Keith Thomas

I sometimes have bad dreams about being back in the army. It’s not that the experience of National Service was entirely unpleasant; indeed some of it was highly enjoyable. But even at the best of times there was a sense of living in an open prison. In my case, this oppressive sense of unfreedom lay in the knowledge that it would be many long months before I would see my family again or take up my scholarship at Oxford. It was a miserable moment when I looked out of the window of the train carrying us to the troopship in Southampton, only to see the towers and spires of the university city flash past, so near and yet so remote.

Until the publication of Richard Vinen’s superb history, the best accounts of National Service were fictional: David Lodge’s Ginger, You’re Barmy is a particularly successful evocation of the miseries and absurdities of the conscript’s life.[*] But Vinen, who was born in 1963, when the last national serviceman was demobbed, draws on memoirs, interviews and official records, to evoke and analyse past experience in a way which will command the unqualified assent and appreciation of those who were there at the time. If anyone wants proof that historians really can recover the truth about the past, this book will provide it.

My own experience was exactly what Vinen would have predicted for a shy, if upwardly mobile, grammar school boy. I was conscripted in 1950, just after the period of service had been increased from 18 months to two years because of the Korean emergency. My future college insisted that I should do my National Service before coming up. It was a sensible rule, as I would have sunk without trace had I been plunged at the age of 17 into the sophisticated world of postwar Balliol, but it meant that I was a year younger than most of my fellow conscripts.

I did basic training in the infantry at the Welsh depot in Brecon. I failed the officer selection board (WOSB), and was transferred from the Welch Regiment to the First Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, where I became an orderly room clerk. This was a piece of good fortune for me, but not for my former companions in the Welch Regiment, who went to fight in Korea, a destination from which some of them never returned. By contrast, the RWF sailed to peaceful Jamaica, where I spent the next 18 months, eventually reaching the rank of corporal. (I discover in Vinen that I was saved from Korea because only those aged 19 or older could be sent there.) Demobbed in 1952, I had to attend Territorial Army summer camps for the next three years, by then as an officer in the Royal Engineers.

My first fortnight of basic training was traumatic. Immediately on arrival, we were lined up to be vaccinated and given four roughly administered injections. The painful swelling in my arm was as nothing compared with the horrors of the barrack room. I had never been away from home before and, having grown up in the countryside, knew little about the industrial working class. I found myself surrounded by miners, steel-workers and labourers, who had never possessed pyjamas, who when they spoke of ‘books’ meant the Dandy or the Beano, and whose conversation was an unbroken stream of obscenity. The gloom was leavened only by the banal pop songs of the day, sung repeatedly as we sat blancoing belts and polishing boots: ‘A man without a woman is like a ship without a sail, a boat without a rudder, a fish without a tail.’ None of this would bother me now; indeed, after years studying what historians call popular culture, I would find it interesting that the song ‘Silver Dollar’, composed in 1907, should still have been around in 1950. But I had led a sheltered life and in my priggish innocence it seemed as if I had been plunged into a Dantesque hell.

There were other humiliations. In the tests designed to identify those of subnormal intelligence, I proved unable to assemble a bicycle pump. Years later I discovered that this failure put me in a distinguished succession. Tom Harrisson, ornithologist, explorer and a founder of Mass-Observation, is only one of several notables who had a similar experience. Even so, my mechanical ineptitude lent a singular irony to my eventual posting to the Royal Engineers.

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[*] National Service: Conscription in Britain 1945-63 by Richard Vinen (Allen Lane, 586 pp., £25, August 2014, 978 1 846 14387 8).