Peter Jay

National Service, by Colin Shindler

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National Service: From Aldershot to Aden, Tales of Conscripts 1946-62

Colin Shindler

Sphere, pp. 352, £

For over 15 years after the second world war young men between the ages of 18 and 20 were conscripted by law to serve in Britain’s armed forces for two years. This was officially in order to man the army, navy and air force sufficiently for them to be able to perform the roles which government assigned to them, mainly in the management of British colonies and, after the formation of Nato, in opposing the feared westward expansion of the Soviet Union.

Some serious fighting was done in Korea and later in Malaya, which was surprisingly successful from the colonial point of view. Others of us disported ourselves in the Middle and Near East, in Cyprus, in Africa and — reputedly the most boring — in the British Army on the Rhine. Some were just stuck in Britain.  

Colin Shindler has done a timely and invaluable job in bringing together the recollected experiences of one sailor, seven airmen and 19 soldiers who did their stint. Their first-hand memories will not be around for ever; and there are some lessons to be learnt.

The most important for the military is that conscription in peacetime is disastrous for morale. The presence in a barracks, camp or ship of men who do not want to be there, who are counting the days until their release and who have no belief in the purpose for which they are compelled to give up their time and freedom is corrosive; and bad morale drives out good.

When well-meaning old soldiers urge a reintroduction of military service as some kind of remedy for the supposed ills or inadequacies of the young, they make a great mistake. It might benefit some individuals, while ruining others; but it would do far more damage to the services than could ever be justified by its supposed value as social therapy.

The second lesson, well brought out by Shindler and his contributors, is the profound impact and importance of the British class system. Broadly speaking, if you had been to a public school and were not grossly dyspraxic you became an officer and, after the first six months of moderately oppressive training, lived the life of Riley, were waited on hand and foot, were slightly better paid and might even occasionally be given an interesting job, e.g. navigating officer in a small ship in the Mediterranean.

Otherwise you were consigned to the ranks and likely to be condemned to tedium, indignity and futility. Those of us who were lucky and had a whale of a time easily romanticise the experience and forget how wasteful and depressing it was for so many others — and how corrosive were the class resentments which it lastingly engendered in many breasts.

Shindler brings out too the racism that military service abroad so easily encourages. My year on and off in Cyprus left me with an enduring distrust of the Greeks and respect for the Turks — hardly surprising since Greek nationalists fought us while the Turks manned our police force — which I have never managed entirely to shed. And that’s to say nothing of the pervasive and crude stereotyping of every Geordie, Scouse, Taffy, Jock, Tyke and Brummie from the moment he opened his mouth.  

Of course two years between school and whatever came next should have been at least an opportunity to celebrate the end of school rules and to discover the joys and snags of other glimpses of bliss. The first worked; and those of us ‘veterans of the real world out there’ who had done our national service looked down from a very great height on the foolish youths who came straight up from school to university and seemingly spent their new freedom throwing away all the opportunities that higher education might have given them.

But I grieve to relate that owing to the deficiencies of my personality and the narrowness of my preparation for life I survived two years of cigarettes at 2½p for 20, spirits at 1½p a shot and girls allegedly in every port without smoking, drinking (give or take a glass of Keo wine) or kissing a single girl. But I did read much of Tolstoy, Hardy and Dostoevsky — what a weirdo!

I did also argue furiously with my admiral (Miers VC) about Suez, before later joining the invasion fleet at Port Said, and just about escaped court martial for tampering with my ship’s gun (or, as I saw it, displaying exceptional officer-like qualities of initiative and devotion to duty) with the consequence that, when fired, its barrel rose into the air and splashed into the sea. My eventual release from the navy was allowed to pass with notably less regret than the death of Nelson.