Draft lottery

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Draft lottery is the event of selecting which young men need to do military service by organising a lottery.


In older times people had to be selected for military service as insufficient voluntary recruits where available.

To make the process of selecting fair to all, a lottery was organised in many countries. These lotteries where important events in the lives of young boys, as it could completely upset their lives. In some cases up to 3 years of service was obligatory if one 'won'.

At the time of the lottery, every person of a certain age was assigned a number. At a central office, numbers were drawn, until sufficient recruits where obtained.

The consequences of being selected should not be underestimated, especially in those cases where the young recruits where supposed to earn a living for a family. It effectively meant putting your career/job on hold for several years. Hence, several ways of escaping this process where common:

  • Buying your ticket. In some countries it was allowed to negotiate a replacement. In that case, the person being selected for service pays a commoner to take his place. Legally binding contracts would be signed with well laid out responsibilities for both parties (paying a fixed amount, paying the widow in case the replacement dies in action, not deserting, ...).
  • Desertion. Many young boys choose to run away instead of being called under arms. They were then officially called deserters.


Draft lotteries are important sources for genealogy for the following reasons:

  • they where held with regular intervals (normally every year)
  • all boys of age of a village/city where accounted, each one being given a number.

This gives another venue to reconstitute families if other sources are destroyed or unavailable.

An extra important use of these sources, is to flesh out a family tree with stories. Having an ancestor being selected in a draft lottery almost always makes a good story.

Draft lottery practises


In Australia, this has always been controversial. It 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 stats are 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 Viet Nam. Some went to Malaysia. Some 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 oktober 1798 of Flemish and Brabant farmers against the French occupators. This due to the fact that the many deserters teamed up, and started a resistance army. They where defeated in the winter.

French occupation lasted until 1814.

Reference: 1


Mexico did a draft lottery by selecting black or white marbles from a bag as recently as the 1960s.

United States


The United States had a draft lottery during the Viet Nam war. Originally, there were 366 plastic balls, each with a unique date of 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. Then the draft board would determine how many numbers were called. If -- just for this example -- they called up the first two numbers, all males who would be 18-26 years old during this draft year and were born on March 25 and August 12 would be called to report for duty.

This was later changed to have 2 drums, one with all the dates Jan 1st- Dec 31st. another with drum with numbers 1-365. they draw one from each and assign the numbers that way.

Even though there is currently no draft, most males turning 18 are still required to register with the "draft board" (Selective Service).