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Good riddance, National Service

10 May 2013

Fifty years after the final demob, Bob Holman considers the lessons learned

National Service involved the post-war conscription of more than two million men. The last conscripts were demobbed on 7 May 1963. So, 50 years later, it seems timely to reconsider its impact.

It was no soft option. In 1947, the Labour Government legislated for it to replace men released after the Second World War. The most significant conflict to involve them was in Korea, 1950-53.

In his excellent history of National Service, The Call-Up (Headline, 2004), Tom Hickman records the words of one soldier, Albie Hawkins, after a fierce battle in Korea, in which his best friend was killed: "I carried him down the hill and he died in my arms. . . We were almost all national services. . . As we came down the road, wounded men at the rear of us were screaming and then there was no screaming as the Chinese came along and picked them off."

My call-up papers came in 1954. After square-bashing, I was sent to RAF Bawdsey, a radar station on the Suffolk coast. We still did drill, but my marching put others out of step. After one parade, the warrant officer bellowed: "Holman, you are a zombie. Zombies cannot march. Never come on parade again." I was the envy of the camp, as I sat on the beach while they drilled.

I enjoyed the work, identifying planes and tracing their flights. There was cricket or football on Wednesdays; and there were evenings in the NAFI - chatting, joking, singing. I felt a kind of collectivity with the other National Servicemen, and enjoyed their company.

The most important immediate impact was on my Christian life. I did not find it easy to witness in the bawdy atmosphere of our huts. Then I met Trevor Manning, a strong Christian who formed a Christian Fellowship.

Determined to spread the gospel, he organised the showing of a Billy Graham film in the dinner hall. The trouble was that, as the radar was on 24 hours, the evening shift would miss the film. The only exception was if very bad weather grounded all planes. Trevor called a prayer meeting, and - you've guessed it - rain meant that all could attend. The hall was crowded. For days afterwards, religion was the main topic of discussion, and several turned to Christ.

Trevor and two others later became ministers. As for me, I had grasped that to be effective in a social or religious sense, I had to be living among, not distant from, the people whom I wished to reach.

The National Service officers were heavily drawn from public schools. As Hickman says: "Nothing worked as well as the old school tie." Some officers came from state schools, but the system was weighed against them. One outcome was that many able graduates served in the ranks. Some of these men encouraged me to apply to university.

National service ended when the forces no longer required large numbers of troops. Hickman quotes a survey from the 1950s about men's experience of it, which suggests that 15 per cent of those questioned liked the life, ten per cent hated it, and 75 per cent endured it, but longed for their discharge.

The long-term effects were more subtle. Some people still call for the restoration of National Service, on the grounds that it could transform delinquent thugs into law-abiding citizens.

Professor Thomas Ferguson, a distinguished medical and social researcher, followed up a number of Glaswegians after their two-years of service. He found that it did not have an influence on reducing violent crime, and argued that the removal of poor living conditions and the promotion of opportunities were more likely to undermine offending (T. Ferguson and J. Cunnison, In Their Early Twenties: A study of Glasgow youth, OUP, 1956).

The historian Trevor Royle, in his masterly study, National Service: The best years of their lives (Michael Joseph, 1986), says that the notion of National Service as a means of dealing with hooligans "belongs to the right-wing fringe and is not taken seriously within the forces themselves".

Yet there were long-term social effects. Removing young men from their families and submitting them to discipline and community living was a transformative experience. Sex was a constant topic of discussion and boasting in the barracks. Bawdsey had WRAF regulars, and a few were discharged for being pregnant (no action was taken against the men concerned).

Some couples did marry, and I kept in touch with one pair for years. I also made long-lasting friendships with a number of colleagues.

For many of us, National Service was our face-to-face introduction to the class system. I had never met anyone from a public school, and yet here they not only ordered me about, but resided in a huge manor and enjoyed separate lives. Most seemed affluent, even owning sports cars.

I had no political background, and it was probably my understanding of the teachings of Christ which stimulated my opposition to the rigid class divisions in the forces. It formed in me a dislike of power, the type which depended on privilege. The wish to promote social justice and greater equality shaped the rest of my life.

In my last year at university, Annette, my wife-to-be, and I went to Arnold Wesker's then new play Chips With Everything, about National Service in the RAF. One character, the upper-class Pip, wants to remain in the ranks, but the RAF establishment applies pressure to persuade him otherwise. The play confirmed my analysis of the class system.

After a period as a social worker and then a university professor, I lived, worked, and worshipped in socially deprived areas for more than 30 years. It gave me a closeness to working-class people that I had experienced in the RAF huts and the NAAFI.

It also reinforced my belief that such people are as talented and worthy as their so-called social superiors. Community projects, run by residents, have succeeded in turning vulnerable youngsters, including some who have been to prison, into leaders. I believe that they need not National Service, but such local services.

Bob Holman is a former Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath, and the author of biographies of Woodbine Willie and Keir Hardie.

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