From the NS archive: Mr Chamberlain’s fiasco

Neville Chamberlain, Director General of National Service, in Whitehall, London, 1917

7 April 1917: A call for volunteers, but volunteering for what?

In late 1916, Neville Chamberlain, then a successful businessman and Lord mayor of Birmingham, was asked by the Prime Minister David Lloyd George to take up the position of director-general of National Service. One of his duties in the role was to ensure that vital war industries, from shipbuilding to farming, had the workers they needed. He set up a scheme for National Service Volunteers to serve in the roles vacated by the men fighting in France and quickly amassed some 200,000 volunteers. What to do with them though? The writer of this editorial thought that Chamberlain had gone about things the wrong way round, recruiting volunteers before knowing how and where they should be used. He should have asked the farmers and shipbuilders what they wanted first. Chamberlain had ignored the rules of supply and demand with the result that too few volunteers were set to useful work and the scheme was a “fiasco”. Later in 1917, Chamberlain resigned.


It is impossible not to feel sympathy with the director-general of National Service, who was suddenly called away from his business at a moment’s notice, and charged to put into operation an idea and a plan which have proved hopelessly impracticable. Neville Chamberlain himself has worked almost night and day, and he has been helped by a band of able and zealous volunteers of his own choosing. For staff, for advertising, for organising, no expense has been spared. For three months the extensive St Ermin’s Hotel has been humming with activity. Millions of forms have been distributed; and more than 200,000 men have already been enrolled as National Service Volunteers, elaborately thanked and registered, and classified in a series of gigantic card catalogues upon the most up-to-date American model.

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What has thereupon been discovered is the practical impossibility, by this method, of actually getting men into the places in which they are required. We attach no great importance to extraordinary stories that are floating round Whitehall about the disorganisation and chaos that prevail in the office. Any suddenly extemporised office, which chose to dispense with the very valuable assistance of the trained Civil Service, and aimed at “doing without red-tape”, would have found itself equally “snowed under” when it started advertising to the public on so colossal a scale; and would, anyhow, have given currency to some extraordinary anecdotes of ineptitude.

[See also: From the NS archive: Man and his environment]

What is serious is that the machine does not work. Seven-eighths of the volunteers are men who cannot be spared from their present posts; and no one knows how to extract the other eighth, or what to do with it when it is extracted. The total number of men so far taken away from what they were doing and placed in the so-called “National Service” – that is to say, the service of some employer who is himself working for his own private profit – is infinitesimal. We do not …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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