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Thursday, 25 October 2018

Military Tribunals in the First World War: Millitary Monday

Have you been frustrated in tracing what your British male ancestors did in World War One? I recently came across a new area of research, whilst working on a local history project.  Reports in the local press of W.W.1 Military Tribunals are full of personal details of men, who sought exemption from service in the armed forces for a variety of reasons. 

Conscription in the First World War came into force in March 1916 in Britain.  It  specified that single men between the ages of 18 and 41 were liable to be called-up for military service,  unless they were widowed with children or ministers of religion. The age was quickly extended to married men in May 1916, and was raised  further to 50 in April 1918.  

Ireland was specifically  exempt from conscription in the light of the unrest there, culminating in the Easter Uprising.
Military Army Soldiers Walking Armed Unifo 

The Role of Military Tribunals
These  were set up to hear applications for exemption from conscription. Although the tribunals were best known for their attitude to conscience objectors, most of their work dealt with domestic and business issues.  Men could apply on the basis of doing work of national importance, such as in war industries;  for domestic or business hardship, or for medical unfitness.

I found that my local newspapers reported regularly on tribunals  across  the Scottish Borders, and below are a some typical instances from 1916  involving men from the village of Earlston.   Often a temporary reprieve was given, but I was surprise to read that this was generally  for a few weeks only.
  • A butcher from Redpath had been trying to sell his business as a growing concern and asked for deferment to allow him to collect outstanding debts.  He was granted a postponement of six weeks, with a stipulation this would not be extended and he must be prepared to serve.
  • Earlston hairdresser & tobacconist, John Rutherford, who claimed financial hardship, in consideration that he had built up a small business and needed to wind up matters. He was given a temporary reprieve from service.

  • Five claims were made for farm workers at Fans Farm.   Given exemptions were George Simpson, who had three brothers serving, and ploughman/steward Peter Hume;  two were refused -  Ralph Hume and David Adam Borthwick; whilst Joseph Borthwich was given temporary exemption.
  • Master baker of Earlston,  Walter Utterson was given an “absolute exemption." 
  • A  china merchant in Earlston appeared before the tribunal a second time and stated that he supported  his elderly grandparents in their late 70’s,  and he still needed to make arrangements for his business to be carried on.  The tribunal opposed the appeal. 
  • William Holland, aged 34 of Earlston,  claimed he was unable to complete contracts for his work as a slater and chimney sweep, doing all the work around Earlston.  He had six children to support and a lot of farm steadings to repair. His claim was refused.

  • George Blair, partner with a plumbing firm in Earlston,  claimed that to lose one of his men, meant practically abolishing his business. Claim refused.

  • Henry Rutherford of Rutherford's, Agricultural Engineers in Earlston,  claimed that losing men to the armed services would jeopardise the needs of the farms in the area.  Exemption granted on the basis of his work being of national importance.

  • John Mather, hardware merchant of Earlston,  was granted exemption as unlikely to be medically fit for service. 

  • The President of the Earlston Co-operative Society petitioned on behalf three workers:   John Brash, manager was granted a temporary exemption until the end of stock-taking  and that a man was found to take on his duties;  baker John Burrell,  was given an “absolute exemption", with van man Walter Brotherston’s claim  refused.

Records Available
The records of the Military Tribunals were deliberately destroyed after the war, apart from two sets of records   - those for Middlesex, England, held at the National Archives at Kew in London; and those for The Lothians & Peebles in Scotland, held at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. 

So local  newspapers remain  the key source of information.  My regional Archive Centre holds these on microfilm, but unfortunately they are not indexed, meaning you have a tedious trawl through the relevant years of 1916-18. However the newspaper archives online were invaluable in tracing the information on Earlston men  - on FindmyPast and on the  British Newspaper Archive. 

My message - it is worth while exploring these records - you never know what you might find!  Good Luck!

[Silhouette image courtesy of  Pixaba]


Facts and Figures:
Earlston is a rural village in the old county of Berwickshire, now part of the Scottish Border and situated 30 mile south from Edinburgh.   The parish includes the estates of Mellerstain, Cowdenknowes and Carolside, the farming community at Fans and the nearby small  settlement of Redpath.

The population in 1911 was  1749.  Ten years later according to the 1921 census it was 1641.

49 Earlston men died in the First World War and  are named on the village war memorial, a number from the same family.  

Earlston War Memorial - November 2017


Military Monday is one of many daily prompts from Geneabloggerstribe.com  


  1. An excellent post,Sue. It may not be relevant to everyone but you have pointed out a subject worth pursuing when looking at newspaper archives.

  2. Thanks for sharing! I wonder if the exemption boards in the US had similar publications in the local newspapers. It would be a very useful source for me!

  3. How interesting! A post with this information makes me wish I had ancestors who might have filed for exemption living in Scotland or England during the time of World War I. Sadly, my families had emigrated by the 1870s.

  4. Ooooo.. I have some ancestors from the Lothians, I'll have to check this out! Thanks for sharing this Sue.

  5. Thank you all for your kind comments. I learnt a lot from researching this topic, as my impression was of military tribunals mainly dealing with conscientious objectors - which was not the case.


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