Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Earlston Men Before the WW1 Military Tribunals

We tend to think that WW1 Military Tribunals dealt primarily with conscientious objectors,   but newspaper reports of the day  show that men sought exemption from service in the armed forces for a variety of reasons - amongst them men from Earlston.

In Britain, conscription in the First World War came into force in March 1916. It  specified that single men between the ages of 18 and 41 were liable to be called-up for military service,  unless they were widowed with children or ministers of religion. The age was quickly extended to married men in May 1916, and was raised  further to 50 in April 1918.  

Ireland was specifically  exempt from conscription in the light of the unrest there, culminating in the Easter Uprising.
Military Army Soldiers Walking Armed Unifo

The Role of Military Tribunals  
These  were set up to hear applications for exemption from conscription. Although the tribunals were best known for their attitude to conscience objectors, most of their work dealt with domestic and business issues.  Men could apply on the basis of doing work of national importance, such as in war industries;  for domestic or business hardship, or for medical unfitness.

Local newspapers reported regularly on tribunals  across  the Scottish Borders, and below are some typical instances from 1916  involving men from Earlston.   Often a temporary reprieve was given, but  this was generally  for a few weeks only.

  • A butcher from Redpath had been trying to sell his business as a growing concern and asked for deferment to allow him to collect outstanding debts.  He was granted a postponement of six weeks, with a stipulation this would not be extended and he must be prepared to serve.
  • Earlston hairdresser & tobacconist, John Rutherford claimed financial hardship, in consideration that he had built up a small business and needed to wind up matters. He was given a temporary reprieve from service.

  • Five claims were made for farm workers at Fans Farm.   Given exemptions were George Simpson, who had three brothers serving, and ploughman/steward Peter Hume;  two were refused -  Ralph Hume and David Adam Borthwick; whilst Joseph Borthwich was given temporary exemption.
  • Master baker of Earlston,  Walter Utterson was given an “absolute exemption." 
  • A  china merchant in Earlston appeared before the tribunal a second time and stated that he supported  his elderly grandparents in their late 70’s,  and he still needed to make arrangements for his business to be carried on.  The tribunal opposed the appeal. 
  • William Holland, aged 34 of Earlston,  claimed he was unable to complete contracts for his work as a slater and chimney sweep, doing all the work around Earlston.  He had six children to support and a lot of farm steadings to repair. His claim was refused.
  • George Blair, partner with a plumbing firm in Earlston,  claimed that to lose one of his men, meant practically abolishing his business. Claim refused.

  • Henry Rutherford of Rutherford's, Agricultural Engineers in Earlston,  claimed that losing men to the armed services would jeopardise the needs of the farms in the area.  Exemption granted on the basis of his work being of national importance.

  • John Mather, hardware merchant of Earlston,  was granted exemption as unlikely to be medically fit for service. 

  • The President of the Earlston Co-operative Society petitioned on behalf three workers:   John Brash, manager was granted a temporary exemption until the end of stock-taking  and that a man was found to take on his duties;  baker John Burrell,  was given an “absolute exemption", with van man Walter Brotherston’s claim  refused.

Records Available
The records of the Military Tribunals were deliberately destroyed after the war, apart from two sets of records   - those for Middlesex, England, held at the National Archives at Kew in London; and those for The Lothians & Peebles in Scotland, held at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. 
So local  newspapers remain  the key source of information, available online - on FindmyPast and on the  British Newspaper Archive. 
[Silhouette image courtesy of  Pixabay]

Facts and Figures:
The population of Earlston  in 1911 was  1749.  Ten years later according to the 1921 census it was 1641. 49 Earlston men died in the First World War and  are named on the village war memorial, a number from the same family.  
Earlston War Memorial - November 2017


  1. An excellent article that is well researched and informative. David Borthwick, who had his appeal dismissed, enlisted in the Royal Scots. He was wounded in the Battle of Lys and captured by German soldiers. He was taken to a German field hospital but died from his wounds on April 27, 1918. He is commemorated in perpetuity on Earlston’s War Memorial.

  2. Thank you, Jeff, for your kind comment and for sharing the sad story of David Borthwick.


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