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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

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Hi all

After looking at a lot of service papers I have noticed that many of the signatures of the men signing up look very similar to the rest of the writing on the form. Did the men fill in the forms themselves or was it a Sgt or officer who filled them in then gave them it to sign? My guess is that not all men enlisting would have been able to read, yet I have yet to see an X mark as a signature.

Just got me curious.


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I'm fairly sure they're signed as we would now understand it - they turn the form to you and say "sign here" - but that the nature of the signature, and handwriting, is a bit different.

Firstly, schooling was much more oriented towards producing clear and standardised hands than it is now, and so most literate adults would have relatively similar handwriting styles.

Secondly, more emphasis was placed on the act of signing rather than what the signature looked like, so a "signature" is going to look quite similar to normal writing as opposed to the modern stylised form.

Looking at this one for example - http://interactive.ancestry.co.uk/1219/31239_204998-00008/1999238 - you can see that the "signature" line is very similar in style to the other incidences of the name around it, but it's definitely been written by someone else, probably holding the pen a little differently as well - the "G" and "r" are different, and the lines are thinner.

In terms of literacy - the educational reforms of the late nineteenth century meant that literacy rates - at least at a basic level - were probably approaching modern levels in most of the UK, but the most deprived areas would be poor districts of rural Ireland, where literacy rates were perhaps 85% for men at the turn of the century. As a result, I wonder if you'd have more chance of finding X's in, say, the Connaught Rangers recruiting papers?


Edited by generalist
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Found one!


James Bowes, from Kilclooney, Galway, age 17 years 10 months, unemployed. The date is omitted from the bottom due to a bad copy, but from the next page it's 1909/10.

Here's another from 1916, so a definite WWI form: http://interactive.ancestry.co.uk/1219/MIUK1914F_127760-00775/199625 - interestingly, it has two witnesses signing below

These two are clearly completely illiterate, but there's a lot of laboured signatures, and some very shaky ones like this from men who apparently *can* write, but are really not comfortable with it, and might not class as functionally literate by modern standards:


It occurs to me that the Irish census recorded literacy in 1911, so if you wanted to track down a regular battalion stationed in Ireland at the time, it might give a sense of what proportion of regular soldiers were literate.


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Thanks! It actually turns into a really interesting question...

This paper - http://www.nber.org/papers/w1661 - estimates illiteracy as 1.4% in 1905. (table 4, p. 28). The trend is very clearly down, and broadly going down faster than illiteracy in the nation as a whole.

Literacy was apparently recorded by the medical examining officer - I wonder if this can be spotted on any of the surviving medical papers in service records?


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  • 3 weeks later...

Picking up an old post, here's a rather alarming perspective on the 1914 paperwork frenzy:


...asked the Under-Secretary of State for War if he will consider the advisability of issuing recruiting forms of a less complicated nature than those at present in use, seeing that at least twelve official signatures are required for each recruit, causing unnecessary delay in completion; and whether it is necessary for one of the forms to be in duplicate? (...) Has the right hon. Gentleman considered this, bearing in mind the fact that the delay is largely caused by the fact that the recruiting officer himself has to sign these documents eight or nine times for each recruit?


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