Richard Vinen: A parade of myths over national service

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NATIONAL SERVICE – conscription during the 15 years after the Second World War – is often now presented as a service that was rendered by the Armed Forces to the young men of Britain.

It is alleged to have given recruits discipline and maturity and to have introduced young men to a cross section of society.

The television series Bad Lads has contributed to the sense that conscription must have been particularly beneficial to delinquents.

All of these assertions are, in my opinion, open to question. Conscription was not a social service. It was instituted because the country needed large forces to contain the Soviet Union and police its empire. Conscripts made up the bulk of the Army during a crucial period and they did a fair bit of real fighting.

There was a dangerous rumour in the early 1950s that national servicemen in Korea – men whose quick wits had yet to be dulled by the routines of the parade ground – had proved more effective on the front line than professional soldiers.

Senior officers complained about conscripts but they needed them and, indeed, held on to the last national servicemen for an extra six months because they found it hard to replace them.

It is true that National Service did mix up the social classes – in that everyone began basic training as a private, or the equivalent rank in the other services.

However, potential officers and ordinary recruits were separated fairly quickly. The Brigade of Guards put potential officers in a special squad from the first day of basic training and almost half of these men came from just one school – no prizes for guessing which one.

The journalist Tony Howard (an officer in a smartish regiment) remarked that the forces practiced “social apartheid”. Public school boys were usually officers in the army. “Schoolie sergeants” of the Education Corps were largely grammar school boys, as were many conscripts in the RAF. Many skilled workers also went into the RAF or the technical units of the army. Many unskilled workers served out their time as privates in the infantry and the least privileged were often dumped in the least popular units – Catering, Ordnance and the dreaded Pioneer Corps.

As for the notion that National Service reformed delinquents, the War Office was, in fact, reluctant to take young men who had been in trouble with the law or who had other social problems.

Many such recruits were quietly dumped in units that were reserved for “problem cases” – the Pioneers in particular.

Those who were called up did not always seem to benefit. Harry Roberts (who shot three police officers in 1966) was said to have acquired his taste for violence when he was a national serviceman in Malaya and Kenya.

The Kray twins were called up, as was Lord Lucan – though Lucan (one of those Etonian Guards officers) would have been kept well away from men who had grown up in the East End.

It was also untrue that men were snatched from a life of hanging around street corners to be subjected to the brisk pace of army life. On the contrary, unemployment rates in the late 1940s and 1950s were low – privately the War Office recognised that recruiting volunteers was difficult because civilian employment was easy to find.

Most boys left school at 14 or 15 and went straight to work. Almost all of them had been gainfully employed for several years before they were called up – those who undertook apprenticeships had sometimes been at work for seven years or more.

The early national servicemen, who had left school before 1945, were accustomed to the frantic pace of wartime factories.

By contrast, life in the forces, after the hell of basic training, often seemed to involve a good deal of doing nothing.

Some camps were so disorganised that men could just disappear. A recruit at Catterick spent six months hiding in the toilets and stealing food before he was caught.

Far from seeing National Service as a means to control delinquency, many of those in authority thought that the disruption in young men’s lives was making them less stable. The “Teddy Boys” of the late 1950s were often seen as a by-product of conscription. Some boys who had the call-up hanging over them were reluctant to plan for the future and sometimes sought release in wild behaviour.

Should National Service be brought back? It is almost inconceivable. It belongs to an age that has vanished – an age when Britain was almost wholly white (the forces did call up some Commonwealth immigrants but never felt very comfortable with them) and when the United Kingdom was more or less united – though conscription was never applied in Ulster and most Welsh-speakers were quietly excused.

National Service did not create a homogeneous and disciplined society. On the contrary, it worked because society was already homogenous and disciplined.

• Richard Vinen is professor of history at King’s College, London, and author of National Service: Conscription in Britain, 1945-1963, published this week by Allen Lane, price £25.