Pay Services problems in the First World War

Before discussing the pay problems of WW1 It is essential to set the scene and sketch in the background. The Army Pay Department was, in 1914, as fully prepared for war as It was possible to be; the forms for the Loose Leaf System were ready, as were the detailed instructions. However, within two days of the declaration of war, on the 6th August, an announcement was made calling for half a million men.

One example is the formation of 2/4th Ox and Bucks light Infantry whose Great War activities are described in this book by Captain G. K. ROSE, M.C.:

THE STORY OF The 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry 


The raising of the Second Line of the Territorial Force became necessary when it was decided to send the First Line overseas. The Territorial Force was originally intended for home defence, a duty for which its pre-war formations soon ceased to be available. The early purpose, therefore, of the Second Line was to defend this country.

On September 8, 19 14, I was privileged to begin to raise the 2 /4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, the Battalion whose history is set out in the following pages. I opened Orderly Room in Exeter College, Oxford, and enrolled recruits.The first was Sergeant-Major T. V. Wood. By the end of the day we had sworn in and billeted over 130 men. The Battalion was created out of untrained elements, but what the recruits lacked in experience they made up in keenness. The Secretary of the County Association had an excellent list of prospective officers, but these had to learn their work from the beginning. We were lucky to secure the services of several non-commissioned officers with Regular experience ; Colour-Sergeants Moore, Williams, Bassett and Waldon, and Sergeant Howland worked untiringly, whilst the keenness of the officers to qualify themselves to instruct their men was beyond praise. At the end of ten days sufficient recruits had been enrolled to allow the formation of eight companies, which exactly reproduced those of the First Line, men being allotted to the companies according to the locality whence they came. A pleasant feature was the number of Culham students, who came from all parts of England to re-enlist in their old Corps. Well do I remember my feelings when I sat down to post the officers to the companies. It was a sort of ' Blind Hookey,' but seemed to pan out all right in the end. Company officers had to use the same process in the selection of their non-commissioned officers. Of these original appointments all, or nearly all, were amply justified—a fact which said much for the good judgment displayed.


Pay Parade in the field!

2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

ON May 24, 1916, the 2 /4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry landed in France. Members of the Battalion within a day or two were addressing their first field postcards to England. Active service, of which the prospect had swung, now close, now far, for 18 months, had begun.

Of immediate concern was the payment of the soldiers' families; additional staff and accommodation had to be procured immediately, and day and night work was essential. The difficulties soon became apparent. A change had to be made from the Dover to the Loose Leaf System; a mass of correspondence was received from wives about their allowances; much of the hastily recruited staff was found to be of very poor quality; everything was subordinate to the military requirements of training and equipping, resulting in Units being able to give but scant attention to pay documentation; and finally, the system whereby the Territorial Army compiled their own accounts, broke down and it had to be taken over by the Army Pay Department. The last straw to break the camel's back was a change in the rates and method of paying separation allowance.

What organisation was there to cope With this unprecedented expansion? Before the 1914-18 war a Regimental Pay Office had, as a rule, a small staff of 20 to 30. Its accounting procedures were prescribed by a civilian section of the Finance Branch at the War Office; its personnel and administration being controlled by a small military section of that same branch. It was closely hedged about by regulations which appeared to offer Paymasters little scope for initiative.

The Office's work fell into four main divisions:-

1. The completion of the regular soldier's monthly pay list (Dover System).

2. The audit of imprest accounts.

3. The accounting duties connected with the annual training of reservists and the Territorial Army.

4. The payment of pensioners and reservists.

In fact, the functions of the Office were little different from those obtaining today. The premised requirements for war appear to have been the mobilisation of the Army Reserve, the embodiment of the Territorial Army, and the despatch overseas of a force no larger than six divisions. The pay accounting Instructions for war provided three different schemes: one for the Expeditionary Force, one for the remaining regular troops and reservists, and the third for the Territorial Army. That for the Expeditionary Force, the "Loose Leaf System", being in essence the same as that used in the 1939/45 war. It was on to this organisation that these unprecedented problems, brought about by a very large and rapid mobilisation were thrust.

It became apparent immediately that whereas before the war highly-trained staff were able to do a wide variety of tasks; hastily recruited and untrained staff during a war could only undertake work on a process system. This fact was to make another appearance in the 1939-45 war. The ratio of skilled to unskilled clerks was 1 to 65; a large number were women; and office accommodation was often widely scattered. It was not to be expected that the state of the soldiers' accounts would be good in fact Major-General Sir John Carter, K.C.M.G., who was Paymaster-in-Chief in 1919, said that "at one time during the war it was very bad - one office had 40 per cent. of error". However, what is surprising, is not that the state of some of the Offices was bad, but that the system stood up to the test. In fact it is little short of a miracle that the whole department avoided collapse.

Of course, as the war dragged on the position did stabilise itself, but the department was never free from some big job or change of regulation. In 1917 Pay Offices maintained nearly 10 million accounts, of which four million were soldiers, two and a half million wives and dependants, and over three million children. There were 28 fixed centre Pay Offices, some keeping over half a million accounts. The bulk of correspondence daily reaching some Offices was fantastic. The Royal Engineer Pay Office at Chatham estimated that in 1918 it received between 20 and 30 thousand documents and letters a day. The Separation Allowance was changed seven times during the war, involving the issue of arrears to over two million dependants on each occasion.

It is estimated that there were two and a half million transfers of accounts between Paymasters during the war; much of which was wasted work, due to the confusion in units between the terms "posting" and "attachment". Thousands of men were hurriedly sent overseas without being attested and with no means of identity except name. To add to the confusion, it sometimes happened that two or three men with the same name and initial enlisted on the same day, at the same place! These same soldiers often had to be written to for the names and addresses of their dependants, and sometimes added complications arose if the men had been killed or died meantime. A cross check that was carried out in 1916 between pay and record offices, revealed that there were many thousands of cases of unallotted numbers; the same number being allotted to two or three different men; the same men allotted different numbers, and the overlapping of blocks of numbers given to Units and training centres. Pay Offices usually worked in two shifts, and in one case when the Dublin Office was destroyed by fire, the staff worked three shifts for three months on end to reconstruct the accounts.

Enough has been said to illustrate the well-nigh impossible task confronting the Army Pay Department during the war. The essential difficulties they had to cope with can be summed up as:-

1. A rapid expansion, far beyond anything ever contemplated.

2. Vast employment of unskilled staff, the majority of it female.

3. Much of the "input data" to Pay Offices being in a confused and corrupt form.

As if they had not enough to cope with during the war, the flood gates of demobilisation presented new and urgent problems to be solved. In 1919 the "Griffiths" Committee was set up to report on what improvements could be made in the organisation and methods of Regimental Pay Offices. The two main recommendations of this Committee were that soldiers' records should be put under Regimental Paymasters; and that there should be one large single Pay Office. It may be added that the Army Pay Department's representative on the Committee, a Captain Ravenscroft, strongly dissented with this latter recommendation. In the event Sir Charles Harris, the then Permanent Under-Secretary, and the Adjutant-General agreed that records should not be placed under Regimental Paymasters, and Sir Charles supported Capt. Ravenscroft's dissention.

Perhaps there can be no better way of concluding this article than to quote Sir Charles Harris' remarks on that report: "Decentralisation is essential to efficiency in Army Administration, though the short-sighted view always sees possibilities of economy in centralisation".

This article first appeared in the RAPC Corps Journal in 1963