From the Beat to the Battlefield: A Brief Look at Policemen in WW1
Updated: Sep 11
When war broke out in 1914, there was an initial rush of enthusiasm as young men signed up to fight for their country. The British government initially believed that the war would be over by Christmas and that the number of volunteers would be sufficient to meet the needs of the military. However, as the war dragged on, it became clear that more men would be needed to maintain the effort.
The British government implemented a policy of conscription in 1916, which required all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 41 to serve in the military. This policy was highly controversial, as many men did not want to fight and believed that the government was encroaching on their freedom. Nevertheless, the government believed that conscription was necessary to win the war.
However, some men were exempt from conscription due to their occupation. These were known as reserved occupations and included jobs that were considered essential to the war effort, such as coal mining, agriculture, and certain industries. The government feared that if too many men in these industries were conscripted, it would cause major disruptions to the war effort.
At the start of the war, many police officers volunteered for military service. However, the government initially discouraged this, as they feared that the loss of experienced officers would lead to a breakdown in law and order. Instead, the government encouraged police officers to join the newly formed Special Constabulary, which was made up of volunteers who would provide additional support to the regular police force.
The Special Constabulary was made up of men who were too old or otherwise unfit for military service, as well as those in reserved occupations who were exempt from conscription. Their duties included guarding key installations and infrastructure, such as bridges, railways, and telegraph lines, as well as providing assistance in the event of an air raid or other attack.
In addition to the Special Constabulary, some police officers were also called upon to serve in the military. Those who did so were typically given leave of absence from their police duties and were able to return to the force after the war.
Police officers who served in the military were often given roles that made use of their policing skills. For example, many were assigned to the military police, where they were responsible for maintaining discipline and enforcing military law. Others were assigned to units that were responsible for intelligence gathering or counter-espionage, where their experience in investigating criminal activity was seen as an asset.
The war also had an impact on policing within Britain. The shortage of manpower caused by the large number of police officers who had volunteered for military service led to a reorganization of the police force. In some areas, the police were merged with other local services, such as fire brigades, to create a single unified emergency service.