Joseph, 1917 by David Hewitt
|Joseph, 1917 by David Hewitt|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A fascinating fact-stuffed study of the WWI Derby Scheme, its attendant tribunals, its inconsistencies, paradoxes and the people surrounding them.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: January 2017|
During the autumn of 1915 Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby and Director General of military recruitment inaugurated the Derby Scheme. Men of fighting age would be encouraged by door-to-door canvassers to 'attest' that they would sign up for military service at a recruitment office within 48 hours. They would then be put in categories according to marital status and be called up, with 14 days' notice, in an order in line with their household responsibilities. The idea was a sound one: married men with children only being called on if absolutely necessary. Lancastrian Joseph Blackburn chose to attest but then for him and many others, unforeseen results ensued.
David Hewitt is a writer and also a lawyer who sits on judicial tribunals. This, together with his love of researching obscure stories to reveal more about familiar historic moments, makes him the ideal candidate for a historical documentary like this. The time is right since we're amidst the four years of centenary commemorations of World War I so we may feel as if all has now been revealed. Yet David provides us with this example of a lesser known scheme siding with a political expediency and inconsistency that became bogged down in a dangerous ineptitude. (The scheme that is, not David's writing!)
The idea of the Derby Scheme seems sensible on paper yet it didn't translate as the fair system it was meant to be. Part of this is because of the comparatively small take up (38% of single men and 54% of marrieds) which brought about the conscription it was designed to avoid and partly because of an accompanying promise.
Men were assured that the only way to gain an exemption from fighting would be via the Scheme. This, unsurprisingly, brought about the recruitment of large numbers who felt they had a case for not being recruited and thereby gave the tribunals set up to hear the cases a lot more work than expected. Not only that, the guidelines were a little fuzzy, particularly when it came to defining reserved, or 'starred', occupations.
Take food production for instance. At what stage does a farmer become a small-holder and what criteria should be in place to prove a small-holder's worth? This is a discussion that's particularly evident in Joe's case and brings about some searing oddities as well as inter-civil-servant arguments, causing an unprecedented and very public result.
The book may be named after Joseph (1917 being the year of his central tribunal appeal hearing) but David uses him as a sort of historical roundabout and starting point for some fascinating roads meandering towards the verdict of his case and beyond.
Thanks to David's painstaking research of primary sources, including tribunal paperwork transcripts and contemporary accounts, we're treated to a myriad of potted biographies of some of the prime notables who sat on or were connected to Joseph's local tribunal and the central appeals' board in London. Many, to follow a pattern that crops up again and again during the war, seem to be as upper class aloof as necessary for them to be removed from the daily life experiences of the average recruit. Names like the previously obscure Maxwell Hyslop Maxwell and Robert Warrand Carlisle become people in front of us in all their character-packed glory.
As we learn of Joseph's fate (signposted at the beginning but I shan't spoil it here), it's easy to become annoyed on behalf of those in his situation. Our blood pressures are worsened by the realisation that special treatment even existed for certain echelons. I was mumbling at the book on reading about the local dignitary's sons who were visited by the tribunal in their own home and declared exempt from service there and then. One assumes that the business of the day didn't take long in that case!
Whether we think this book a good read depends on how we take our history non-fiction. If you like a narrative that follows a sequential line, this may be an unusual experience. However, if you enjoy an experience that winds its way through some amazing thumbnails, looking over the shoulder of an author who obviously loves dabbling in the darker corners of archives, this is definitely a boot-filling experience.
(Thank you, Matador for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If you'd like to read and understand more about WWI, we also recommend The Great War by Peter Hart or maybe going back to where it all began with The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder That Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans.
You can read more book reviews or buy Joseph, 1917 by David Hewitt at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Joseph, 1917 by David Hewitt at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.