The Department, later the Ministry, of National Service was set up during the First World War to deal with the problem of maintaining a sufficient labour force to operate vital industries.
Between 1914 and the middle of 1916 recruitment to the armed services was voluntary and industry lost many men. When compulsory recruitment to the armed services was introduced in May 1916 certain occupations were exempted, but nevertheless by the summer of 1916 the labour shortage was acute. The short-fall was estimated at 250,000 men. In August the Manpower Distribution Board was set up in succession to a Cabinet Committee to advise the Cabinet on the supply of labour for industry, but accomplished very little.
In December 1916 the Board was replaced by the Department of National Service. This became a Ministry in March 1917 as the result of the Ministry of National Service Act 1917. Neville Chamberlain was Director General from December 1916 until August 1917, although the Act gave him the status of a Minister-designate. It did not, however, increase the existing powers of the Department.
The Department was set up to implement a compulsory system of service in the armed forces and industry, but its effectiveness was limited because it did not obtain control of military recruiting, nor of the labour exchanges, and although it was given the authority to direct volunteers into industrial vacancies, it lacked full administrative responsibilities. The system for the recruitment and distribution of industrial manpower remained a voluntary one.
In August 1917 Neville Chamberlain resigned as Director General of the Ministry of National Service. He was replaced by Sir Auckland Geddes, formerly Director of Recruiting at the War Office, who was given the title of Minister. Between August and November the Ministry was reorganised, reconstructed, and given wider and more effective powers. For the first time it was assigned responsibility for recruitment for the armed services as well as for industry, and it took over existing local machinery from the War Office. The Minister was to exercise, in conjunction with the Army Council and the Secretary of State for War, powers relating to military recruiting, the enlistment of aliens, claims for discharge, exemptions from service and reserve forces. Most of the work was done on the regional and local level, and here it also co-operated with the employment exchanges, which remained under the control of the Ministry of Labour. On the civilian side, as well as handling the voluntary recruitment of men and women for industry and agriculture, the Ministry issued licences for constructional work and for the opening of new businesses under the defence of the realm regulations. Its central administration directed both sides of recruitment, but in relation to the War Cabinet its functions were restricted to giving advice and executing policies on direction of labour determined by a War Priority Committee of the Cabinet.
After the end of the war the Ministry soon became redundant owing to the rapid demobilisation of the armed forces and the relaxation of controls in employment. It was disbanded in March 1919.