“Soldiers-to-be”: Language and liminality in the wake of the Derby Scheme


derby scheme

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5061.

Like the bride-to-be, the diction of the soldier-to-be has an interesting liminality. The bride-to-be is not yet a bride; the promise has been made, but not yet fulfilled. The formal union lies in the future. Nevertheless, if framed by a kind of temporal expectation, events may still not materialise quite as planned. Not all brides-to-be become brides; decisions made earlier might be regretted or revoked. Second thoughts might prevail, while the advertised wedding might not come to pass.

Soldiers-to-be participates in some of this flux of meaning and status, if relocated to a rather different sphere. Here the expected union is that of active service, while ‘to-be’ adroitly picks up the gap between a stated commitment to fight, and its realisation. As in the age-old divide between word and deed by which the true hero is defined, the soldier to-be could occupy an interestingly liminal space.

It appears as yet another lexical item which remains unrecorded in formal lexicography. Picked up in the Words in War-Time archive in early 1916, it appears, for example, in advertising campaigns directed at the ‘Derby Men’ or, on other words, at a specific sub-category of men who had attested under Lord Derby’s scheme, formally the Group Scheme, in the autumn of 1915. The ‘Derby Scheme’ (variously referred in news discourse of the day the Derby crusade or Derby experiment, with various degrees of reservation) aimed to boost enlistment among the millions of eligible men who, as National Registration had shown, remained at home (some, admittedly, in protected forms of employment). Under the ‘Scheme’, one could enlist for immediate service, thereby passing from civilian or civvie to soldier with immediate effect. But, as in the case of soldiers-to-be, one could ‘attest’ and remain at home, bearing only to the obligation to embark on active service once summoned to do so, or ‘called up’.

Seen in terms of language, then, the Derby Scheme yielded a range of interesting forms. Hall’s Wine, the ‘supreme tonic restorative’ which frequently advertised its efficacy for the diverse forms of nerve-strain witnessed as war advanced, would, for example, rapidly seize this opportunity too. While targeted marketing was therefore aimed at soldiers at the Front, a further assault was aimed at the soldier-to-be whose anxiety levels, as the advertising campaigns noted, might well be on the rise. Unlike the enlisting fever or khaki fever attested in earlier comment on the war, soldiers-to-be had hitherto proved resistant to contagion of this kind. Now, however, ‘many and many a man’, as the advertising copy proclaimed, was to be fetched from occupations on the Home front for a set of ‘new and arduous duties’:

The next few months will take many and many a man from desk and office and factory to make of him a soldier. In thousands of cases these workers will be ‘softened’ by their sedentary lives, will indeed be far from fit to tackle their new and arduous duties. In every case Hall’s Wine will be found most helpful

Addressed directly to the ‘soldier-to-be’, advertising of this kind neatly exploited the linguistic and military limbo of this section of the Derby Scheme. As it stressed, ‘workers’ will be made into ‘soldiers’, while the ‘sedentary’ must be made ‘fit to tackle’ war.

Other liminalities regularly appear in terms of the imaging of agency and the will to fight. As in the advertising above, the ‘worker’ will be made into a ‘soldier’, and ‘taken from’ desks, factories, or offices. Soldiers-to-be presented other difficulties of taxonomy in this respect too. Compulsion – and conscription – waited in the wings – together with the point at which men eligible men would have to enlist (or, as later posts will explore, to declare a very different territory of identity – that of the conscientious objector). The Derby Scheme therefore occupied its own liminal space – the last gasp of voluntaryism, informed by the pressure to put one’s name down for service before the stigma of conscription came into effect. ‘Voluntaryists themselves have admitted that this is a final test. Lord Derby’s lists will reveal how many men have come or are willing to come of their own free will’, the Daily Express had declared in December 1915.

Soldiers-to-be had, in this respect, volunteered, hence ideally pre-empting the negative labelling of shirkers and slackers (which came into renewed prominence at this time, for those who refused to heed ‘the call’). They were not quite the come-and-fetch-us who were soundly proscribed in later reporting of the war in 1916. Nevertheless, in deferring action, they still had to be ‘called up’ – being summoned in groups across 1916. Language could prove a difficult terrain to negotiate in this respect. The process, as reported in the popular press, was in essence that of two stages, in which passivity (‘The men are being called up on successive dates’) must be balanced by activity, as in this article in the Daily Express:

‘January 20 will be a red-letter day in the calendar of a large body of young men. It is the date fixed for the first groups of Lord Derby’s recruits to report themselves’.

In other ways too, the situation was fraught with ambiguity. The ‘Derby men’ or ‘Derby recruits’ or ‘Derbyites’ (among the range of terms in use) were regularly singled out as a special sub-set, rather than falling under the generic label as ‘volunteers’. As other articles explained, here, too, there was a certain liminality – they were deemed to have ‘served’, but for a single day, while their ‘service’ was that of attesting – or making a commitment to serve at some future period. As the Daily Express explained:

‘They served one day with the forces – that on which they went through the formality of attestation and drew the 2s. 9d pay’.

In another locution, they were attested men, bound by their verbal and written promise – not yet by their performance. Or, as other articles conjectured, they were perhaps reservists rather than recruits per se — but these, too, of a special, and hitherto unrecognised, form. Clothing, too, marked out their liminality of status. They remained in civvies or civilian dress – but were given an armlet or brassard – a symbolic token of the uniform which, once soldiers and no longer soldiers-to-be, they would wear in its entirety. This brought still other locutions in its wake, such as the armleteer (a distinctive variant of volunteer, in ways which equally marked out the Derby man). Similar were references to being armletted. As Andrew Clark commented in a note in the archive, the existing lexical record in the contemporary lexicography of the day was woefully inadequate. Being armletted was, he suggested, to be understood as ‘wearing a strip of cloth-stuff, secured by a buckle, in token of office’.

Only when the Derby men reported for duty (after being called up), would they therefore be fully in service (with the proviso, of course, they they were deemed fit, or did not fall into any ineligible categories). At this point, at other articles in the archive explore, the transformation would be complete. Soldiers-to-be would become soldiers, while the Derby armlet would also be shed:

‘Derby Day’. First Recruits Take off Their Armlets. Starting Work at Once.

‘There was nothing spectacular in this conversion of a civilian into a soldier, as the recruits do not receive their uniforms until they arrive at their regimental depots. “All that happens,” said the commanding officer, “is that they come in with their armlets, and go out without them‘ (Daily Express, Jan 21 1916)

Yet, as such, as the article added, if they ‘go out without their armlets’, they also, as such, ‘go out as defenders of the Empire’. ‘It is hoped to turn the recruits into trained soldiers in record time’. The next stage of transformation awaited.

2 thoughts on ““Soldiers-to-be”: Language and liminality in the wake of the Derby Scheme

  1. ‘Attested’ as a status is also interesting and it proved problematic. As you point out being attested meant that you were potentially exempt from the accusation of being a shirker. But confusion about what it actually meant ensued in early 1916. Basically the issue was that, much to their surprise, attested married men were called up before non-attested unmarried men. This was the way the scheme was suppose to work – but was not widely understood (the poster above shows how this could have been misinterpreted). Recriminations followed. Married attested men felt that unmarried ‘shirkers’ should be called first. Unmarried non-attested men replied that attestation signaled a willingness to be called up ( that was of course the significance of the armlet) and that married men shouldn’t back out when that was implemented. Logic was clearly on the side of the unmarried and unattested but public sentiment was more split given that this group fitted the image of the shirker.


    • Yes, there’s an abundant language of attest, attestation, and attested which all merit careful consideration at this time, not least in ther connotative as well as denotative range. There’s nice 1916 book called ‘When I joined the ranks’, advertised as ‘the Indispensible Guide fo rhte Attested man’ which is very illuminating in this respect. And a really rich seam of 1916 evidence re the ‘shirker’ — next post will be on the ’round-up’, another interesting form which apepars in the effort to endeavour to turn alleged ‘shirkers’ into ‘soldiers’.


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