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National Service League (act. 1902–1914) was a defencist, allegedly militarist, organization, from 1905 to 1914 led by Lord Roberts, which campaigned unsuccessfully for compulsory military training. The largest of the patriotic leagues, it was part of that efflorescence of Edwardian patriotic organizations that included the Legion of Frontiersmen, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, and Boy Scouts. Like them the National Service League (NSL) was a response to the South African War and fears of foreign threats, internal weakness, moral decadence, and physical deterioration. Its model was another defencist pressure group, the Navy League (1895).

In 1900 Britain and the United States alone among the great powers did not have mass conscript armies. During the South African War various persons suggested that Britain should introduce compulsory military service. Among these advocates was George R. F. Shee (1869–1939), a barrister and Liberal imperialist, who in March 1901 published The Briton's First Duty: the Case for Conscription. Warning of the possible fall of Britain and its empire, Shee claimed that the Royal Navy alone was an inadequate defence, and insisted that a compulsory home defence army was necessary against invasion. He also argued that compulsory universal military service would counter degeneration and deterioration and make better citizens, employees, husbands, and fathers.

Shee's book attracted the Conservative politician Lord Newton [see Legh, Thomas Wodehouse], who instigated the meeting that founded the NSL. It was held on 26 February 1902 at Apsley House, by the invitation of Arthur Wellesley, fourth duke of Wellington (1849–1934), who became its president. The founding committee also comprised Sir Clinton E. Dawkins (1859–1905), a banker called by John E. B. Seely ‘the life and soul of the league’ (Seely, 92), Newton, Henry Charles Hardinge, third Viscount Hardinge (1857–1924), Robert A. Yerburgh, and Seely (who later left). Its offices were at Dacre House, Victoria Street, Westminster. Shee became its secretary, organized the movement, and edited its journal (National Service Journal, from 1906 Nation in Arms). In 1910 he resigned and was replaced by Colonel W. J. B. Bird.

Aware of the unpopularity of compulsory service, the NSL advocated only two months' training, under canvas, followed by brief annual training for three years, for a ‘citizen army’ for home defence, though some members wanted longer training. Its message was always defensive, never advocating aggressive or pre-emptive war. By 1905 it had just over 2000 members, including Garnet Wolseley, George Sydenham Clarke, Rudyard Kipling, Sir John Ardagh, Lord Charles Beresford, and C. F. Moberly Bell. A ladies' auxiliary was formed in 1904.

Initially the NSL was one pressure group among many, and made little impression. About 1905, however, a group of dynamic imperialists including Leopold Amery and Alfred Milner became active in the NSL and ‘started the National Service League as an effective organisation’ (Amery, 214). Milner persuaded Roberts, who resigned from the Committee of Imperial Defence in November 1905 to take over the NSL's presidency. An imperial hero, Roberts gave the NSL prestige and transformed its campaign which became, to the press and public, Lord Roberts's ‘crusade’. Amery became his ‘ideas man’ and wrote some of his speeches. Others who assisted Roberts included Leopold Maxse, James L. Garvin, Charles À Court Repington, John A. Cramb, and Henry Wilson. It was sometimes alleged that Roberts, the NSL's leading spokesman, was manipulated by others; Sir John Fisher asserted that Roberts was ‘simply putty in Repington's hands’ and ‘a cypher’ (Marder, 138, 160). Yet Roberts had his own agenda. He, and others, privately wanted compulsion partly for a large army for a continental commitment against Germany, ‘to back the Expeditionary Force at the decisive point’ (Churchill, 1501). As H. O. Arnold-Forster noted, the NSL leaders knew that ‘if they were to propose conscription for foreign service … they would utterly fail’ (Williams, 143). Under Roberts NSL membership grew to, reportedly, 96,526 in 1913. Its propaganda included lantern lectures, plays, gramophone records, and films, and it had Unionist press support, especially from the Morning Post, owned by Countess Bathurst, an NSL member and benefactress.

Ostensibly above party politics and sometimes contemptuous of politicians and political institutions, the NSL tried to appeal to persons of all and no political allegiances. In practice only a small minority of Liberals and socialists supported it. Most members were Unionists, including peers and MPs, but not the party leaders: compulsory military service was never Unionist policy. Unionist members included ‘radical right’ activists and tariff reformers, and NSL peers were largely ‘diehards’—with Curzon a notable exception—and supporters of Ulster. Members of the NSL were mostly Anglican.

NSL publicists included Frederick S. Oliver, John St Loe Strachey, (John) Coulson Kernahan, Major William P. Drury (1861–1949), novelist and playwright, and John H. Skrine (1848–1923), formerly warden of Trinity College, Glenalmond, and vicar of St Peter-in-the-East, Oxford, who wrote the NSL pamphlet Religious Thought and National Service. With affluent supporters the NSL was relatively well financed: reportedly it paid more in salaries than the total income of all the peace societies. Its donors included Abe Bailey, Walter Morrison, and Major Frank Hilder (1864–1951), a wealthy stockbroker who, as honorary secretary of the Essex branch from 1907, made it the largest NSL branch in the country. Other NSL members and supporters included the earl of Meath [see Brabazon, Reginald], Archibald R. Colquhoun, George G. Coulton, the duke of Norfolk [see Howard, Henry Fitzalan], Auckland Geddes, Henry G. Hart, Lord Northcliffe [see Harmsworth, Alfred Charles William], Sir Richard Lodge, Violet Milner, Earl Percy, Edward Turnour, Earl Winterton, Sir Francis P. F. Vane, Lord Willoughby de Broke [see Verney, Richard Greville], and Arnold H. White. Despite some internal disageements the NSL was essentially united and suffered no secession.

The NSL under Roberts warned against the German threat, and campaigned especially on two related issues, invasion and the Territorial Force. It insisted that, contrary to government policy and three Committee of Imperial Defence invasion inquiries, only compulsory service could defend against a ‘bolt from the blue’. If Haldane's new Territorial Force were successful, as a voluntary home-defence army it would destroy the public case for compulsion; so the NSL criticized it as inadequate.

The NSL did not succeed in persuading parliament of the need for conscription, and compulsionist bills were defeated. By August 1914 the NSL had failed to achieve its goal. Ministers believed compulsory training was neither militarily necessary nor politically feasible; that the navy and the existing voluntary army could defend Britain; and that peacetime compulsory training was unacceptable to the electorate.

At the outbreak of the First World War the NSL suspended its campaign. Roberts died in November 1914 and Milner succeeded him. In 1915 Milner urged the NSL to press for conscription, but the weakened organization did not respond. Although the NSL did not bring about the introduction of conscription in 1916, its pre-war propaganda contributed to the climate of opinion that accepted this innovation. In March 1921 the NSL was wound up and gave its remaining funds, about £10,000, to the Boy Scouts Association.

The NSL failed to achieve its goal, but it was a counter-force to radical pressure and contributed to defence anxiety, Germanophobia, and, if unintentionally, to naval rearmament and to wartime volunteering, and so to victory in 1918.

Roger T. Stearn

Sources  

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