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National service? It was no laughing matter

National service

Image© IWM (D 70112)

By the time conscription ended in 1963, some 2.3 million young men had completed two years national service. Below, Professor Peter Gurney, Dr Matthew Grant and Dr Joel Morley from the University of Essex’s history department, highlight the tension between enjoyable reminiscence and accurate representation of this compulsory militarisation of British society.

It was not until nearly two decades after the Second World War that Britain’s young men could choose to lead entirely civilian lives. Conscription continued post-war, and about 2.3 million young men completed two years national service before it was ended in 1963. A few national servicemen were selected by the navy, and more by the RAF, but the majority served in the army.

Once in uniform, recruits in all three services underwent similar basic training, where they learned to drill, to look after their kit, and, most of all, to take orders. After the relative universality of these initial weeks, however, national servicemen’s experiences were incredibly varied.

They not only served in different forces, but in different roles, places, and contexts. Some held highly specialised or explicitly military roles, while others performed tasks that would have been familiar in ‘civvy street’. Some spent their national service in camps in Britain, while others were posted to bases further afield, such as Germany, Cyprus and Aden. Many combated only boredom during their national service, but a minority saw active service, fighting wars in Korea or Malaya, or in conflict in places like Kenya and the Middle East.

These variations in experience limit the extent to which national service can be described as a universal experience, but it was certainly a shared one. A generation of British men, alongside their peers, were subject to conscription, military service and military discipline.

While national service became an integral part of post-war British life, we know little about the effects it had on men’s lives. The National Service Life Stories project, funded by the Leverhulme-Trust and conducted by Professor Peter Gurney, Dr Matthew Grant and Dr Joel Morley, academics in the history department at the University of Essex, has conducted more than 100 oral histories with ex-national servicemen from across Britain in order to understand how military service shaped their working and personal lives, and understandings of class, masculinity and national identity.

The project has also set out to examine how the men remember their national service, and their feelings about how it has been represented since. Many interviewees felt that national service has had limited representation in popular culture and that, perhaps as a result, young people do not know about it.

National service was, however, the subject of a number of memoirs, plays, and novels, and it has been represented to larger audiences in films, including Carry On Sergeant (1958) and The Virgin Soldiers (1969), and on TV in The Army Game (1957–61) and Get Some In (1975–78). Interviewees often remembered some of these representations, which were typically comedies that mocked the initiative and implied that it was a waste of conscripts’ time.

This sentiment accurately described how some interviewees felt about their service, and it mirrored some of the farcical situations they had encountered. But while these depictions appear to have captured something of their time in the armed forces, many felt that they didn’t tell the whole story. Moreover, they rejected – sometimes angrily – the comedies, the mocking tone which they felt made national service ‘look stupid’, and questioned or ignored its necessity, importance, achievement or benefits.

Alan Oliver’s testimony highlights the tension between enjoyable reminiscence and accurate representation. He liked Carry On Sergeant because it ‘showed you the barrack room days […], but it was a comedy, so it showed you the funny side of everything you know, even … some of the … some of the ordeals you might have went through or something, […] they made it a comic event, like, you know.’

Get Some In’s portrayal of the lottery of being ‘kitted out’ resonated with him, as did the depiction of the demeanour of Sergeants. Yet, while acknowledging that the programmes were funny, Oliver stressed the seriousness of national service: ‘Well … er … the thing is, it provided you to have a laugh at something that was serious, you know, because … er … those things you saw, you saw the comic element of it – but it was damn serious and all, like, you know.’

This aspect was not understood by audiences, who Oliver contends just see national service as ‘the marching and the stamping of the feet’. For Oliver, while depictions of national service in popular culture were entertaining and encouraged reminiscence, their failure to communicate its seriousness and purpose was a serious flaw in their ability to represent its meaning.

Our interviews also revealed that some interviewees have found affirmation in an alternative representation of military service, which does emphasise these elements. With Britain’s involvement in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, depictions of military service as often mundane but serious and significant have had greater public prominence.

There has also been increased interest in commemoration and Remembrance Day in contemporary Britain. A broad identity of the veteran has developed in which those who have served in Britain’s armed forces are lauded as deserving of recognition, respect and sympathy. While some interviewees expressed resistance to official commemoration, others found that this veteran identity enabled them to feel and express pride in their national service.

We can contrast Alan Oliver’s unease with comic representations with his discussion of Remembrance Day. He explained that, ‘the pride you have, I just turn out them couple of medals on at the Remembrance Day and the likes of that. I mean to say, the spring in your step, when you have your shoulder … you know, upright, shoulders back […] it brings it back to what you used to do. It smartens you up!’

A common reason why people volunteered to be interviewed for the National Service Life Stories project was a sense that national service, which was personally significant, has largely been remembered in comic tones or forgotten altogether by the wider public. The project continues to investigate how national service has been remembered and will shed light on its broader significance in the lives of those who served.

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