The Military Tribunal system was established under the Military Service Act 1916, which lay down terms for mandatory military service. This updated the Derby Scheme devised by Edward Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby, whereby men who 'attested', or voluntarily registered to serve in the military, would only be called upon for service when necessary. That scheme was introduced in autumn 1915 but was unsuccessful and abandoned by December that year.
The new Military Service Act required all single adult males, aged between 18 and 41, to register for military service unless they possessed a certificate of exemption. By April 1918 the age range was extended, so that men aged from 17 to 51 could be called up, and exemptions were further restricted.
From 1916, men seeking exemption from military service could apply to local tribunals, appeal tribunals and a central tribunal based in London.
Local tribunals were appointed by the local registration authorities designated under the National Registration Act 1915 (in most cases these were burgh and city councils). They dealt with attested (voluntary servicemen) and non-attested (conscripted) applications. Recruiting officers or other military representatives were also entitled to attend any hearing and to question applicants.
An applicant refused exemption by the local tribunal, or dissatisfied with the type of exemption granted, had a right of appeal to the appeal tribunal. These were appointed by the Crown, and in Scotland were held within sheriffdoms. Military representatives or recruiting officers could also appeal to the tribunal against the exemption granted to an applicant.
The central tribunal at Westminster in London was the final court of appeal. It dealt with difficult cases that would stand as precedent for local tribunals. Any person dissatisfied with a decision of an appeal tribunal could appeal to it, provided they were given leave to do so by the appeal tribunal.
The central tribunal frequently took over cases involving conscientious objection by men who had already been called up. Some of these records survive in The National Archives in London (The National Archives, MH47).
Men or employers could claim exemption on the grounds that it was in the national interest to continue their current work. Exemptions were also considered on personal grounds, for example hardship, ill-health or conscientious objection. It was certainly not the case that all applications submitted were from men who were unwilling to fight, as large numbers of applicants were previously attested men (volunteers).
Exemptions granted by tribunals could be permanent, conditional or temporary, and all could be revoked.
From these records you will be able to find out more about the appellant, his home, family or job; whether they appealed themselves or their relatives or employers appealed on their behalf; the grounds upon which the appeal was based and whether it was successful or not. Some appeal papers include additional correspondence in support of the appeal.
Due to the sensitive issues that surrounded compulsory military service during and after the First World War, only a small minority of the tribunal papers survive. After the war, the Government issued instructions that all tribunal material should be destroyed, except for two samples - the appeal records for Middlesex in England, and the Lothian and Peebles records in Scotland. These were to be retained as a benchmark for possible future use.
The records of the Lothian and Peebles appeal tribunal are deposited in the National Records of Scotland (National Records of Scotland, HH30) and cover Edinburgh, the Lothians and the Borders. Other chance survivals for Scotland exist, including papers from the Ross, Cromarty and Sutherland (Lewis Section) appeal tribunal, which are preserved as part of Stornoway Sheriff Court records (National Records of Scotland, SC33/62).
The appeals cover the years 1916-1918. The records that survive relate to the following local tribunals:
- Central Appeal Tribunal
- Cockenzie, Port Seton burgh
- East Linton
- East Lothian
- Forfar, Dundee
- North Berwick
- South Queensferry
- West Lothian
For some of the records, no local tribunal is given and in the index these are listed as 'not given'.
Search Military Service Appeals Tribunal records. You can search on some or all of the following index fields:
- Grounds - grounds of appeal
- Tribunal - location of tribunal
- Appeal number
- Notes - this field gives you the opportunity to search by place names and on companies’ names or relatives’ names who appealed on behalf of a person.
The search form includes tips for each field with links to more detailed research guides where appropriate.
The main grounds for exemption mentioned in the appeals tribunal records are as follows:
- serious hardship
- national interest
- certified occupation, or occupation outwith the Act
- ill health
- conscientious objection
- education or training
- case to be reheard
- colonial subject
Not all cases mention specific grounds for exemption
Each set of case papers should include the following:
- appeal form (this gives the address, age and occupation of the appellant, a statement of the reasons for the appeal, and in some instances additional statements or correspondence in support of the appeal.)
- local tribunal application form
- notice of decision form (this confirms the final decision of the appeal tribunal).
For some entries the appeal papers themselves do not survive, but related applications for medical re-examination have survived. This will be indicated in the relevant index entries. Applications for medical re-examination include the name of a person, address, occupation, age and the result of the examination. In some cases you can also see the handwriting of the person who appealed.
Read our fascinating case studies of men who appealed their military service: Military Service Appeal Tribunal cases.