Phil Carradice has compiled some very informative and interesting reminiscences from veterans who served in the armed forces as part of the post-war National Service program which lasted from 1947 until 1963. This peacetime programme was very different from the conscription process that saw so many called up to fight in the Second World War and their terms, conditions and experiences were different indeed. In fact, it was partly due to the rapid demobilisation process after the war that sent military planners and politicians into a panic about finding the necessary manpower for Britain to maintain its still considerable defence commitments both in Europe and across what was still a formidable Empire. It is interesting to note that the plan for this peacetime conscription actually came from a Labour government who were taken with the idea of giving young men common purpose and a sense of serving their nation in some capacity - partially in return for the new welfare state provisions being implemented by the ground breaking Attlee government. Equally ironically, it was a Conservative government which dismantled the system some 16 years later. It is hard for us in the present day to imagine those two parties respectively holding such contrary views on a subject like conscription.
This book is clearly organised and follows the likely course of a recruit's progression in one of the three armed services from call up to basic training to trade training to deployment to demobilisation. It was an all too familiar journey for anyone leaving school in the late 1940s, 1950s and very early 1960s. At the time it seems as if most did indeed resent the imposition of National Service on their lives, but it also appears equally true that most participants looked back nostalgically at the unexpected opportunities, postings and friendships that they experienced and more than a few learned new skills or trades that would hold them in good stead in their future careers. It appears that few of those interviewed regretted their National Service time with hindsight but most couldn't count the days quick enough to leave when actually forced to participate.
In imperial terms, the correlation of the rise and fall of National Service with the state of the Empire is clear to track. Britain's imperial commitments in the late 1940s were considerable indeed, even after the independence of India in 1947. Britain was still an imperial power with defence commitments and trading networks to defend over much of the planet. This was still an era of potentially exotic postings in almost any corner of the world and many of the National Service recruits were sent overseas to garrison and endeavour to keep the peace from Hong Kong to Malaya to the Suez to East Africa and many more besides. And even if the National Servicemen were not posted to the Empire, they freed up experienced regular servicemen to undertake those imperial commitments. In the early days overseas colonial postings could be popular postings to receive (especially compared to the war ravaged Germany postings) but as nationalism rose in the post-war period and the decolonisation process sped up so did the danger amplify itself for servicemen finding themselves attempting to hold the peace in parts of the world that no longer wished to see British soldiers on their streets. Previously idyllic postings like Cyprus and Malaya found soldiers firmly on the frontline and having to fight the new form of assymetric warfare where your enemy was unlikely to be seen except in the form of a sniper's bullet or a bomb exploding. There is an interesting note from the author that given the harsh treatment of the national servicemen in their basic training that they might actually have had a degree of support for the oppressed in the places they served. However he goes on to make it very clear that there was very little sympathy indeed for foreigners almost regardless of their political plight. Most soldiers appear to have been more worried about getting ripped off or robbed and just followed orders whatever they may have been. This was not just a colonial superiority complex but was equally applied against the defeated Germans in what felt as if it was still very much an army of occupation. It is clear that the context of the times was that Britain had been victorious in the Second World War combined with the feeling that Britain was still an important power and to be taken seriously... although that belief was soon to be shaken.
The turning point for the institution of National Service as a useful device for the armed services appears to have been the Suez Crisis of 1956. The resulting 1957 defence white paper after the Suez debacle clearly identified that the era of mass conscription would no longer suit Britain's defence needs. This was partly due to the accelerating decolonisation process reducing the manpower requirements for Britain's armed services but it was also reflecting the new nuclear bomb era where mass armies were seen to be a thing of the past and that well trained and well motivated experts were predicted to be of more value than reluctant conscripts. The Cold War and the erection of the Berlin Wall in particular slowed down the process to remove National Service, but by 1963 it had been consigned to history.
The author definitely has a light touch and allows the National Servicemen to speak for themselves for the vast majority of the text. He provides a skeleton overview of the issues discussed but leaves most of the talking to the veterans themselves. This is no great disservice to the book as their invariably paragraph length observations or recollections are inherently fascinating and interesting with just a little of the context provided by Phil Carradice where necessary. Some of the chapters in the middle of the book could make some surprising detours and they certainly did not all follow the chapter heading given. For instance a chapter on 'The Demon Drink' veered off to discuss concentration and internment camps; the chapter on 'Parades, Troop Ships and Jankers' veered off into a discussion on accommodation and teaching. They were still interesting to read and there was plenty to learn, but the focus could definitely shift unexpectedly in places.
The book also discusses the ways that young men could delay or defer National Service altogether. There were conscientious objectors but a more likely route to avoid the armed services was working in the coal mines or in the Merchant Navy. However, the commitment required to avoid doing your National Service could be substantial indeed. You were liable for call up until the age of 26 which meant that you might have to sign up for a decade in the Merchant Navy in order to avoid a two year military commitment. Some did indeed make that choice, but it was a Hobson's choice for most others. It did not help that work down the mines and in the Merchant Navy could be far more demanding than serving in the military and the pay and conditions not always substantially better.
It is tempting to consider the National Service programme through the prism of the popular culture of the late 1950s and 1960s through light hearted and satirical books like The Virgin Soldiers or comic films like Carry on Sergeant. It is easy to forget that National Servicemen were indeed in the military and that some 600 or so reluctant conscripts paid for their National Service with their lives. Some were killed in active service in places like Malaya and Cyprus but others were killed in accidents in organisations which handled inherently dangerous hardware and materials or conducted strenuous training in challenging environments. For most recruits, it was a hard period of commitment that made physical and emotional demands on young men most of whom were away from home for the first time in their lives. For many though, it appears that boredom, monotony and military discipline were the binds that afflicted them the most. There was an interesting piece of research cited in the book which claimed that 15% loved their time as a National Serviceman, 10% hated it and the rest plumb in the middle and just got on with it! This was a telling statistic.
One area that I would have liked to have seen explored more by the author, although I completely understand why they are missing, are the more contentious aspects of military life in the 1950s. For example, there is no mention of homosexuality. I appreciate that it was still illegal to be a homosexual at this point in British history, but some passing comments on its existence, toleration or otherwise would have been useful. There is certainly a discussion on the impact of National Service on the female partners of servicemen, but even here, it tends to be the case of those who had long distance relationships that survived. I think there is only one exampe of a break up given. I am sure that 'Dear John' letters were a factor in the minds of many who left loved ones behind. I suppose it is harder to track those failed relationships than those which succeeded. Still, it would have been interesting to have seen more of these negative stories. Similarly issues of racism or bullying could have been made more prominent. Bullying by NCOs is certainly covered but what about bullying within groups of servicemen. There is a brief mention about the possible brutalisation process of serving in the military with one convicted criminal mentioning how much he had learnt and enjoyed his National Service experience, but it is all too brief and I would have loved to have read more on this aspect. Reading between the lines and from my own research, it certainly seems the case that the military was a rather unbending institution which was slow to address its shortcomings and did not always have the welfare of those it was charged to look after at the forefront of its decision making processes. The author is aware that there may be some rose tinted nostalgia tinging the recollections, and that certainly is conveyed in many of the quotes, but perhaps there is a research opportunity for the future for someone to look into the parts of this institution that the military would prefer to have remained left undisturbed.
I do need to end though by saying that I found the book a real delight to read. It never felt like a chore picking up this book. There were so many pearls of wisdom, interesting asides or unexpected gems of information tucked away in the recollections of a disparate group of people who have actually been brought together in the same kind of way that the National Service institution itself came about: It brought people from every walk of life and from all corners of the country to serve their country. Many of them were strange bedfellows to one another and would almost certainly have never met each other if it had not been for conscription. However, putting them together has made something that is larger than the sum of the original parts. This book attains that same distinction, putting all their accounts of their various military services in different sectors in different parts of the world make for a fascinating story that casts light on Britain and its Empire at a crucial turning point in its national story. This book provides a lens to examine that bigger picture through the prism of National Service and I certainly commend it whole heartedly.