Background to National Service
The conclusion of the Second World War did not end the substantial demands on the British Government with regard to the employment of the country’s armed forces. With the majority of servicemen desperate to return to civilian life it was politically impossible for wartime conscription to be sustained. The responsibilities and commitments facing the Government included the enforcement of the terms of surrender on Germany and Japan, participation in occupation duties, the maintenance of security within the diminishing Empire and the re-establishment of British influence in the world, particularly in the Middle East.
The requirement for a peacetime force larger than that made possible by purely voluntary recruitment led the post-war Labour Government to move towards establishing a national service system in 1946. The National Service Act was passed in July 1947 after considerable opposition from some Labour and Liberal politicians. The Act was to come into force at the beginning of 1949. The Act initially required a period of one year to be served in the Armed Forces followed by a liability for a possible five years in the Reserve. Financial crises, the advent of the Cold War and the Malaya emergency led to the National Service Amendment Act in December 1948, increasing the period of service to 18 months. This enabled National Servicemen to be used more efficiently and effectively, particularly overseas.
The demands of the Korean War (1950-1953) led to the length of service being extended to two years, surpassing even the Service Chiefs’ original wishes. Liability to further service in the Reserve was reduced with each of these extensions. The period of service remained at two years until the end of National Service. In practice national service was a catch-all for men born between 1927 and 1939 whose childhoods had already been overcast by economic depression, wartime bombing and evacuation. Although its abolition was announced in 1957, it continued until 1960, and the last conscripts were not demobbed until 1963.
Every fortnight some 6,000 youths were conscripted, with a total of 2,301,000 called up over this period. The army took 1,132,872 and the RAF much of the rest, leaving relatively few sailors. After discharge, conscripts remained on the reserve force for another four years, and were liable to recall in the event of an emergency. Many drilled men became conformist and respectful of authority, but others reacted to their experiences with a lifetime of insubordination and resentment.
Most conscripts were not yet old enough to vote (voting age was only lowered from 21 to 18 in 1970) and felt disempowered. They had scant pay, and provided a cut-price way for Britain to maintain its illusory great power status.