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Remembered Today:

Did convicts serve in the military in WW1?


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I have come across the record of a man who died in WW1 in 1918 - but other records show that he was in Portland Prison from 1912 - serving a 7 year sentence, hence due for release 1919.

What could explain this?

Were convicts permitted to serve in the armed forces in WW1?

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A few years ago I came across an ex-serviceman with Boer War experience being released from prison early so he could rejoin his unit along with his brother. He volunteered his services at the start of the war in 1914 and managed to get his wish by mid-1915.

He and his brother survived the war, though wounded.

Convict early release has been discussed here before.

I suppose the decision was made taking into consideration the type of crime, frequency of crimes committed, likelihood of reoffence and possibly experience of a military nature.


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Surprisingly it wasn't that much of an issue in pure numbers terms because the prison population right through from 1914 into the 40's was only around 10,000. 15% of the modern population.

But of course action was taken to put a lid on the numbers of C.O's allowed to be jailed.

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Surprisingly it wasn't that much of an issue in pure numbers terms because the prison population right through from 1914 into the 40's was only around 10,000. 15% of the modern population.

But of course action was taken to put a lid on the numbers of C.O's allowed to be jailed.

I didn't think of the population levels of prison at the time.

I suppose jail WAS A JAIL at that time and no one wanted to be in for any length of time. Volunteering was just a way of getting out of what was probably an awful place and regime.

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Thanks to those members who have made early comment.

I recognize that many members have infinitely more knowledge about these things than I have, and I am counting on them helping out with this query, so offer the following further information.

I have quickly reviewed the posts from the last time this issue was debated in 2007 and found that; as with the debate so far, no-one mentioned the National Service Act 1916. As I understand it there were several versions of this Act, the final one being passed by Parliament in 1918.

As I understand it the Act in all its various forms declared all men in the UK to be in the military, and eligible to be called upon whenever they were needed.

Some exemptions were considered, and in some instances repealed by subsequent versions of the same Act. BUT none of the exemptions which I have seen refer to prisoners.

This suggests that all existing legislation was over-ridden by the overarching nature of the National Service Act, and that as it was a matter of law, the feelings, opinions, or personal views of anyone in the military or not would not have been taken into account.

Given the above what I am seeking is concrete evidence that men were taken from prison to serve in the military - do you know of any such evidence?

In response to the comment asking if the man's identity can be shared - the answer is 'I would rather not reveal the identity at this time, not least because I have not yet made contact with the man's existing family, something which I regard as an essential preliminary step'.

However I can give an assurance that I have verified the identity of the man concerned, and that the details I have already shared are correct.

I can also say that he was serving a prison sentence of 7 years 'Penal Servitude' in Portland Prison; that a sentence of that duration indicates he was found guilty of a serious offence (I do know what the offence was and some related detail, and it was a serious one); that he entered service in Portland; that at first he joined the Dorchester Regiment, and subsequently became a member of the Machine Gun Corps, and died whilst still a member of that unit.

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Now that it has been disclosed that the sentence was Penal Servitude, the potential release date can begin to be calculated, but for precision one needs also to know the actual date of sentence. In the absence, so far, of any other evidence, let us assume that the sentence was passed on 31 December 1912, giving a nominal release date at 31 December 1919. On the assumption that the man behaved himself inside, he would earn one quarter remission of the 7-year sentence (one year nine months) giving a release date at 31 March 1918. If he had been held in prison on remand prior to trial and sentence, that time could be claimed to offset the sentence, bringing both the nominal and actual release date forward, Also, of course, if the sentence was passed earlier than 31 December 1912, the release dates would be brought forward by that much. However, it needs also to be understood that for the period of the one quarter remission the release would only be on licence, with a liability to be recalled to prison in the event of misbehaviour of various kinds, the licence expiring at the official end of the sentence.

A sentence of imprisonment, with or without hard labour, would have given rise to different calculations, and that is why it was important to state the type of sentence.

I am not aware of any considerations beyond time served before sentence and one-quarter remission on licence which would have allowed early release, and, as has been previously discussed on GWF, there was certainly no general provision for early release for prisoners specially to join up,

With reference to conscription legislation, Seriousseeker seems to have confused a number of matters:

The relevant Acts were the Military Service Acts, not National Service Acts (the latter terminology relates to WW2, rather than WW1).

The legislation was not one Act in "various versions", but, as is common when a legislative principle develops beyond its original core concept, a "principal" Act, the Military Service Act 1916, and a series of amending Acts.

The Acts did not "declare all men in the UK to be in the military". The Military Service Act deemed all unmarried men in Britain (i.e. not in Ireland) aged 18 and up to the 41st birthday, subject to specified exemptions, to have been enlisted and placed on the Army Reserve and available for call-up as required. An amending Act later in 1916 extended the principal Act to married men, and another amending Act in 1918 extended the upper age limit to the 51st birthday.

The Military Service Acts did not override existing legislation concerning civil criminal jurisdiction, and could have done so only by express provision being made by Parliament within the Acts. No-one ever suggested it, so it was never even debated, let alone being incorporated into any of the Acts. This meant, for example, that a soldier, whether a conscript or not, accused of committing a criminal offence in the UK could be tried, and, if found guilty, sentenced by the civilian criminal courts, including sentences of imprisonment, regardless of military liability or demands.

Finally, a distinction needs to be made between civil criminal jurisdiction and military procedures, because, as has been discussed elsewhere on GWF, the Army developed a practice whereby soldiers imprisoned by court-martial for military offences could be prematurely released for active service, but with the knowledge that they could be sent back to prison if their conduct proved unsatisfactory.

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