Military Service Appeal Tribunals - an unexpected gem

In many ways, my family's experience of WWI is probably very much the norm for someone in the UK: my maternal grandmother's 20-year old uncle was killed at Gallipoli and my maternal grandfather's dad fought on the Western Front. However, I never really thought about the other men of age in the family who may have fought in the war - or indeed may not have fought.

I went along to the latest in a series of talks given by the National Records of Scotland today, which proved to be fascinating. It was titled ‘For King and Country’: Records of Military Service Appeal Tribunals, 1916-1918 and was given by the NRS's Head of Government Records, Bruno Longmore. It covered the background of the Military Service Acts, conscription, and the resulting appeals process by which men attempted to be exempted from service. I was always told in my family that many of the men in my family were exempted from service as they worked in reserved occupations, but it never occurred to me that they would have had to go through an appeals process to gain that exemption.

Unfortunately for researchers, the government instructed that the tribunal papers be destroyed after the war, with the exception of two collections to be retained: those for Middlesex, and those for Lothian and Peebles. The National Archives holds the first of these and they can be searched and viewed online. The National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh holds the second, along with a small number from Lewis that survived in the Stornoway Sheriff Court records - all are available on Scotlands People.

During the talk, Bruno Longmore shared several examples that were very moving and poignant. All gave a fascinating insight into men and their families at the specific point in time they were called up. The appeal papers contain written statements and evidence from families and employers as to why military service should be exempted. Tales of financial hardship for families if their breadwinner were to leave, and those who felt their occupation meant they were more needed at home, for example. And the woman who'd lost 3 of her 5 sons already, with a fourth sent home wounded, asking that her fifth son be spared going to fight. The information very much reminded me of the kinds of thing I've seen previously in the Glasgow Poor Relief records - a little window into the personal situation of a family that is often missing in standard records and research.

Unfortunately, I have not (as yet) found any of my family in this wonderful series of records, but I will go back and review my list of all males of conscription age and double check. The information in them would be very interesting. And I would encourage anyone researching men aged between 17 and 51 during WWI to have a look at these records to see if they have anyone in there. It is worth checking even if your ancestor is outside of the areas covered by the remaining records as some men were caught up in conscription while visiting from elsewhere.

If you want to see examples of these records, some are available in an article here. You can also hear Bruno Longmore talking about them on the BBC in 2014.