Men born between 1928 and August 1939 are unique in British history: they’re the only people ever to have been made to join the country’s armed forces during peacetime. There were more than two million conscripts in all, yet, despite its huge scale, national service has largely been overshadowed by the war that preceded it and the cultural revolution of the 1960s that, perhaps not coincidentally, followed. (Paul McCartney has said that the abolition of national service, which came in time for all four Beatles, was the key event behind the decade’s youth explosion.)
National Service: Conscription in Britain 1925-1963
Now, in this absorbing and eye-opening book, Richard Vinen gives national service the full treatment it deserves, explaining the political background and vividly describing the experience of the recruits—including the significant minority who ended up fighting for real, above all in the Korean War, after which the length of service was extended from 18 months to two years.
He also uses national service to explore the Britain of the time, a country almost unrecognisably different from that of today. For a start, most 18-year-olds were by no means school-leavers: one of the book’s many striking statistics is that, of the 266,900 boys who turned 15 in 1952, 222,900 left school and started work. Then there was overwhelming importance of social class—which continued into national service, where officers even had different pokers for their fires.
The only time all classes were thrown together was in basic training: an initial period of around eight weeks in which the conscripts were drilled—and made to stab bundles of straw with bayonets—before taking up their postings…
National service, at least in the army, usually began on a Thursday—so training units had time to get men settled in before the weekend—and it usually started with a train journey. Every conscript was sent a railway warrant and instructions about the base to which he was to report. The journey itself could be exciting. To many 18-year-olds, trains were still glamorous and exotic. Most youths had not travelled much and some had never been more than a few miles from home. A few had never been on a train and had no idea how to buy a ticket. John Waller had never left West Auckland before he was called up. He asked the station master how he’d know when his train arrived at the regimental depot of the Durham Light Infantry and was told, correctly as it turned out, ‘There will be a big bastard there shouting.’
Men were collected at stations and taken to their depots. The process didn’t always run smoothly. Among the young men disgorged from a three-ton truck at the depot of the Buffs in 1958, one was even more disgruntled than the others. It turned out he was a civilian who’d been standing on Canterbury station when the NCOs had swept him up with the recruits.
Once at their barracks, men queued for their kit, packed their civilian clothes to be sent home and collected a variety of objects with perplexing names: ‘eating irons’ meant a knife, fork and spoon; ‘housewives’ meant sewing kits to maintain the uniform. Recruits often remembered the moment they realised their civilian life was over. For some, it came when the lorry drove into the barracks: ‘The wooden gates slammed and we had entered, for eight weeks, a prison.’ For John Barkshire, it was when he sent his civilian clothes home: ‘And so your link with the human race outside disappeared in a brown paper parcel.’
The real terror for many recruits came with the first night of national service. The requirement that lights should be turned out at a certain hour rubbed in the loss of adult dignity and freedom. Undressing in front of other men was often a painful experience. Lights out removed whatever fragile protection against bullies might have been provided by the non-commissioned officers.
Some men were used to sleeping away from home. Many from the upper-middle class had been at boarding school. The urban working classes had often been evacuated during the war. Some came from families that were so poor the very notion of privacy would have been meaningless—one recruit said that the first night of basic training was the first time, apart from a stay in hospital, he’d had a bed to himself. There were, however, some conscripts who’d never slept a single night outside their own bedroom. Many recalled that their dominant memory of the first night was that of listening to one of their comrades crying himself to sleep.
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