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1780 caricature of a press gang

What happened to National Service in Britain?

Lifelong bonds were forged, two generations of men had a sense of discipline and duty instilled in them, but was National Service worth the squalid living conditions and constant shouting from angry sergeant majors?

Image: A 1780 caricature depicting forced conscription. National Service in the UK was a lot more official and organised when it was reinstated in the 20th century. | Public Domain

It’s hard to imagine the government compelling today’s young people to put down their smartphones and willingly submit to a regime of cold showers, cross country runs and the chance that they might be sent overseas to fight a war. National Service seems such a relic of a bygone era that when it was suggested recently that it should be brought back, the idea was met with almost universal derision.

However, for a previous generation, the thought of a mass refusal to ‘do your duty’ would have been unthinkable. For the young men who did their National Service between 1949 and 1963, it was something they were expected to do, and the vast majority did so willingly and without fuss.

'Your country needs you’

After World War II, the government concluded that the country needed armed forces that were far larger than could be achieved by volunteers alone. In 1948, the National Service Act was passed, which required all healthy males between the ages of 17 and 21 to serve in a branch of the armed forces for 18 months and then remain on a reserve list for a further four years. The act, which came into force on 1st January 1949, led to nearly two million young men serving their country for the next 11 years.

Cold showers and basic training

After receiving his call-up papers, a young man presented himself for a medical and, if he passed, it was off to a camp for six weeks of basic training. On arrival, the new recruit was issued with his uniform (which usually didn’t fit), his equipment and a pair of boots. He was then packed off to a barracks, which for many recruits was a freezing cold hut with awful toilets and primitive washing facilities. A bed with scratchy sheets and a steel locker was assigned. Then began weeks of endless polishing, early mornings, being shouted at by angry sergeant majors, bad food and a punishing exercise regimen.

‘Endless drill, gruelling inspections, physical training, rifle practice, polishing boots and equipment,’ recalled Lance Corporal Adrian Cooper of the Royal Engineers, ‘cross country runs, lectures in the art of warfare, fatigues of all sorts and all the time corporals and sergeants continually shouting and swearing from morning till night.’

To many, training felt like a cruel and dehumanising process, but there was a point to it all. The strict regime helped bond the men together, as well as instilling in them discipline, respect, a sense of responsibility and a recognition of the value of teamwork. It did indeed ‘make men’ of those who went through it.

To the four corners of the world

After passing out from basic training, National Servicemen were assigned a place in one of the armed forces. For the majority, that meant going into the British Army. Throughout the National Service Act, 1.3 million men went into the army, while 440,000 ended up in the Royal Air Force and 43,000 found a home in the Royal Navy.

While for some, a posting meant being stationed in the UK, for many, it meant being sent abroad to one of many postings around the world in what was still the British Empire. For most recruits, it was the first time they had ever been abroad. For some, they never came home again.

Off to war

It seems astonishing now that young men who had been forced to join the services would be thrown into the hell of war in what was supposed to be ‘peace time’, but throughout National Service, that’s exactly what happened.

Britain needed men to fight in the Korean War in 1950, and the country’s National Service conscripts were seen as just the ticket. Thousands of young men were sent to Southeast Asia, fighting a war most of them did not understand in a country that couldn’t be more alien to them.

National Servicemen served throughout the Korean War, including during the famous ‘last stand’ of the Gloucestershire Regiment at the Battle of Imjin River. There, outnumbered 18-to-one, the regiment endured wave after wave of attack while trying to defend their position on a hill, with many of them dying, getting injured or being taken as prisoners of war.

Korea was the biggest conflict National Servicemen took part in, but it was by no means the only one. Conscripts also found themselves fighting off rebellions in British Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya. They also took part in the ill-fated Suez Crisis in 1956. In total, 395 National Servicemen were killed between 1947 and 1963.

The end of an era

National Service officially ended in 1960, with the final conscripted men entering service in November of that year. While its merits have been brought into question ever since, there’s no denying that National Service left an indelible mark on British society. Lifelong bonds were forged, two generations of men had a sense of discipline and duty instilled in them, and it even influenced the culture of the country, with many National Servicemen going into the arts and entertainment industries.

‘National service fostered a sense of national identity and collective responsibility,’ notes the historian Professor David Edgerton in his book Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970. ‘It was a unifying force that brought together people from different walks of life and instilled in them a shared sense of purpose.’

Facts about National Service

  • Conscientious objectors were exempt from National Service. As had happened in both World Wars, they had to give evidence at a tribunal which would determine whether they were eligible for exemption or not.
  • Men who worked in one of three essential services were also exempt. These were coal mining, farming and the merchant navy.
  • Many famous people did National Service. This included Sir Michael Caine, Oliver Reed, Sir Peter Hall and Sir Peter Blake.