Diary

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.

Things got better when I was moved to another hut filled mostly with grammar school boys who were regarded as potential officers or NCOs. Basic training, however, continued to be unpleasant. I didn’t mind the square-bashing or even the bayonet practice: plunging one’s weapon into a sack of straw never for a moment felt like the real thing. Sleeping out in the snow on an exercise in the Brecon Beacons was quite exciting. But the threat of being ‘back-squadded’ – having to do the six weeks all over again – hung over me because to complete the course you had to pass in PE and I couldn’t climb a rope however hard I tried. But of course, when the time came, nobody cared whether I could climb a rope or not.

‘Clerks,’ Vinen writes, ‘were usually men who were too well educated to stay in the ranks but too plebeian, obviously lacking in martial qualities or rebellious, to become officers.’ Far from being rebellious, I was in those days obsequiously conformist, and my parents (a successful tenant farmer and a former schoolteacher) would have bridled at the suggestion that they were plebeian. But I was certainly lacking in martial qualities. In the test for potential officers at the WOSB, the squad under my hesitant leadership, when required to transport a huge log across a bridge, managed to drop it into what was supposed, for the purposes of the exercise, to be a raging torrent below. When asked at my interview whether I could imagine myself leading men into battle, I was unable to give a convincing reply. I knew nothing about the army. No members of my family had ever done military service – agriculture was a reserved occupation – and Welsh grammar schools did not have cadet corps. When I was posted to the Territorial Army I was sent to another WOSB and passed easily, but by then I was a young gentleman from Balliol.

Vinen, who is very interested in class, stresses that the army had a firmly binary structure into which grammar school boys did not fit easily. There were officers and there were other ranks, with nothing in between; warrant officers were drawn from long-serving members of other ranks. In the regular army, the officers typically came from the upper middle class and landed gentry, and the other ranks from the rough end of the working class. This left little room for the people in the middle, who, as in Hilaire Belloc’s poem, looked ‘out of place and mean, and horribly embarrassed’.

The troopship Dilwara, in which the battalion travelled to Jamaica, had been built in 1936. With its strict segregation of officers, who travelled in first-class luxury, and other ranks, who were crowded together in squalid conditions below the water line, it embodied the social assumptions of the prewar era; and its sadistic staff resembled prison guards. I managed to lose my meal ticket; I found it again, but it was taken for granted that I had stolen it and for the rest of the voyage I was ignominiously marched to and from the canteen.

Once arrived in Jamaica, however, the orderly room clerks, because of their socially anomalous position, had rather a good time. We were a congenial little band with our own barrack room; and I was allowed to keep a sizeable library in my locker (though my reading was not as highbrow as my fellow historian Peter Burke’s during his stint as a pay clerk in Singapore, which in a typical two days, Vinen tells us, included Galileo, Gide and Rimbaud). Although subject to weekly parades and periodic kit inspections, we were excused weapon training and most other military duties. We also enjoyed a certain cachet, because it was widely assumed that we were privy to the battalion’s secrets. We enjoyed reading the confidential reports on junior officers and we received extra helpings in the cookhouse because the cooks, who were mostly regular soldiers on a long-term posting in the Caribbean, wrongly believed that we were in a position to help them bring their families to Jamaica from the UK or get them special leave to go home.

The battalion’s official duty in Jamaica was to assist the civil power: that is, to uphold the status quo during what turned out to be the last years before decolonisation. Under the labour leader Alexander Bustamante, pressure for Jamaican independence was mounting, and there were anti-colonial demonstrations all over the Caribbean. The RWF had one company permanently stationed in British Honduras, where dissatisfaction with British rule was particularly intense, and from time to time the battalion was required to send other troops to curb protesters in Antigua, Grenada and British Guiana. But such encounters were non-violent and there was no parallel to the atrocities which involved national servicemen in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus.

As well as learning how to disperse rioters, the soldiers performed ceremonial duties such as mounting a guard of honour for the arrival of the new governor, Hugh Foot. They also helped out in moments of difficulty, such as the emergency triggered in August 1951 by Hurricane Charlie. This was Jamaica’s greatest natural disaster of the 20th century, with 17 inches of rainfall in a few hours, gusts of 125 mph, more than 150 deaths and thousands of injuries. It was the only occasion when the orderly room clerks were issued with live ammunition. The wind had blown down the walls of the local prison and seventy inmates, some of them due to be hanged that week, escaped to the hills. We were sent to find them. To our relief, we failed to do so, though we managed to lose one of our number, who spent the night wandering in the hills.

As the 23rd of Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers were not without social pretensions or indeed literary ones; I took vicarious pride in knowing that it had been the regiment of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and David Jones. They had no successors in my time. In Jamaica the officers lived a cheerfully philistine life, playing polo, attending cocktail parties and spending weekends on the beaches of the north coast. The other ranks took their pleasures where they could find them. For the regular soldiers this usually meant the brothels of Kingston. On return to camp they were required to attend the grandly named Prophylactic Ablution Centre. Those who failed to do so and then contracted VD could end up in a military prison. An additional deterrent was the rumoured treatment for gonorrhoea, said to involve an instrument resembling a folded umbrella, which was inserted into the sufferer’s penis, opened up and then pulled out.

My own life was nothing if not chaste. I didn’t smoke or drink beer, or even tea or coffee. Duties in the orderly room were undemanding and I spent much of my leisure time playing cricket. On one occasion we played against a side that included Alf Valentine, the young spinner who took eight wickets in the first innings of his first Test against England in 1950. Unfortunately, it poured with rain. Undaunted, our hosts poured petrol on the pitch. A huge pall of black smoke rose over the ground and we resumed play on an extreme version of a rapidly drying wicket. Jamaican cricket involved a good deal of audience participation and my own delivery of slow leg-breaks was frequently accompanied by cries of ‘Mash him up, man! This is no bowler!’ The battalion’s cricket coach was a former West Indies Test cricketer who a few years later was hanged for murder. By that time I was at All Souls, where one of my senior colleagues was a member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council that rejected his appeal.

‘Join the army and see the world,’ said the recruiting posters of the day; and in Jamaica even clerks had some opportunities to travel. We twice climbed Blue Mountain Peak (7400 feet high, but covered in mist when we got there). We also spent idle days by the white sands and transparent blue waters of Doctor’s Cave in Montego Bay. A more daring trip was to the Cockpit Country, home of the Maroons, descendants of escaped slaves, who in the 18th century had, after several wars with British troops, been allowed to remain in this remote and inaccessible area in a state of semi-independence. It was said that no white men ever went there. After a long trek on foot our unheralded arrival one evening at the Maroon town of Accompong caused consternation. We were ushered into a large barn, where by the light of oil lamps we were interrogated as to the reasons for our intrusion and involved in a lengthy, arcane, and on both sides seriously under-informed debate as to whether or not the treaty of 1738 allowed us to be there. Understandably, the Maroons decided that it didn’t.

Almost as exciting was a visit in March 1952 to Guantánamo Bay, then as now a base for the US Marines, though without its later associations. A friend and I managed to attach ourselves to the battalion’s rifle team, who were travelling to Cuba on the cruiser HMS Sheffield for a shooting match against the marines. We were amazed by the luxurious facilities on the American base and, after the postwar austerities of our army food, which mostly came out of tins, we were thrilled to discover unlimited supplies of steak, chops, chicken and ice cream. We also learned that an American recruit in training was paid as much as a British lieutenant after four years’ service. There was a marked contrast between our bored cynicism and the determined attitude of the marines. To our astonishment, they actually enjoyed being soldiers and even spent their pocket money on sending away for books on weapon training.

Our time in Cuba coincided with the military coup which brought back the dictator Fulgencio Batista. But though we travelled by bus up the island as far as Camagüey and saw a good deal of decaying baroque splendour, the revolution eluded us. We spent a week cruising on the Sheffield while its crew practised firing their ear-splitting six-inch guns. Living conditions were infinitely worse than on the Dilwara. Each mess deck, about 15 yards square, accommodated forty men. There was no fixed place to sleep; the ratings hung their hammocks anywhere or just flopped down on the floor. The watch system meant that no one got a complete night’s sleep anyway. It was easy to see why Samuel Johnson thought that a sailor’s life was like being in jail with the chance of being drowned.

I wrote home regularly and my mother kept my letters. Reading them sixty years later, I feel intense embarrassment. The writer’s views on politics and race are callow and distasteful. Repelled by Kingston’s crowded and filthy conditions, this bigoted youth attributed the poverty that surrounded him to the inherent idleness and fecklessness of the black Jamaicans. He was equally scornful about their desire for self-government. A character in Ian McEwan’s novel The Children Act remarks that all of us had beliefs at the age of 17 that would embarrass us now. Vinen found that it was not unusual for ex-national servicemen to be shocked when they reread their diaries and letters. He tells us that Paul Foot (Hugh Foot’s son) found it painful to read the diary he kept at the time of Suez; and he suggests that most conscripts who expressed political opinions merely adopted those of their parents. That was certainly true of me. I went to Jamaica with the views I had imbibed from my father and mother and I returned with them unchanged. Vinen quotes Peter Burke’s flattering suggestion that Jamaica created my interest in anthropological approaches to history, but it is, alas, not true. I had some interesting encounters with Rastafarians, but I saw them then as comic curiosities, not subjects for serious study, leave alone respect. It was not Jamaica, but Balliol and All Souls that widened my horizons and turned me into the leftish liberal I now am.

I remember no discussion of politics in our barrack room, other than the rumour that if Churchill got back in the 1951 general election he would extend the period of National Service to three years. We were thoroughly unpolitical and barely aware that our role was the doubtful one of trying to hold together the crumbling remains of the British Empire. National Service produced very few radical dissenters; and ex-national servicemen seldom became the student rebels of the 1960s. But neither did they necessarily become timid conformists. Their experience taught them that it was futile to protest against orders, but easy to circumvent them in practice. It was in the army that many innocent young men first learned how to ‘skive’, evade responsibility and look out for a ‘cushy’ billet. Vinen rightly concludes that ‘far from being an institution that took “bad lads” and exposed them to the brisk regularity of military life, National Service often took “good boys” and exposed them to a world of profanity, petty crime and almost pathological enthusiasm to avoid hard work.’

To fly us home the army had chartered an ancient Avro York aeroplane operated by a private company called the Lancashire Aircraft Corporation. The War Office had decided that this was the most economical form of transport. It took several days to reach England, with prolonged stops at Bermuda and Gander, Newfoundland. A few months afterwards the same plane, carrying the latest batch of troops and their families to Jamaica, disappeared shortly after leaving Gander.

What do I retain from this experience of more than sixty years ago? Not much. I have a shameful taste for military bands and films about army life, like Tunes of Glory, with Alec Guinness and John Mills. An intense dislike of denim, which I associate with fatigues and servility, has deterred me from ever wearing jeans. I love to hear a Jamaican accent and, despite its violence and gang warfare, I still think of the island’s extraordinary beauty. Crucially, what I took away from my National Service was a resolution that when at last I got to Oxford I would do my best never to leave it.

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