Report by The Officer In Charge of Records Royal Army Service Corps – A detailed explanation of how R.A.S.C. corps numbers were issued during the Great War

The following is a transcript of a memorandum from National Archives (T.N.A.) WO 32/4821: General (Code 21(A)): Allotment of numbers to men; new scheme: Report By The Officer In Charge Records Royal Army Service Corps  (30 September 1919).

The main objection of the RASC Officer in Charge of Records is to the original proposal for one issuing authority for all Army Numbers, instead of Regiments and Corps being responsible for the issue/management of their own blocks of numbers. In his attack on the proposed system (the system actually introduced in August 1920 simply devolved agreed blocks of numbers to the Record Offices) he produces a document which brilliantly explains the problems and utility of the regimental numbering system as seen from a Corps during WW1.

 

‘REPORT BY THE OFFICER IN CHARGE RECORDS. ROYAL ARMY SERVICE CORPS

In reply please quote:-

CR/30304/Central/15.

 

The Secretary,

War Office Annexe (A.G..1. R)

London, S.W.1.

 

In reply to Circular Memorandum 35/Gen.No./2169 (A.G.1.R.) dated 15th September, 1919, regarding allotment of Regimental Numbers to soldiers, I have to report as follows:-

[Editor’s note: the original question from the War Office was ‘(I) Do you concur with the proposal in principle or do you consider that the former and present system is preferable?’]

I. The proposal is not concurred with in principle (Please see remarks at IV.) It is not thought it would stand the test of War, especially in the earlier stages and it is further considered that the former and present system should be modified as described in II.

[Editor’s note: the original question from the War Office was ‘ (II) Do you consider that the new method outlined in the attached memorandum is advisable but that the method outlined in the attached memorandum is unsuitable?’]

II. It is considered that one series of numbers should be allotted to each Regiment or Corps, to include its Special Reserve and Territorial Force.

[Editor’s note: the original question from the War Office was ‘(III) Do you agree with the proposal in principle but consider that is should be altered in important details.’)

III.        See reply to question I.

[Editor’s note: Section IV is the Officer in Charge of Records (R.A.S.C.) detailed views on numbering, which is clearly based on experience of the system of recruitment and numbering in operation during the Great War.]

IV. While the proposal has many advantages, in my opinion many serious difficulties may arise to prevent its smooth working, which should be brought to notice. The first of these is the great and immediate expansion of the Army on the Declaration of War. In my opinion there is a risk that the centralization proposed would be overwhelmed at the outset, in the preparation of its hundreds of thousands of cards rising to millions and in their association with the many hundreds of Recruiting Agents, at the time when thousands of clerks are being taken into employment to do the necessary clerical work. It would, it is thought, be found difficult to prevent overlapping in Regimental Numbers by the thousands of inexperienced clerks got together and at short notice and in competition with every other Department of the State. With regard to this there would be a real danger that clerks would not carry out the numbering satisfactorily or stop numbering at the end of an allotted series and once overlapping started it would be almost impossible to unravel and re-number at such a time of pressure. Copying Regimental Numbers even in normal times is a fruitful source of error and there is no check that the number given for General Card Index is that on the Attestation. The work of making out many hundreds of thousands of cards from hurried rolls would be by no means a light task and a very large organization would be necessary immediately on the outbreak of War.

In the event of War, Justices of the Peace, Town Clerks, Officers Commanding Territorial Units with Drill Halls, Political Agents and others, would, as in the past, be all at work as Recruiting Agents in addition to the Military Recruiting Officers, and the preparation of rolls for Central Card Index showing allotment of Regimental Numbers made out in the Recruiting Offices would be a serious addition to the work of the pressed Recruiting Officers.

In my opinion the haste in which Recruits must be obtained might seriously affect the successful expansion of the Card Index. The staff of experienced Recruiters in Peace would probably not be a large one and there would be a large influx of inexperience, voluntary and otherwise, which would probably jeopardize the success of the proposed system.

There is little reason to believe when War occurs again there will be less haste and consequent mistakes than there was after the first Expeditionary Force had left this country. The point, therefore, arises, is such a time opportune to develop and expand so large a central organization on the shortest notice?

At the outbreak of the War, Royal Army Service Corps Officers would be sent out to recruit men and vehicles without the least delay, some of which would have to be aboard ship within two days. Special blocks of numbers would be necessary for each Officer, but how many for each it would be difficult to say.

Officers Commanding Units would also become Recruiting Officers; in addition Special Officers would visit the factories in the United Kingdom and recruit as many suitable Mechanical Transport men as possible. Some similar arrangements would probably obtain in all Technical Corps, all of which would add to the difficulties of the Officer in Charge Card Index in Keeping in touch with all Recruiters at a time when he would be expanding his own organization.

If it is decided to adopt Army Numbers it is considered that existing numbers should be cancelled to prevent duplication at the commencement. There are many minor disadvantages from a Record and Pay Office point of view, amongst them being:-

(a).      The adoption of Army Numbers with probably large jumps between each series would add to the difficulties of Stocktaking of Attestations in Record Offices, in fact it would be difficult to know whether a Corps had all its Attestations or not. There would be no real sequence either for storage in portfolios or for record in Army Book 358.

(b).      It would not have been possible during the War, without the greatest difficulty, to have separated the Army Pay Office into Horse Transport and Supply, Mechanical Transport and Remounts had blocks of numbers not been assigned here to each Branch from the Corps Series for the New Armies. If the numbers had all been intermingled it is questionable whether the separation could have been undertaken with success. It could not be expected that the Officer in Charge of Card Index would sub-divide series for Corps with several Branches therein. The Royal Army Service Corps must have prefixes to distinguish the Branch to which the soldier belongs – he may be miles away from his Unit or Officer administering. The prefixes are of very great use in the Royal Army Service Corps. The work in the Record Office is so organized that different Departments deal with different classes of soldiers, Mechanical Transport, Horse Transport, Supply, etc., and this is, (or was), also true of the Offices of the Regimental Paymaster, and the Q.M.G. Branches dealing with personnel at the War Office. Without the prefixes, there would be constant reference to the records of the soldier for the simple purpose of merely knowing which department should deal with the correspondence etc. The prefix immediately stamps the soldier with the Branch of the Corps to which he belongs and is invaluable to us.

(c).       Numerical Rolls, as now, would be difficult to maintain. It would presumably be essential for each Record Office to continue its series of Army Books 358 and Army Books 56 also A.B. 216 (T.F.) and unless it is settled beforehand how many Royal Army Service Corps Numbers will be required in Peace and War their manipulation in the Card Index Office would be very difficult especially as Recruiting Agents multiply.

(d).      If such a system could be successfully inaugurated there would still be transfers to be provided for; in the Royal Army Service Corps 63085 transfers to the Corps have taken place and during the War it will be seen a complication of Books would arise. In fact a Card Index would have to be established to ascertain in which of the hundreds of Army Books 358 the man was recorded.

(e).      The general Card Index of Army Numbers would have to remain as a permanent Record and would grow year by year to enormous proportions as the Master of the Rolls after the Army Books 358 are stored at the Public Record Office would at times require access to the General Army Card Index, wherever it may be instituted, in order to trace the particular Army Book 358 in which a number and the soldier’s service is recorded, unless a Corps is given a series of numbers in sequence, to extend over very many years.

(f).       Similarly in the Record Offices, especially taking into account the large number of Transfers, the Record Office Card Index would have to be referred to before a clerk could record additional entries in Army Book 358 i.e. each and every single entry relative to a man’s service. When the number of entries required to appear in Army Book 358 are considered it will be seen at once what huge labour would be entailed in this one matter alone. It may be contended that numerical rolls could be dispensed with and replaced by alphabetically arranged books. But even this would be unsatisfactory as it would mean that long lists of names, i.e. Smith, would have to be scanned before finding the particular Smith required, as names of recruits would be entered in rolls immediately enlistments are reported and would be in no sort of numerical order, in consequence of the multitude of small blocks of numbers allotted to Recruiting Officers. Even if one big block of numbers is assigned to each Corps it would mean that rolls would have to be completed with the whole of the particular series of numbers in advance, because of the uneven way in which numbers would be taken up by recruits in the hundreds of different recruiting centres. For instance three Recruiting Officers may each enlist a Recruit on one day, one receiving the No. 27, the next 3501 and the next 28962. The highest or the lowest number may first reach the Record Office, the other two may not arrive for weeks.

In the past there has been no analogy between the large Continental Standing Armies and the British nucleus. It is the hasty expansion of the latter which would endanger the success of any extensive centralization

P.C.J. Scott

COLONEL

i/c        R.A.S.C. Records.

 

WOOLWICH DOCKYARD.

30th Sept. 1919.’