Friday, November 21, 2014


Well, I`ve finished wading my way through Richard Vinen`s 600-page account of National Service.  It`s a serious, entertaining and thought-provoking account of a time which was unique in the social and military history of this country.  It was the first and only time when over two million men born between 1928 and August,1939 (I was born in July 1939) were conscripted to serve during peacetime.   Well, I use the word peacetime advisedly as, during the period, there were serious conflicts in Korea, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and the fiasco of Suez, in each of which national servicemen served, died or were wounded and should perhaps be remembered more than they are.  

Now the contribution of national servicemen to these episodes is acknowledged at some length and rightly so, for the whole raison d`etre of conscription was not to turn the youth of the day into men but rather to ensure that the armed forces had enough manpower to cope not only with conflicts such as those I have mentioned but also the burgeoning threat from the Soviet Union.

Vinen`s book is full of detail about the background, the process and the ending of national service and draws upon a large collection of documents, records and interviews, all of which add to the authenticity of his study.   But it is a study not only of conscription but also of Britain during those times and he concludes that that time is now almost unrecognisable from the perspective of now.   The book is littered with references to all kinds of divisions that existed during the national service years - public school, grammar school;  officer class, non-commissioned officers, `other ranks;` divisions within the army itself - Guards, Cavalry, infantry regiments, Pioneer Corps; between regular soldiers and national service conscripts - but the most telling influence in those times was the preponderance and application of `class` itself.  (I wonder if it has changed all that much.)

Most of Vinen`s `personal` sources are from commissioned national service officers and there is perhaps not enough effort devoted to exploring what national service really meant to the `ordinary` conscript,  plucked from his own domestic environment and pitchforked into a quite alien world where, if he was to survive at all, he had quickly to adopt qualities such as self-reliance, a healthy cynicism and an acceptance of his situation whilst counting the days until his own form of normality could be resumed.

I`ve said before that, for me, the experiences I had left me with mixed feelings;  I would rather not have been called up and yet, having been, I learnt things about life and about myself that I suspect have proved useful, not least the comradeship I discovered from being `all in this together.`  And yes, my cynicism remains untouched, for how else could it be, having proved so hopeless at shooting that my rifle range score was laughably inept so I was posted to a cavalry regiment that had tanks with massive guns;  and when I was demobbed I found myself posted to a reserve regiment that went by the name of Sharpshooters.   Which, of course, aptly demonstrates the eternal contradiction in terms that is military intelligence.


Ray Turner said...

Sounds like a very interesting book Snopper, I shall look out for it.

Though at 600 pages it seems like it might be the War & Peace of National Service...

Snopper said...

It`s really `only` 400 pages of narrative - then 200 pages of notes, bibliography, appendices and index.

Not really bedtime reading.

Anonymous said...

Your post reminded me of a conversation I had one dark Soltau night after all our national servicemen had left with a warrant officer whose name you would remember. He said that he regretted their passing because in general you/they were a civilising influence on we rough regulars. Oh, and jolly handy for baby sitting too.