When we went to war in August 1914, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, realised that Britain needed a larger army. He generated a new volunteer force that became known as 'Kitchener's Army'. He made a direct and personal appeal to the men of Britain and posters were printed showing him pointing his finger with the words 'Your Country Needs You'. Men felt proud at the prospect of fighting for their country and queued outside recruitment offices all over Britain to join the army.
The criteria for selection was that soldiers had be at least eighteen years old to join Kitchener's army, and nineteen before they could be sent abroad to fight, but many younger teenagers tried to 'join up' too. They wanted to be treated like men and thought war would be exciting. Some lied about their age, hoping the recruitment officer would believe them. Often they succeeded and some boys as young as thirteen and fourteen went to war. Over one million volunteers were recruited by the end of 1914 but more were needed.
Not everyone could enlist. Only men could go and they had to be aged between eighteen and forty-one although the age limit was increased to fifty-one in April 1918. Priests and ministers were exempt. Some failed the medical test and others had 'reserved occupations' which meant they did important jobs like drive trains, work in the coal mines, shipyards and munitions factories or were farmers and had to stay in Britain. In the first weekend of the war a hundred men an hour (3,000 a day) signed up to join the armed forces. Fifty-four million posters were issued, eight million personal letters were sent, 12,000 meetings were held, and 20,000 speeches were delivered by military spokesmen. Nearly 1.2 million men queued for hours outside recruitment stations across the United Kingdom for a chance to be part of the action and by the end of 1914 1,186,337 men had enlisted.
The Government was still urging men to volunteer willingly but in 1916, a law was passed that enforced conscription. Those who refused to help the war effort risked being sent to prison. People who refused to fight on moral or religious grounds were known as conscientious objectors, meaning their consciences would not allow them to kill. When conscription was introduced, conscientious objectors had to appear before a tribunal to explain why they would not go to war. There were about 16,000 conscientious objectors of whom some were allowed to do non-fighting work such as farming. Others went to the battlefields, not to fight, but as stretcher-bearers helping to rescue wounded soldiers. Thousands more went to prison where they were often badly treated. To be given a white feather during this time implied that the recipient was a coward simply because he was not in uniform. Sometimes however there was a valid reason why this was not the case.
On the outbreak of war Kingsbury Colliery was working to full production. On 6th September 1914 an enthusiastic meeting was held at Wood End Working Men’s Club where the following letter from Mr. F A Newdegate M.P. was read by Lord Norton from Hams Hall:-
‘I am sure that the people of Warwickshire, who live in the neighbourhood of Wood End, will wish to do their bit to help the country in the same way that the rest of the country are doing, and they, like us all will feel proud that Warwickshire is known to be one of the best – if not the best – counties in the matter of recruiting. We are in a tough fight. People living in the middle of England do not see the immediate effects of it so much as those who live on the coast, but there is no question that when the war is over – with, as we hope, victory to our forces and the forces, which are allied with us – Warwickshire will have done her share in the tremendous struggle’.
Local miners were encouraged to fight for the liberty of their country and the world and to make sacrifices for those they loved. Miners' wives and mothers were also urged to let their young men go forward to take part in the war as England demanded this service of them. The men were told that they faced a greater danger of being injured, maimed or killed down the pit than they did fighting and it was a great honour to fight for their country. The men were encouraged to ‘do their part in ending this power which sought greed, pride, lust and oppression and to replace it with right and justice’. A number of names were given in at the close of the meeting and prior to it, fifty-two recruits and reservists had responded to the call.
During September 1914 further recruitment meetings were held at both Nether Whitacre and Kingsbury. Once again men were informed of the causes of the war and encouraged to fight the enemy to 'bring about a peace so that civilised nations could live together as Christians and not barbarians.' Conscription was viewed as a disgrace as men should be willing to volunteer and fight that foe to the bitter end however long it took. Morale was high and no one it seemed thought the conflict would take very long to settle. Employers were told to assure their young men that the short service would invigorate their minds, their bodies, and their muscles. Miners were reassured that their jobs would still be kept open for them when they returned.
In answer to those who questioned the risks of war, it was stated that as the enemy did not shoot very straight and were afraid of cold steel, the men were at a greater risk working in the mine! In order to arouse further patriotism, the men were told that seven hundred men of Hurley, under Bracebridge, once won Cressy and it was hoped that there were still those living around Hurley who were, 'chips off the old block, who with a rifle could hit a bull's eye and so give a German one in the eye or a dig in the ribs which would destroy his appetite'. At the request of Colonel Ludlow the audience rose and repeated after him the following undertaking:
'We, the inhabitants of Kingsbury, do hereby solemnly undertake in the presence of Almighty God, that we will use our best endeavours to raise the armies required by Lord Kitchener for the defence of his Majesty King George V, and the confusion and destruction of all our enemies, so help us all our God.'
Already nearly 200 men had been sent from Kingsbury colliery which, as a result, suffered from a reduced labour force that in turn, meant a reduction in output. The owners were quite willing to accept this for the sake of men he were helping their country. With so many families left to fend for themselves without their men folk, a fund was started to support their wives and children.