Skip to main content

On War Service badges – part 1

By Luca Golzio

Although many men were happy to volunteer for the armed forces in the patriotic fervour that characterised the beginning of the First World War, there were others who for various reasons declined to enlist. However, there was great pressure on men of military age to volunteer, and young women were even encouraged to present a white feather, the traditional symbol of cowardice, to those who were not in uniform.

Crowds of men leave the RSAF Enfield factory gates at "dinner time".

Workmen leaving the factory at dinner time.

In October 1914 John Pretyman Newman, the Conservative MP for Enfield, who was serving as a Captain in the Middlesex Regiment on the Western Front, harshly criticized the men of his constituency because he felt that the enlistment figures for the town were too low. Some of the workers of the Royal Small Arms Factory, those who were reservists in the armed forces, did volunteer at the beginning of the war, but others were discouraged from doing so because the factory was engaged in vital war work. Those who wished to enlist had to seek permission from the Superintendent of the factory in order to do so.

Staff memo from 1915 stating that all men needed permission before enlsiting in the army

Before the introduction of conscription men wishing to volunteer for military service at the beginning of the war needed permission from the Superintendent. Staff Memo 1915.

In early 1915 the War Office decided to issue an “On War Service” badge to workers at munitions factories. The badges were not meant to be issued to everyone who was working in a factory, but only those workers who were regarded as highly skilled and indispensable for the war effort, although in practice they were often given semi-skilled and even unskilled men. The bearer of such a badge was therefore able to prove to anyone that, although not giving service in the armed forces, he too was doing his part for his country. The first badge was oval-shaped and was topped with a crown. It was made of brass, but had a blue enamelled border bearing the inscription and the date, with the arms of the Board of Ordnance in the centre. It was replaced by a cheaper brass version in 1916.

Brass badge featuring 3 cannons and 3 balls, surmounted by a crown and the motto "on war service 1915"

The “On War Service” badge introduced for workers in the Ordnance Factories in 1915

By the beginning of 1916 the steady flow of volunteers had ceased, and in order to ensure that there were enough men for the armed forces the Military Service Act was passed. All single men between the ages of 18 and 41 were eligible to be called up unless they did very skilled work or were medically unfit or there were other exceptional circumstances. In May conscription was extended to married men.

Staff memo stating that all men were liable for military service

After the introduction of conscription all men between 18 and 41 were liable for military service. Staff Memo 1916.

Workers at Enfield were no longer exempt from military service, and had to either enlist immediately, or attest as willing to serve, or be automatically called up. Medical Board’s visited the factory to examine men to see if they were fit for military service. Some men appealed against being called up, but by June 1917 a total of 1,470 men had been released from the factory to join the armed services, of whom 280 were married and 1190 single.

The number of women working at the RSAF grew dramatically from only 5 at the end of 1915 to over 1,000 by the end of the following year.

Related stories

Load more