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.
The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] National Service: Conscription in Britain 1945-63 by Richard Vinen (Allen Lane, 586 pp., £25, August 2014, 978 1 846 14387 8).
Vol. 37 No. 4 · 19 February 2015
Like Keith Thomas I too was called into National Service in 1950 (LRB, 5 February). Like him, I avoided transportation to Korea and was excused the atrocities committed by British forces in Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus. Otherwise my military service was somewhat different from his. On being mustered, I was very quickly transferred from an unearthly spot in Yorkshire to the Household Cavalry barracks in Windsor. I spent two years as a motorcycle dispatch rider in the Life Guards. With the honourable exception of the riding master, all the commissioned officers were Etonians and little appeared to have changed since the Iron Duke himself ruled the roost in Whitehall.
I discovered (it was hard to miss) that there was a semi-organised ring of male prostitutes within the Guards known simply as ‘the business’. It was ignored by the authorities until an MP or suchlike was caught in one of the royal parks with a guardsman. As far as I know little was done to prevent similar things happening again and again. Newspaper coverage was minimal. On completing my two years with the Life Guards, I too served my remaining three and a half years in the Territorial Army. Little has surfaced of the disorder, the almost mutinous conditions and total collapse of military discipline in the TA.
Vol. 37 No. 5 · 5 March 2015
Keith Thomas is surely right that one of the most insidious legacies of National Service was its elevation of inactivity to a fine art (LRB, 5 February). I can’t, however, agree that most of us emerged with our views on politics and society unchanged. I entered the services as a lukewarm Anglican with a vague belief in the inherent superiority of British values. The coup de grâce to my religious convictions was applied by an army padre putting a squaddie on a charge for failing to salute him. My confidence in the Dixon of Dock Green bobby was severely shaken by the practices and attitudes of Her Majesty’s Constabulary seconded to Cyprus to assist in security operations. My belief in a free, frank and fearless press foundered as I witnessed Barbara Castle pilloried daily for her exposure of what was going on there. And any illusions I clung to concerning the tommy’s exemplary discipline were dispelled when, following the murder of the wife of a British sergeant in 1958, random Cypriot males were rounded up and brought to our camp for muscular interrogation.
Looking back, I was certainly handicapped by a loss of two years in career progression compared to those who managed to evade the call-up and, unlike in France, that shortfall wasn’t compensated for by taking the time into account in calculating pension entitlement. Moreover, friends of mine in France who, like me, were on active service still receive annually a substantial three-figure gratuity from a grateful nation. But then in France every government still contains a ministre des anciens combattants.
St Georges les Bains, France
I missed service in the forces, though the prospect loomed over my adolescent years. My brother, John, a grammar school boy, was conscripted into the Royal Artillery in 1953, and chose to do his service before he went to Cambridge. He started as a gunner and never progressed. He failed the officer selection test because he had physically helped his team to build a bridge. He was, I think, in the rebellious category of national servicemen. The army took him to Egypt and the Canal Zone, where he ran an office under canvas. He learned to type and earned an extra 6d a week, ‘efficiency money’. One day he was offered a driving test, which he had listed himself for. He wasn’t ready for it but went through the motions; he was told he had failed and to fill in the paperwork necessary. He went away and did the paperwork, certifying himself as having passed. He could drive any vehicle thereafter, and wasn’t troubled by a driving test again.
Returning home on a troopship, he and some others avoided the futile tasks they would have been given to do elsewhere on the ship and instead sat on deckchairs at the stern of the ship, reading. When asked, ‘What are you men doing here?’ he stood up and answered: ‘Man overboard picket, sir.’ They were left to carry on.
I once asked him why he had never smoked, since cigarettes were cheap, or free, in the British army. ‘I would never do anything the army wanted me to do,’ he replied.
The army didn’t require manners. A friend of mine, put forward for the officer selection test, was too polite. As he came up to the first hurdle on the obstacle course he saw a fellow soldier approaching alongside. ‘After you,’ he said. Like Keith Thomas, he was failed.