WW1 recruitment poster calling on men of all walks of life to enlist (© IWM (Art.IWM PST 0318)).

Recruitment poster with portrait of Robert Burns, accompanied by the text "What Burns Said - 1782, Holds Good in 1915, Take His Tip"While researching recruitment and enlistment for the last open day at Digging In, I realised that if someone were to ask me ‘Would you have volunteered in August 1914?’ I would be unable to answer. It is difficult in 2016, more than 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, to imagine ourselves as young men and what our own thoughts and feelings would be. With Lord Kitchener’s call for 100,000 volunteers to join the armed forces on August 8th 1914, a war that had been widely anticipated was suddenly reality. Kitchener even directly appealed to Scots, saying:

‘I feel certain that Scotsmen have only to know that the country needs their services to offer them with the same splendid patriotism as they have always shown in the past’.[1]

Scottish soldiers had a reputation for endurance and loyalty to their commanders – established during the Jacobite Risings and numerous conflicts abroad in the British Empire, and expressed in the wartime catch phrase ‘chivalry, self-sacrifice and heroism’. In Scotland, average rates of enlistment in volunteer units had always been double the British average,[2] and in 1914-1915 Scots constituted approximately 13% of the British volunteer force.[3] Many young Scots would have been inspired to enlist by powerful propaganda posters and in Glasgow alone, more than 1000 men signed up in 24 hours on August 8th 1914. [4]

During my research, I found that young men were not only persuaded to enlist by wartime propaganda and patriotic fever. A combination of other pushing and pulling factors made war attractive.

Joining the Army promised the means for a better life once the war was over. When World War I began, wages were low, living conditions were poor amongst the working classes and Scotland’s industry was declining, a trend that was forecast to continue.[5] Army service paid well, and the working classes and the unemployed were often drawn to volunteer in order to earn a better living. For example, one in four Scottish coal miners enlisted.[6] Knowing that many Scots believed war would improve their lives may be difficult to imagine because of what we now know about the nature of the war. However, in 1914 most people believed it would only last until Christmas. Personally, I do not blame these men for taking the chance to escape impoverished living conditions.

Further, war was presented as an adventure of a lifetime, and one that they could experience with their friends. ‘Pals Battalions’ were made up of men from the same towns and cities, clubs or workplaces. For example, a 16th (Boys Brigade) Battalion was established from Glasgow and the 15th (Tramways) Battalion, the Highlight Light Infantry, was made up of workers on Glasgow’s public transport system.[7] The 16th Royal Scots Battalion, also known as ‘McCrae’s Battalion’, consisted of Heart of Midlothian football team’s players and supporters.[8] The Pals Battalions are something I think all young people can empathise with. What young lad would want to miss out on the opportunity for a shared adventure such as this?

Many Scottish volunteers were proud and patriotic, attracted to war not only by a sense of duty but by the prospect of adventure and a better life. When I think about it now, I am proud that my ancestors and Scots served in the First World War.


Words by Molli Mitchell, Glasgow University student and Digging In volunteer.

Photo credit: “I’ll go and be a sodger.” © IWM PST 11331



Royle, T 2007 The Flowers of the Forest: Scotland and the First World War. Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited.

Great War & Scotland http://www.scotland.org.uk/history/great-war [accessed 23 February 2016]

[1] Trevor Royle, The Flowers of the Forest: Scotland and the First World War, (Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, 2007) P.30

[2] Ibid. p.40

[3] Royle, Flowers, p.35

[4] Great War & Scotland, http://www.scotland.org.uk/history/great-war [accessed 23 February 2016]

[5] Royle 2007, p.20

[6] Great War & Scotland, http://www.scotland.org.uk/history/great-war [accessed 23 February 2016]

[7] Royle 2007, p.33

[8] Ibid, p.34