The decision that thrust Joseph Blackburn into the Great War hinged on a stark commercial consideration. While Blackburn had been afforded limited exemptions from military service by a local tribunal, an appeal by a military representative brought Blackburn’s case before the Central Tribunal in Westminster. And this tribunal decided that, despite Blackburn being a market gardener, vegetable and fruit hawker, it was ‘not satisfied that the holding would go out of cultivation if the man was called up for military service’.

Thus in chapter 20378 – after Blackburn’s regimental number with the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment – lawyer David Hewitt plunges the reader into the Western Front. ‘Ultimately, Joseph Blackburn’s life was shaped by the law and those who were supposed to apply it,’ concludes Hewitt.

Hewitt parallels Blackburn’s short life with the Derby scheme which, Hewitt suggests, ‘was either a final attempt to avoid conscription or the beginning of preparations to introduce it’. The catalysts for the scheme were the huge losses suffered by the expeditionary force, and secretary of state for war Earl Kitchener’s observation that ‘130,000 men would be needed every month in order to cover “wastage” alone’.

Author: David Hewitt

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Blackburn, who was married with two children, chose to ‘attest’ to join the forces; under the group scheme, he was permitted to defer his service. Typical of Hewitt’s colourful characterisation, we learn that Blackburn was given a khaki armlet on which was a crimson image of the royal crown to wear ‘so that he wasn’t taken for a coward’.

When limited conscription crystallised into the Military Service Act 1916, the local tribunals before which Blackburn had appeared were given greater statutory powers. But as Hewitt emphasises, ‘the tribunals’ decisions, when they came, had no legal force’, so even men like Blackburn with exemptions were benefiting from ‘an administrative arrangement… that might at any moment be brought to an end’.

Even so, when the Central Tribunal sent Blackburn to the Colours – and here Hewitt detects a possible injustice as the cost of travelling to Westminster perhaps precluded Blackburn from appearing in person – the ruling was enough to prompt his local Thornton tribunal in Lancashire to adjourn, or in effect strike, in protest. However, Hewitt, who has himself chaired judicial tribunals, says the exemptions Blackburn received were ‘less comprehensive and less enduring than ones the tribunal gave to many other men’.

Blackburn’s benign domestic existence in Fylde, or Windmill Land – evocatively described here – perhaps serves as a microcosm for thousands of other men ultimately torn from their families to serve at the front. And Blackburn’s experience finds resonance in today’s tribunals, Hewitt ruefully reflects, where ‘legal representation is rare and becoming rarer’.

Nicholas Goodman is a sub-editor at the Law Society Gazette