What was the Darby Scheme (1915)?


The Derby Scheme was introduced during World War I in Britain in the autumn of 1915 by Herbert Kitchener’s new Director General of Recruiting, Edward Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby (1865-1948) after which it was named.

The war was lasting longer than had been anticipated and the British military required more recruits; ‘Derby’s scheme’ was a survey to determine how many could be obtained, via the use of appointed canvassers visiting eligible men at home to persuade them to ‘volunteer’ for war service.


Every eligible man aged 18 to 41 who was not in a “starred” (essential) occupation was required to make a public declaration. When the scheme was announced, some went to the recruiting office rather than wait for the dreaded inevitable. The process began with each eligible man’s registry card, from the August 1915 National Registry, being copied onto another card which was sent to his local constituency’s Parliamentary recruiting committee. This Committee appointed ‘canvassers’ who they considered “tactful and influential men”, and not themselves liable for service, to visit the men in their homes. Many canvassers were experienced in politics, though discharged veterans and the fathers of serving soldiers proved the most effective, while some just used threats to persuade. Although women were not allowed to canvas, they did contribute by tracking men who had moved address.

Each man would be given a copy of a letter from the earl of Derby, explaining the programme and rather dramatically stating that they were in “a country fighting, as ours is, for its very existence”. Faced with the canvasser, each man had to say whether or not he would attest to join the forces, no one was permitted to speak for him.

Those who did agree to attest had to promise to present themselves at their recruiting office within 48 hours, while some were accompanied there immediately to make sure. If found they passed a medical they were sworn in and paid a ‘signing bonus’ of 2s 9d. The next day they were transferred to Army Reserve B. A khaki armband bearing the Royal Crown was provided to all who had enlisted, or who had been rejected, as well as to starred and discharged men, pictured here: This ceased once conscription was introduced, January 1916. The enlistee’s data was copied onto a white card, used to assign him to one of 46 married or unmarried age groups, and promised that only entire groups would be called for active service, after 14 days prior notice. Single men’s groups would be called before married, any who wed after the day the scheme began were still classified as single. Married men were assured their group would not be called if too few single men attested – unless conscription was introduced.

The scheme was undertaken November and December 1915 and obtained 318,553 medically fit single men. However, 38% of single men and 54% of married men had resisted the mass orchestrated pressure to enlist in the war, so the British Government, determined to ensure a supply of replacements for the mounting casualties overseas, passed The Military Service Act of compulsory conscription into the war, 27 January 1916.


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