Being compelled to go to war; raids, recruits, and the “Round-Up” in 1916

As the previous post explores, the early months of 1916 witnessed a number of new stages in recruitment for the armed forces. The Derby scheme represented the last stages of volunteerism, enabling men who had attested to be called up – in another newly pervasive form of words – in groups. As the 1916 booklet When I Join the Ranks explained, “The “calling up” of any Group is effected by means of a general Proclamation, giving one month’s notice, but each individual soldier also receives a notice by post actually summoning him and giving him a fortnight in which to settle his affairs’

who's absente
Imperial War Museum. 27747

There were nevertheless large numbers of men who still remained outside this system – some excluded by age or disability, or by work in spheres which were deemed important enough to secure exemption from active service. Others – at least rhetorically – were often deemed to fall into the domains of shirkers and slackers, words which took on increasingly gendered patterns of meaning between 1914-18. While shirker is, on the surface, gender-neutral, it was, ‘for the duration’, a term freighted with connotations of evading and avoiding military service in ways which pertained only to male spheres of use. Slacker was similar. Both operated as terms of male opprobrium, in narrowly specific senses which pertained to the absence of active participation in the war.

While men might have “failed to come forward”, either as part of the Derby Scheme or in the months and years before its introduction, the question of (non)-participation was, however, to became much more pointed with the introduction of conscription or compulsory service, first announced in the Military Service Bill of January 1916 (though not fully implemented until May). “Compulsion becomes law”, the Daily Express announced on May 26; as of to-day ‘the Military Service act’ would ‘make a soldier of every man, married or unmarried, in Great Britain between the ages of eighteen and forty-one’. While the wider ramifications of this – especially in terms of the refusal to serve, will be considered in later posts — this post will focus on other aspects of evasion and attempted control in the diction of what came to be known as the round-up or rounding-up

Some young men, hearing that a “round-up” was impending, unsuccessfully tried to escape during the progress of the match, and with a number of others were detained for enquiries.

Raid at Newmarket. A Military “Round-Up” on the racecourse. Newmarket racecourse was raided to-day by a strong force of military and police in search of absentees from service. .. The rounding up continued during the day.

The round-up, as a contemporary note from 1916 in the Words in War-Time archive explains, was used to designate “attempts made, by police raids, in places of amusement, in search of men of military age who were shirking service”. It proved a common feature, appearing in advertising as well as newspapers in a transferred use which, the archive adds, was presumably derived from “the word used for collecting cattle on ranches in U.S.A.’. As the relevant entry in  the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, if the prime reference of round-up is to the gathering of animals (in a forced process imposed on those who would otherwise remain scattered or try to escape), early examples of such transferred uses operate within similar matrices of order and control — and especially as applied to those who might otherwise (illegally) try to escape. These were “wanted men”, as news discourse in 1916 similarly confirms.

Similarly prevalent was the diction of the absentee – someone who was absent without leave, and who was, as a result, not merely to be summoned under the normal processes of the Derby Scheme, but actively apprehended. As an article in the Scotsman explained (September 5 1916), under the heading ‘A “Round-Up” at Leeds’:

As the result of a “round-up” organized by military and police at hotels, cafes, music halls, and picture houses in Leeds on Saturday night, sixteen men of military age were charged before the Leeds Stipendiary magistrate yesterday with being absentees under the Military Service Act.

‘Raid at an English Fair; Absentee Lion Tamer’, an arresting headline in the Scotsman later declared, neatly illustrating the shift of meaning at stake; the man in question was absent from military service, but present in terms of his lion.

Once caught, such men became, in a further transferred use, “round-up”s in their own right – even if ones which, as contemporary advertising for Peter Walker beer in the summer of 1916 suggests, might perhaps be conciliated – at least for the moment — by a suitably large alcoholic beverage.

Round-ups, as the Words in War-Time archive confirms, were to remain a prevalent feature of the war and war-time diction alike. In mid-1917 the Scotsman is, for example, able to announce a ‘record “round-up”’ in London, ‘marked by very exciting scenes’ with stones, bottles and missiles of various kinds being directed at the police.

As here, rounding up, especially as the war advanced, could bring targeted resistance. Prevalent metaphors of battle and offensives — often appearing in news articles of this kind, and constructing those rounded-up as quasi national ‘enemies’ who must be defeated — gained, by the same token, gain unexpectedly literal overtones.  Those rounded-up did not necessarily yield without a struggle; compulsion could mean being actively compelled to leave civilian life.




2 thoughts on “Being compelled to go to war; raids, recruits, and the “Round-Up” in 1916

  1. I presume the normal pre-war context for ‘absentee’ would have almost always been as an adjective before ‘landlord’. Interesting that they went with that – which was an adjective rather than with the noun ‘absenter’ ( which would have been the logical analogy with deserter). In fact in other countries ‘daft evaders’ (to use what would be the US coinage) were usually simply described as ‘deserters’.
    More your area than mine but I wonder if an existing negative connotation helped decide this?
    Funnily enough I’d never thought about ’round-up’ before. Wasn’t it also used to describe the internment of enemy aliens?


    • Hi Adrian,

      watch for next post on “army dodgers”(definitely more negative !), as well as what has proved — following your lead here — an oddly complex language of absentee in WW1.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s