National Service: Conscription in Britain, 1945-1963, by Richard Vinen

A. W. Purdue on a British institution that changed lives but has been largely ignored by historians

August 28, 2014

From the end of the Second World War until 1963, the prospect and then the reality of conscription into the armed forces – national service, as it became known in 1947 – dominated the lives of young men in their teens and early twenties. More than 2 million conscripts would serve in the armed forces in this era, but who remembers national service now? You would have to be in your seventies to have done it, although members of the next generation will have listened to fathers’ recollections. Oddly, it has almost been erased from national memory. Many histories of modern Britain devote only a few paragraphs to it, with an experience that lasted for up to two years of the lives of most men relegated almost to a footnote in comparison with the attention paid to the National Health Service and changes in the educational system. Richard Vinen’s study seeks to put national service into its rightful place at the centre of British post-war history.

Conscription was long held to be illiberal, foreign and un-British. Before 1914, Britain, alone among major European powers, persevered with a small “regular” volunteer army, with conscription introduced only reluctantly after three years of war. Yet when the Labour government introduced the National Service Act in 1948 there was little opposition. Two world wars had accustomed Britons to a conscripted army and a powerful state, and the UK emerged from the 1939-45 conflict as a society that was both highly cohesive and obedient.

To those who spent their two years in shoddily built army bases in Britain doing duties that often seemed designed simply to keep them busy, national service may well have felt like a waste of time, yet some found it a rewarding experience. As Vinen points out, most accepted their service as an inevitable rite of passage that either punctuated or delayed the transition to adult life. An exception was the cohort of skilled workingmen who, already earning good wages at 18, found service life on about £1 a week a step back from adulthood.

The experience of national servicemen varied enormously. Several thousands experienced the sharp end of military life and found themselves engaged in fierce fighting in Korea and in the jungles of Malaya, dealing with the Mau Mau in Kenya or the EOKA in Cyprus, or landing at Port Said during the Suez operation. In comparison, garrison duty in Hong Kong or attachment to the British Army in Germany provided foreign travel with only potential risk. For a minority, there were interesting and career-enhancing assignments: at RAF Fighter Control, in military intelligence, or learning Russian in a pseudo-Soviet village on a Scottish island where no other language was spoken, while the services’ enthusiasm for sport meant that the accomplished sportsman could spend most of his time playing football or tennis for his regiment.

The majority of national servicemen were allocated to the Army, where nearly 1.25 million served between 1948 and 1960, with the RAF taking about two-thirds as many men. In comparison, the Royal Navy, always highly selective in its recruitment and of the view that two years was insufficient time in which to train effective seamen, accepted fewer than 44,000 in the same period. The Army and the RAF retained large numbers of regulars, and records of those killed in action in this period show that casualty rates were far higher for regulars than for national servicemen, suggesting a reliance on units composed largely of regulars for combat operations. But, as Vinen notes, many casualties were the result of causes other than being “killed in action”, with exercises and flying accidents resulting in the deaths of many regulars and conscripts alike.

Drill or square-bashing, especially in the first weeks of service, led by the formidable figure of the sergeant or sergeant major giving the orders, were ordeals for many, but most soon realised that although such exercises had a military purpose they were, in essence, high theatre in which the sergeants were the impresarios. Some, including sergeant majors Ronald Brittain and Charles Copp, became well-known figures nationwide. By the time national service ended, it had become a British institution and the subject of the affectionate satire of the first Carry On film, the title of which was, appropriately, the most often heard officer’s command, Carry On Sergeant.

A great strength of Vinen’s study is the way it relates the period in which national service operated to contemporaneous social change. The consumer society of 1960 was very different from the “austerity Britain” of the late 1940s. The coming of Teddy boys and rock ’n’ roll heralded the first manifestations of youth culture, and the interrelationship between service and civilian society became more distant as the services retained their traditional ways. Perhaps the cultural explosion of the mid-1960s owed something to the release of a generation from the restrictions of army life, although it is debatable whether national service had much effect on British social development. Vinen is much preoccupied with class, but spends rather too much time on the extremes of its spectrum. After all, few will be surprised to learn that there was a great gulf between the officers of smart regiments and privates in the Pioneer Corps.

More interesting are the relations between grammar school boys and skilled workers, and those between those groups and the lower working class, when all found themselves sharing a barrack room. It is sometimes claimed that national service made the classes mix; although this was true, they didn’t necessarily like each other when they did. Nearly 10,000 national servicemen became officers, but this replicated changes in society, where upward mobility was increasing even as relations between social strata remained much the same.

Oral history, autobiographies and novels are rich sources for the historian of national service, and this study makes effective use of them. As Vinen cautions, memories are not always reliable guides, as they are often later adjusted to what people believe they should have felt at the time. Nevertheless, a fascinating dimension is added via interviews with men who later became public figures. Their recollections can be far from predictable: a Conservative parliamentary candidate recalled that it imbued him with the “considered hatred I still retain for the army”, while a working-class man who served as an NCO in the RAF remembered his two years as “a wonderful experience”.

Was post-war national service necessary? Vinen shows that without its national servicemen, the UK’s great power status could not have been maintained into the post-war years. The retreat from Empire, which many have seen as too hasty, might otherwise have turned into a headlong shambles, while the Cold War necessitated the maintenance of formidable military forces. Britain was far from alone in finding conscription essential. The US introduced “the draft” in 1940 and maintained it until 1973, later retaining a contingency and selective draft. Most European states, including Spain, Italy and Portugal, had conscript armies, as did West Germany from the early 1950s, and France did away with conscription only in 1997. Vinen says little about the practice in other states, and a comparative dimension might have put Britain’s national service into a wider context.

By the early 1960s, the UK and its senior military officers were glad to return to professional and volunteer armed forces, and since then there has been no serious suggestion that national service should be restored. This pioneering study reminds us, however, that for nearly 20 years after the Second World War, Britain remained a nation in arms.

The author

“I love talking to any audience that is kind enough to listen to me,” says Richard Vinen, “especially if they are willing to tolerate my Luddite distaste for PowerPoint.”

Vinen, professor of history at King’s College London, was born in Birmingham. “I grew up in Middle Park Road on the Bourneville Estate (my family moved to the house next door when I was about nine). I went to a school that, allowing for a different regional accent, was almost exactly like the institution portrayed in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys

“Birmingham is much less bad than people say, but I am grateful to have left - London Calling by The Clash came out when I was 16 and it pretty much summed up how I felt. I have lived in London – with a fair bit of time in France, a year in Prague and a couple of years in Houston (also less bad than people say) – since the early 1990s.”

He now lives in Herne Hill in South London, with his wife Alison Henwood and their children, Emma (16) and Alex (14). Vinen recalls: “We started out in a basement in King’s Cross and lived in a variety of amusingly louche central London locations – the Serious Crime Squad once installed a camera in our bedroom so that they could keep an eye on one of our neighbours.

“When I first met her, Alison was fairly unconventional. She was 19 and had just spent a year in Pakistan, hitching lifts from the Mujahideen in the Northwest Frontier Province. Our first holiday took us to South America in the summer of 1988, when Peruvian inflation reached 100 per cent an hour and Colombia was top of the FCO’s list of countries that British citizens should avoid.”

These days, he adds, “Alison is an executive with a multinational company and does most of her travelling on the top deck of a 747. Her job means that we have enough money to enjoy living in London – although it also means, I hope, that I appreciate the freedom of an academic’s life.”

Vinen began his academic career at Queen Mary College, as Queen Mary University of London then was, “in the good old days before it got fashionable – and I have been at King’s College London since 1991. I love the buzz of working on the Strand (especially now that I have an office with a view of Parliament) and I like the kind of bright and enterprising students who are attracted to central London. We have had a great run of departmental heads (Arthur Burns, Paul Readman and Adam Sutcliffe) whose efficiency (and willingness to tolerate the inefficiency of others) has made the department a nice place to work.”

Asked about his childhood and early interest in scholarship, Vinen, whose father was a professor of physics, recalls being “was painfully serious about academic success but unsuccessful at getting it. I have always found writing hard – which may be why I force myself to do it. My handwriting and spelling were, and are, appalling. The first word processors, which came out just as I was beginning a PhD, were a godsend. I could never have contemplated an academic career without them.”

He adds: “I did read a lot when I was young. My mother was a history teacher and has a remarkably wide range of literary interests – so I worked my way through her library. Since most of her books were written by people a generation or so older than herself, this meant that I grew up looking at the world through the eyes of writers such as Somerset Maugham and Harold Nicolson – an odd perspective for an adolescent boy.”

As an undergraduate, Vinen says, he was, “once again, serious but unsuccessful. My father had been a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge but for various reasons I went to Trinity. In the long term, this turned out to be a lucky break but in the short term I was intimidated by the size of the college and the confidence of its undergraduates. 

“My first supervisor was Norman Stone. He made me think about all sorts of things in a new way – although I cannot say that I enjoyed the experience at the time. My last supervisor was Mark Harrison, then a fellow of King’s. He was very different from Stone but he also forced me to think. In between, I was taught by all sorts of distinguished people but I did not learn much from them, which was my fault.” 

He adds: “I spent a few months of Orwellian squalor washing dishes in a French hotel before I went to university and, in lots of ways, this had more of an influence on my research than all the years that I spent at Cambridge.”

Vinen has written monographs on a wide range of subjects, from Margaret Thatcher to France under Nazi occupation, the events of 1968 and the Algerian war. Asked if he is naturally research-restless, or he thinks other historians are too unambitious, Vinen responds: “‘Research restless’ is a good phrase and certainly applies to me. I should stress that moving across the Channel or from one decade to another is not such a dramatic leap. Hugh Trevor-Roper read half a dozen languages and did serious work on the English Civil War, Nazi Germany and lots of topics in between. 

“There is also a certain logic to my research career – even if it is visible only to me. I began work on France because I thought that two years in the Archives Nationales would be more agreeable than two years in, say, Liverpool Public Record Office. I am a poor linguist and I knew that would never work on foreign language sources unless I forced myself to do so early on.” 

Moreover, he says, “There is an interplay between Britain and France. My work on Thatcher owed something to thinking about de Gaulle and wondering why British left-wingers are still so sniffy about Thatcher when the French Left has come to respect de Gaulle. Working on national service owed a lot to the fact that compulsory military service is such an important feature of French social history.”

Asked if it is nevertheless difficult to write dispassionately about divisive figures such as Thatcher, Vinen says: “History is about trying to understand other points of view, and it is a bit daft for historians to claim that they can understand, say, the theology of the Counter-Reformation if they refuse to give serious consideration to the views of recent politicians with whom they disagree.” 

And what reception does he expect for his new book? “I have a feeling that it will actually arouse more ire than my previous books. The topic has tended to be regarded as a bit of a joke but there were, in fact, all sorts of tragedies associated with the experience. Accounts of national service are often riven with contradiction and I suspect that even, perhaps especially, those men whose accounts I have drawn on may dislike my interpretation.”

Although it is assumed that national service has been rather neglected by historians, Vinen is keen to “stress that there has been some excellent writing on national service and that many authors of this work have been very kind in advising me.

“Having said this, national service has attracted relatively little general attention partly because the national service generation is quite small – birth rates in the 1930s were low – and because members of that generation often feel overshadowed by the dramas that their elders went though in the two world wars. 

“More importantly, there is a vociferous generation of baby boomers who came of age after national service. The baby boomers often assume that the history of post-war Britain is the history of their own lives. To hear them talk you would think that events in King’s Parade in 1968 were only marginally less important that events in Petrograd in 1917.” 

He adds: “I was interested in national service for personal reasons (my father was a post-war conscript), and because I wanted to do a big project in social (rather than political) history. I also felt that, in recent years, people have tended to see the 1950s in excessively benign terms - partly because they sometimes juxtapose this period with the allegedly bitter divisions of the Thatcher years. I wanted to present a different perspective and to point out that for many young men, especially working-class ones, the post-war state meant the parade ground rather than schools and hospitals.”

Asked for his views on the pressure academics feel, in the era of the research excellence framework, to seek “impact”, and whether there is additional pressure on historians to secure jackal-ish agents and best-selling trade books, Vinen says: “Even historians with jackal-ish agents do not usually get huge sales. But historical writing ought, so far as possible, to be aimed at the general public and some great historians – A. J. P. Taylor or Philippe Ariès – were also wonderful writers who reached a wide audience. 

“Of course, there is also a place for specialised studies or work that requires technical knowledge on the part of the reader. There is, however a danger of assuming that all historians who resist popularisation must be paragons of moral purity. There is a good deal of cynicism in purely academic works. Cynicism from publishers, who know that university libraries will buy books at outrageous prices, and cynicism from authors who often write in an opaque scholarly argot and who spend a lot of time looking over their shoulders at the historiographical kingmakers who might help their careers,” he argues.

Of his interests outside of work, Vinen says: “I try to keep up with various aspects of my children’s lives. I learned to skate so that I can totter round the ice rink in Somerset House with my daughter every Christmas Eve and I affect an interest in the fortunes of Crystal Palace in order to keep up with my son. Apart from this, I do not really have any hobbies. I read, go to the movies and watch a lot of pulp television. 

“A nice aspect of being a historian is that personal and academic interests often blend together – so that I have, for example, written a good deal about French detective stories. I plan one day to write a worthy monograph comparing the Godfather and the Terminator film series as expressions of the Catholic and Protestant strains in American culture.”
Karen Shook

National Service: Conscription in Britain, 1945-1963

By Richard Vinen
Allen Lane, 640pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781846143878
Published 28 August 2014

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