Conference Program

85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky

Title: Conscripts at War 1916-1918: The British, American and Dominion Experience
Abstract: Abstract: Bringing together four senior military historians and one former senior military officer from four different countries, this panel will examine the battlefield contributions made by conscript soldiers on the Western Front in the last two years of the Great War. The panel draws upon the expertise of its members, three of whom have written on and actively continue to study issues relating to the role of conscripts as reinforcements, their training and their battlefield performance, along with the socio-cultural issues associated with conscription itself. In addition, the panel will focus its lens on the transformation of British, American, Canadian and New Zealander forces from volunteer to conscript armies and the historical legacy of this tectonic shift in recruitment methods. Other key questions to be addressed include: what difference in treatment, if any, did conscripts receive compared to their volunteer comrades; where were conscripts primarily employed; how significant were their numbers; what role did conscripts play in the allied victories of 1918; and how have conscripts been treated in applicable national historiographies? While the conscripts' trajectory from civilian to soldier was similar in America, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, there were also some key differences; these will be the subject of additional analysis. Notably, the research in this area is not without some controversy. In Britain and the Dominions, conscripts as 'non-volunteers' have long been regarded as slackers, shirkers and malingerers. This re-assessment will challenge that view and address important questions regarding the timing of the conscripts' arrival on the Western Front and their subsequent impact on the battles that followed.
Patrick Dennis, Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies
Participant's Paper Title: Canadian Conscripts on the Western Front, 1918
Participant's Paper Abstract: By early spring of 1917, recruitment for the Canadian Expeditionary Force had experienced a precipitate decline over the previous year. Then in April, Canada's costly tactical victory at Vimy Ridge resulted in 10,602 casualties, including 3,598 dead, in what historian Tim Cook has described as "the single bloodiest day of the entire war for the Canadian Corps." This propelled the military manpower issue to the top of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden's political agenda, and on 11 June 1917 he submitted to parliament a highly controversial military bill calling for compulsory military service. When this divisive legislation became the law of the land in late August, however, Borden postponed the call-up of conscripts until after the federal election, which was not held until mid-December. Hence, the first Canadian conscripts did not begin to arrive on the Western Front until the spring of 1918. Indeed, contemporary Canadian historiography has long suggested that these men arrived too late and in insufficient numbers to make any significant difference to the Canadian Corps during the Hundred Days campaign that subsequently helped to end the war. Nonetheless, the results of new research presented in this paper reveal just the opposite.

Specifically, the ready availability of large numbers of trained conscripts permitted the Canadian Corps commander (Lieut.-General Sir Arthur Currie) to rapidly reinforce his much-depleted infantry battalions, primarily with conscripts, and thereby continue the advance of his corps in successive offensives with very few pauses. Notably, these reluctant warriors also demonstrated previously unheralded competence and heroism on the battlefield. This paper briefly examines that battlefield performance and argues that without these conscript reinforcements, there would not have been a "Hundred Days" for the Canadian Corps, which likely would have been reduced to just two divisions by the end of August 1918.
Gary Sheffield, University of Wolverhampton
Participant's Paper Title: The British Army and Conscription, 1916-1918
Participant's Paper Abstract: The historiography of the British Army in the First World War has a distinct bias towards the role and experience of the Regular and, especially, the wartime volunteer soldier. While conscripts have not been entirely neglected by scholars, in comparison to the large number of books and articles on Kitchener's Army, the literature on men who were compulsorily enlisted is rather limited. This reflects the domination of the volunteer in the British memory of the war, but does not reflect the reality. Roughly half of the men who served in the British Army during the War enlisted after conscription was introduced in 1916 (although the waters are muddied by the fact that not all were conscripted, and some men joined in 1915 under the 'Derby Scheme', a halfway house between voluntarism and compulsion). From the second half of 1916 onwards, the ranks of British units were increasingly filled by conscripts, but this substantial body of soldiers of the Great War is woefully underrepresented in the historiography.
This paper will briefly address the reasons for this act of historical amnesia, including the social stigma attached to being a conscript that led to many failing to identify themselves as such (in sharp contrast to the pride that many volunteers showed in their status.). Then the paper will examine the experience of conscripts from call up to demobilization, via training, the battlefield and life behind the lines, seeking to determine to what extent this differed from that of the volunteer soldier. A key issue is the extent to which conscripts had an impact on the identity and ethos of the units to which they were posted, and the attitude of officers and volunteer soldiers to conscripts. Finally, the military significance of British conscripts in the battles of 1918 will be examined.
Roger Lee, Australian War Memorial
Edward Lengel, White House Historical Association
Participant's Paper Title: The 77th Division, National Army: Battle Performance of the AEF's Pioneer Conscript Division
Participant's Paper Abstract: The AEF's National Army divisions were not initially intended to play a large role in American military operations in western Europe in the summer and fall of 1918. Yet that is in fact what happened. Thanks in part to the exigencies of training, equipping and shipping a large army overseas; and to military pressures on the Western Front and the priority given to forming the American First Army, National Army divisions formed a significant operational role in 1918.

This paper assesses broad issues pertaining to American conscription in the context of the performance of the U.S. 77th Division. The division learned many of the lessons specific to conscript divisions at Camp Upton on Long Island in 1917-1918. It was the first National Army division to arrive intact in Europe, and entered combat in August and September 1918. The division performed surprisingly well overall, and so was assigned a significant role in the Meuse-Argonne offensive that began on September 26, 1918, with primary responsibility in the Argonne Forest.

The 77th or Metropolitan Division endured some painful experiences in the Argonne including the celebrated affair of the "Lost Battalion." It was not well led at the division or brigade level. Yet the division's growing pains were not significantly different from those endured by National Guard or Regular Army formations, and it improved in combat at roughly the same pace. By the time the war ended the 77th Division had seen more action than any other National Army formation and become a solid if not elite element in the AEF. Culturally, the division's memorialization activities after 1919 set a high standard for other divisions and are examined here.
Robert Stevenson, Australian War Memorial

College of Arts and Sciences

Gottschalk Hall
University of Louisville
Louisville, Kentucky 40292

Office Hours

M-F 8:00am to 5:00 pm


tel (502) 852-6817

fax (502) 852-0770

Social Media