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