The enactment into law in January 1916 of the first installment of mandatory military service in modern British history was an event whose importance few scholars dispute. While invariably considered a significant break in the British political and military tradition, recent scholarship has tended to treat the passage of the first Military Service Act as an episode that has little new to tell us about the political rivalry within the coalition cabinet presided over by Herbert Henry Asquith since May 1915. No student of the compulsory service debate can deny that he has been warned off, as Lord Beaverbrook wrote in the late 1920s that close study of the politics of conscription in the Asquith coalition would be “tedious to the last degree.” Most forbidding was the judgment of Lord Blake in his life of the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law: “The question of conscription would indeed be a tedious topic to pursue through all its ramifications. The endless discussions, the attitudes taken by public men at various times, the compromises, the disputes, constitute a chapter in English history to which, no doubt in years to come dull history professors will direct their duller research students.”
Many historians of the world war who have found the subject less dull than implied above have concluded that it presents a straightforward story: the implementation of conscription came about because the traditional policy of voluntarism had proven insufficient to raise an army of adequate size. The episode has been judged essentially a triumph of the Tory right wing (with the collusion of the maverick Liberal David Lloyd George) over orthodox Liberalism.
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