The draft lottery event records the details of the process of selection, by an officially organised lottery, of young men required for compulsory military service.
At various times in the past, individuals had to be compulsorily drafted for military service, when the numbers of voluntary recruits were insufficient. Some selection process for the draft was therefore required.
To make the process of selection fair to all, many countries organised a lottery (more in the spirit of the old tradition of drawing lots, not the more modern association with prize winning). These lotteries were important events in the lives of young boys, and could completely disrupt their future lives, with in some cases up to 3 years of compulsory military service being imposed.
At the time of the lottery, every man of a certain age was assigned a number. Numbers were drawn at a central office until sufficient numbers of recruits were obtained.
The consequence of being selected should not be underestimated, especially in cases where the young recruits were required to earn a living as part of a families survival. It effectively meant putting ambitions or a career on hold for several years. unsurprisingly, several ways of evading this process became common:
- Buying your ticket. In some countries one was allowed to negotiate a replacement, whereby the individual selected for service could pay another individual to take his place. As might be expected, the rich were better placed to take advantage of this, paying for poorer individuals to take their place. Legally binding contracts were drawn up and signed, with clearly defined obligations upon both parties (payment of a fixed sum, paying the widow should the replacement die in action, consequences of desertion, etc.).
- Desertion. Many young boys simply chose to run away instead of being called to arms. They were then officially designated as deserters.
Draft lotteries are important sources for genealogical information, for the following reasons:
- they were held at regular intervals (normally yearly)
- all boys of a given age in a certain locality were accounted, each being allocated a unique number.
This provides a valuable resource for identifying family members where other sources are destroyed or unavailable.
An additional and important use for these sources is in fleshing out a family tree with individual stories. Having an ancestor selected for military service through a draft lottery almost always makes for a good story.
Draft lottery practises
In Australia, the practice has always been controversial, and was last used during the Vietnam conflict. All males aged 18 or over were required to register. Among those a lottery of birthdays was conducted. The following statistics are gleaned from this source :
- Australians registered for National Service
- Australians called up for National Service
- Australian National Servicemen posted to serve in Vietnam
Some went to Vietnam. Some went to Malaysia. Others were posted to units in Australia.
Draft lottery is called conscription (conscriptie). It was started by the French Law of 5 september 1798, known as the law Jourdan-Delbrel. All young man had to conscribe to the army service. From the resulting list, a lottery was held to decide on the contingent that effectively had to go under active duty.
Noteworthy is that this formed one of the reasons for the Farmers War on 12 October 1798, of Flemish and Brabant farmers against the French occupiers. This was in part a consequence of the fact that the many deserters teamed together, and started a resistance army. They were defeated in the winter of that year.
The French occupation lasted until 1814.
Mexico had a draft lottery by a process of selecting black or white marbles from a bag, continuing as recently as the 1960s.
The United States had a draft lottery during the Vietnam war. Originally, the process involved the use of 366 plastic balls, each representing a unique date in the year. The balls were drawn one at a time to determine the order of the draft. For example, if March 25 was drawn first, it was assigned the number 1, if August 12 was drawn second, it was assigned the number 2, etc., until all balls were drawn. The draft board would then determine how far through the list of numbers to call up. Thus, in the example just quoted, if they called up just the first two numbers 1 and 2, all males aged 18-26 years old during this draft year, and who were born on either March 25th or August 12th, would be called to report for duty.
The actual process was later changed to one using 2 drums, the first containing all dates between Jan 1st and Dec 31st, with the second drum holding the numbers 1-365. A date drawn from the first drum was then allocated the number drawn from the second drum, and the number-date combinations were assigned in that way. The remaining process remained unchanged.
Even though there is currently no draft, most males turning 18 are still required to register with the "draft board" (Selective Service).