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The way we war: a history of British national service

Reading this detailed account of the national service experience – peppered with moments of humour among the long years of pointless routine – invites the question whether it made any sense.

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National Service: Conscription in Britain (1945-1963) 
Richard Vinen
Allen Lane, 555pp, £25

I will not be the only man of a certain age eternally grateful for having missed conscription by a couple of years. Richard Vinen’s entertaining but sobering account of the postwar experience of millions of young Britons drafted into the armed forces will convince anyone who might still regret missing out just how fortunate they were. The story is not remorselessly grim but, overshadowed by the squalid and violent end of empire, it is grim enough.

The national service explored by Vinen was, properly speaking, an extension of the National Service Act introduced in 1939, which covered military conscription (as well as other forms of civilian mobilisation) for the wartime period. Conscription was sometimes used to describe the recruitment process, but British politicians seem to have preferred the term “national service” because it suggested a nobler obligation than mere conscription, with its echoes of enforced enrolment.

Nevertheless conscription is what it was, and for many young men pulled out of civilian life for two years at a time when they wanted to start a job, finish their education or raise a family, the sense of enforcement was evidently stronger than any sense of service to the nation.

What made national service so problematic was the lack of any evident purpose. There was no strong army tradition in Britain as there was in the rest of Europe, where conscription just carried on as it had done since the 19th century. Most British conscripts entered the army, which took over 70 per cent of them. The RAF took roughly a quarter, the navy hardly any. This in itself is significant, as the navy was Britain’s senior service, the one area where military traditions were most embedded and the status of the service more socially acceptable.

Thus, the many conscripts whose diaries, memoirs and letters Vinen has used to illuminate the experience of national service come overwhelmingly from the army. They were needed, so it was thought, to boost Britain’s pretensions as one of the victor powers in 1945, to protect the revival of British imperialism, as a symbol of British power, and to safeguard western Europe from the threat of Soviet communism. These ambitions seemed less bizarre in the late 1940s than they do today, and Vinen is right to remind his readers to
look forward from 1945, not back from the 21st century.

Reading this detailed account of the national service experience – peppered with moments of humour among the long years of pointless routine, purposeless spit and polish and petty tyrannies – invites the question whether it made any sense. Most conscripts stayed in Britain rather than serving abroad, where the regular army (much larger than it is today) played the main part. Some learned a trade, others simply passed the time. The one thing conscription did was to pluck a great many youngsters out of the restricted life of their town or village to a world that was in some respects more exotic than anything they had experienced before, away from the shelter of family, friends and a familiar landscape. Only public school boys seem to have found the transition less daunting. Their existence in the barracks was, one of them recalls here, “slightly more uncomfortable than life at a public school, but not that much”.

The peak of conscription came in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, and it did help to boost Britain’s military presence as efforts were made to rescue what was left of a crumbling imperial structure. This is in many ways the most awkward part of Vinen’s story. He insists that it is not his role to pass judgement on what the conscripts did when they were in combat, or faced with a widespread insurgency, but simply to explore the experience of killing, torturing or maiming “the enemy”. This sidesteps what would no doubt be a difficult discussion of British soldiers as perpetrators. Nevertheless, the descriptions of violence directed against insurgents in Malaya or Kenya or Palestine or Cyprus are deeply disturbing. So much time has been spent showing how particularly wicked the Germans were when it came to facing insurgency against occupation, that counter-insurgency operations in the post-1945 era of imperial withdrawal have been glossed over.

Vinen’s account makes it clear that any group of soldiers, faced with a hostile population, fearful for their own and their companions’ lives, unconstrained by strict instructions on how to respond to guerrilla warfare, and very far from home, will commit atrocities. The worst were, at least, investigated but most seem to have been passed over by the authorities as due simply to the friction of war. One conscript in Egypt thought it “rather caddish” to shoot unarmed Egyptians, but did it nonetheless. The description of violence in Cyprus from a letter sent back home includes the rape and killing of a 13-year-old girl held in a cage by one army brigade.

This part of the story is shocking, though not much more so than later atrocities in Vietnam, or the cruelties imposed on the population of Iraq. Conscription might have been generally a question of kicking heels in poorly resourced barracks somewhere in Britain, but at the sharp end it tarnished those who were forced to defend what was clearly indefensible. Malaya, Kenya, Palestine (Israel) and Cyprus all became independent while conscription was still in place. The disjuncture between fading visions of British greatness and the squalid end of empire cannot be smoothed over so easily simply by describing it.

Postwar national service was ended not long after it had begun. Evident disaffection among bored and frustrated recruits jostled with the realisation among politicians and military leaders that the cold war was not going to get hot and that the old empire was politically bankrupt. The Duncan Sandys-led defence review of 1957 in effect ended conscription, though the last small batch of conscripts was not demobilised until 1963, bringing to an end an experiment in recruitment that went back to 1939, not just to the postwar years.

The great merit of Vinen’s intelligent and measured account is to restore national service as an element of British social history worth observing. Its significance as a military factor, however, is surely questionable. It is hard to imagine how these raw recruits, most of them retained in a reserve force after serving their two years, would have stopped the Red Army if it had pushed aside the Iron Curtain, any more than the earlier cohort in 1940 could have stopped the German army. Professional armed forces were not and are not immune to the persistent problems of inadequate resources or political interference, but they are, at least, professionals. 

Richard Overy’s latest book is “The Bombing War: Europe – 1939-1945” (Penguin, £12.99)

This article appears in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?