British conscripts: where compulsory service flourishes under the Union Jack, 1900

From The Star, July 5th, 1900. Reprinted from the Daily Mail of June 29th, 1900. Training the militia and their expertise at rifle-shooting.

See alsoThe History of the Jeux St George.

The very word conscription is hateful to British ears. Yet a journey of eight hours will bring the traveller to a spot where the British flag flies in all its glory where Britons have been conscripted for hundreds of years.

The Channel Islands have a system of compulsory service, which although the system of training does not reach the high standard of continental armies, has far-reaching results, without the terrible disadvantages generally accruing to compulsory service. It is purely for defence of the islands, and the scheme is as follows. Each island is divided into districts, from each of which a regiment is recruited; these districts are sub-divided in to quartiers, each furnishing a company for the Regiment of the district. Within the district is a drill-shed, or arsenal, at which the men drill. A rifle-range is also to be found within the confines of this district, so that the men always drill in close proximity to their homes. Furthermore, each man, in case of alarm, has a particular post assigned to him.

The name of every male between the ages of sixteen and sixty is inscribed on a Registre du District, showing whether he is serving, or liable to serve, or exempt from service. On arriving at the age of sixteen the names of all youths are added to the Registre, and should they be medically fit commence to drill. All drills are performed in the evening so as not to interfere with the avocations of the men. The recruit performs one or two drills weekly, each of one and a half hour's duration, until he is passed into the 'active' list. A minimum of seventy drills is demanded, in addition to the course of musketry prescribed for recruits of the regular Army. This constitutes what is known as a 'training'. Ten trainings have to be completed before the man can be transferred to the 1st reserve, in which category he remains until he reaches the age of 45. While therein he is seldom called up for drill; an annual roll-call being deemed sufficient.

Rifle-shooting is the chief recreation of the male inhabitants of the Norman Isles. It occupies a more prominent position with them than cricket does with Englishmen.

The reason is not very far to seek. Every man can become a member of the rifle club, and fire twenty-four rounds weekly, or some 600 rounds per annum, all for the insignificant sum of 4s 2d., which is about the value of the empty cartridge-cases. If he needs more practice he can become a member of two clubs by paying a little more. As there are ten rifle ranges in the Channel Islands, he is not confronted with the difficulty which deters so many in England from taking up rifle shooting. The result is that these ranges are occupied throughtout the year by all classes; from the quarryman and farm-labourers to the well-to-do tradesmen and farmers, from professional men to mechanics, who fraternise on the ranges in a far different manner than do the 'Gentlemen' and 'Players' at cricket.

The fruits of this system are to be found in the fact that only 3 per cent of the male population under sixty are unable to use the Service rifle efficiently. Again, the harvest reaped at Bisley must not be forgotten, for during the last two years one of these islands has succeeded in winning the Rajah of Kolapore's cup1 against teams picked from the mother country and all the colonies, capping this by winning the blue riband in the shape of the Queen's prize only last year.

Quite recently the opportunity was afforded the Channel Isles of doing away with conscription; with scarcely a dissentient voice they declined to have their ancient privilege withdrawn. The only dissentients were a few English settlers who did not mind having their island property defended by the natives, but strongly objected to doing their share in the defence.

The effect of this military service on the natives of these islands is at once apparent. It inculcates habits of obedience and regularity, which have their full fruit in the absence of crime.

It may not be out of place to add the 'Tommy' is particularly well received in these islands, as every man prides himself on being a soldier; or if he isn't, he will apologetically tell you what his ancestors back to the old Dukes of Normandy were. The enthusiasm which the conscripts of the Channel Islands show in their work is remarkable; they do not regard it as a hardship but as a pleasure.

1 Guernsey won the Kolapore Cups at Bisley in 1898, with a prize of £80. It was decided to present the Kolapore team with a gift to celebrate the victory, and eventually Miss Leale, daughter of Colonel J. Leale, late of the 2nd or North Regiment of the Militia, collected enough donations to buy twelve of the best Lee-Metford Rifles available for the members of the winning team and the four reserves. Four more were then bought so that the members of the 1900 Kolapore team could practice with the best rifles available. See The Star, June 12th, 1900. [For further information see cuttings book News cuttings mainly militia and rifle club, in the Library Strongroom.]