the Boer war in Britain was a renewed focus on the recruiting crisis. In Manchester three out of every five volunteers were unfit and the situation was even worse in Glasgow, a major recruiting centre. Concern was raised not only in the army but also in parliament about the deterioration of the ‘working masses’. W Taylor noted a particular concern about the urban population and hinted at the existence of ‘worthless men’ within British society when he posed the question:
‘But the want of physique, thus shown to exist with regard to a large section of the community, is not only serious from its military aspect, it is serious also from its civil standpoint, for if these men are unfit for military service, what are they good for?’

These men whose worth to society he questioned were, he argued, destined to:
‘marry girls as weak as themselves, and have children, some of whom go to swell the lists of infant mortality, some to join the criminal classes, while others grow up more weak and incompetent than their parents with the result that the rising generation of all below artisan class includes a vast number of men of a very low standard of health and physique.’

Such debate brought the army firmly into focus for eugenicists. The army became the benchmark, by which the fitness of society itself was judged. The trend was not confined to Britain. On the continent the belief that the fitness of the nation depended upon the performance of the army strengthened and gained momentum after the Franco Prussian war. The military came to be viewed as the litmus paper of national performance, physique and morals.

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