A tribe with a flag – this is one minimal definition of a nation. And if the tribe wants to fight under its flag, it will soon enough be enlisting its young men, with conscription as a natural part of nation-building. Or so we might suppose, thinking of the historical role of the military in Prussia or the way that service in the army proverbially turned peasants into Frenchmen. Yet the British way in warfare had been different. Impressment might have been needed at one time in the Royal Navy but on land Britain had traditionally relied upon either foreign mercenaries or, even in 1914, upon volunteers.
So conscription in Britain does not have a long history – at least not until Richard Vinen’s admirable decision to give us National Service, more than 600 pages on its final phase, from 1945 to 1963. This was a unique period when “national service” was required of all males in Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland) on reaching the age of 18. In the first world war, amid acute political contention, conscription had been painfully implemented from 1916. During the second world war, by contrast, there was all-party agreement to pass a National Service Act through all its stages in a single fateful day, September 3 1939. This was a far-reaching measure “for the duration of the Emergency”.
In a sense, the emergency proved ongoing in the troubled postwar world, so men continued to be called up for military service. Yet it was not until 1948 that Britain’s first peacetime system of conscription was instituted by a new National Service Act, with a period of service that settled down as two years. The function of conscription in wartime was partly to keep men out of the armed forces, notably the skilled workers in industries that were essential to the war effort. The rationale for peacetime national service, however, was more straightforward: to recruit enough soldiers during an era when boots on the ground were required not only in Britain’s colonial empire but also during the cold war.
This need was met, on the cheap, by appropriating the labour of lads of 18 for about £1 a week, when they could otherwise have been earning good money at home (and impressing their girlfriends accordingly). Yet they put up with it; desertion rates were lower than for regular soldiers. Of the national servicemen who became temporary officers, 97 per cent later claimed to have enjoyed it; and, more remarkably, so did 87 per cent of other ranks. As Vinen warns us, there is a retrospective glow in such perceptions; he scouts the suggestion that national service produced social benefits, still more the notion that it was intended to do so.
The fact is that, with decolonisation and nuclear deterrence, by the late-1950s there was simply no need for so many men. The RAF had always put a premium upon professionalism, so its relatively small number of national servicemen came largely from the skilled trades; and the Royal Navy was even more selective. So the strategic shift really concerned the army, which moved to deploying a smaller force, better trained and equipped, and better paid too. A transitional crisis over numbers could perhaps have been met by a selective draft, but this was considered politically impossible because of its unfairness. So conscription was simply scrapped, having served its purpose. The call-up of recruits at 18 ended in 1957, though it took another five or six years to wind down the system.
Here is a shrewd and dispassionate history of national service, valuable in itself; but the author has given us more than this. Vinen brings out the special identity of “the national servicemen”, a cohort who happened to have been born no later than the British declaration of war in 1939, with the older men born in the 1920s. Looking through their eyes, he uses national service as a window on the social history of postwar Britain, ranging far more widely than might have been expected, and reaping a far richer harvest accordingly.
There are plenty of good stories from the old soldiers – many of them too good to be true. As one former conscript put it, when asked whether he had any “funny stories” about national service: “I suppose it was all a funny story.” The film Carry On Sergeant (1959) tapped one vein of humour, which was clearly capable of being transferred to civilian life, as shown by its endless sequels. If stock characters are often brutally loud-mouthed sergeants and corporals, the great stock theme in films, novels and memoirs alike is, of course, class. Vinen half-apologises for exploring it in such detail, though it is clearly his duty to grapple with this quintessentially British obsession, then in its prime.
To say that the experience was beyond the reach of satire is to disparage the efforts of novelists such as Andrew Sinclair in The Breaking of Bumbo (1959) or David Lodge in Ginger, You’re Barmy (1962). The perspectives of these two authors, though infused with a common cynicism about the army, were significantly different. Sinclair’s vantage point was that of an old Etonian who found himself in the officers’ mess of a smart guards’ regiment, Lodge’s that of an army pay clerk from a modest provincial background. True, promotion opportunities were ostensibly open to all national servicemen; yet in the early 1950s it turned out that 80 per cent of national-service officers had been privately educated.
One aspiring candidate was told, during the officer selection process, that “my grammar school education and lack of private income would of course rule out the guards and the cavalry”. The silky euphemisms of the official denials themselves give the game away. For the army simply reflected, sometimes in a gross form, the sort of class distinctions prevalent in British society at the time. This is what makes national service such a revealing prism, disclosing an inherent tension between the assumptions of privilege and the ethos of conscription as an equal duty for members of all classes. Vinen has given us the kind of book that every professional historian surely wants to write: not only with a mastery of its voluminous original sources but also a sensitivity to the rich human detail, by turns authoritative, thoughtful, poignant – and funny.
National Service: Conscription in Britain, 1945-1963, by Richard Vinen, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 640 pages
Photograph: Joseph McKeown/Getty Images
Peter Clarke is author of ‘Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer’ (Bloomsbury)