For the first year of the war, the army’s need for recruits was met wholly by volunteers. Even after the first rush in August and September 1914, more than 100,000 men a month put themselves forward. By summer 1915, however, it was clear that the supply was slowing. Britain had a traditional distaste for the concept of conscription, but some kind of compulsion, or at least stronger encouragement, was becoming necessary.
In October 1915 the ‘Derby Scheme’, named after Lord Derby, Director-General of Recruiting, was unveiled. It offered men the opportunity to attest that they were willing to serve without having to go away immediately. Attested men were placed in groups according to their age and marital status, and the groups would then be called up when needed, prioritising single men over those who were married.
The scheme also established a system of tribunals, which reviewed applications for exemption from service, whether on grounds of pacifism or indispensability, either to family or employer. Even if a man did not wish to serve, he might decide to attest, simply so that his own case could come up before a tribunal, and a decision be made.
The directors consider it desirable that every member of the staff of military age, married or single, should attest under Lord Derby's scheme, Army Reserve, section B. This should be done before Saturday next, the 11th instant, which is the last day for attesting recruits under this scheme.
Staff circular of London County & Westminster Bank, 7 December 1915
Throughout the autumn of 1915, the banks worried about how to respond to this new development. As of the end of October 1915, over 8,500 of Britain’s 30,000 bank workers had joined up. This figure represented around 46% of those in the eligible age range. The banks didn’t want to defy government initiatives, but were struggling to see how they could spare more men.
At first, some banks told staff not to attest, or at least to await further instructions. In Scotland, the banks petitioned the government for a quota system, whereby no bank would be required to give up more than 50% of its eligible pre-war staff. No concession was made, however, and by late November the banks began informing staff that they could attest if they wished. As the weeks went by, the banks strengthened their support for the Derby Scheme, and it became clear that most of them not only permitted, but actively expected, their men to attest. Some announced that men who failed to attest would receive no pay if they were subsequently conscripted.
The initial Derby Scheme closed in mid-December. At a national level, it was largely seen as a failure, because although over 2 million men did attest, nearly 40% of single men and over 50% of married men still did not come forward. In the banks, however, the picture was very different. The vast majority of bank workers did attest under the scheme. In National Provincial Bank of England, for example, only 24 men from a total eligible staff of 1,733 had not either joined up or attested by early 1916.