Your guide to National Service in Britain

When and why were Britons conscripted into the Armed Forces, and what were national servicemen expected to do?

Fresh recruits on parade at North Frith Barracks, Hampshire, in 1953 following their call-up for National Service

What was National Service, and when was it in effect in Britain?

National Service was the peacetime conscription of British men into the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. During the years National Service was active – between 1949 and 1963 – more than two million men were conscripted into the British Armed forces.

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Why was National Service introduced?

During World War II, the British Armed Forces needed to use conscription in order to fill its ranks – but after the war had ended, the government decided to continue conscription in peacetime. The idea was to ensure that Britain’s overseas military commitments were fulfilled, and to maintain the dwindling British empire.

Men were needed for the ongoing miltary occupations of Germany and Japan, which began with the end of World War II. Tensions between the US and Russia during the Cold War also put pressure on Britain’s military, while Indian independence in 1947 had removed a large source of previously relied-upon manpower.

A 16th-century painting of the Tower of Babel

Who was exempt from National Service?

All able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 30 were liable to be called up, but there were exceptions – the blind and mentally ill, clergymen and men who worked in government positions overseas. Black and Asian British men were also unofficially excluded – in 1946 there were concerns that commissions given to non-white officers could affect the well-being and discipline of the army. Due to the tensions in Northern Ireland, Northern Irish men were also excluded.

Students could defer the call-up until their studies had been completed, while conscientious objectors had to undergo a tribunal test to prove their beliefs.

What was National Service like?

New recruits were given six weeks’ basic military training and had to undertake a regime of cleaning equipment and drills. For some this was boring, but for others it gave stability, discipline and the chance to bond with their comrades, as well as an opportunity to learn new skills and languages. National Service also offered travel to far-flung destinations such as Egypt or Borneo – new opportunities for those who otherwise would not have had the means to venture beyond Britain.

More than two million men were conscripted between 1949 and 1963

How long did National Service last, and where were men deployed?

The initial serving period was 18 months, but during the Korean War (1950-53) this was extended to two years; everyone was liable to be called up at any time in the four years after their training. National Service soldiers kept the peace during periods of civil unrest and, in some cases, were at the front line when other countries fought for independence from the British empire. Service wasn’t risk-free, either: 395 national servicemen were killed while on active duty.

Were men paid for National Service?

Yes. In 1948, a basic soldier was paid 28 shillings a week (equivalent to about £50 today). By 1960, this had risen to 38 shillings. However, in comparison to the average weekly wage in Britain (15 pounds, 10 shillings) this was poor.

When did National Service end?

As the British empire dwindled in size, Britain had less of a need for large armed forces to protect its overseas territories. A review of Britain’s defence resources in 1957 reassessed the need for conscripts and, taking into account advances in nuclear warfare, large armies were deemed ineffective compared to modern weapons.

The changing nature of war meant that professional soldiers were now needed, and the training of large numbers of national servicemen took away these experienced men – not to mention depleted British workforces. The last national serviceman – Second Lieutenant Richard Vaughan of the Royal Army Pay Corps – was demobbed in May 1963.

Do other countries still have National Service?

Yes, in many countries across the world – and in some cases for women as well as men. These include South Korea, Eritrea, Switzerland, Brazil, Israel and Syria. North Korea has the longest compulsory national service: 11 years for men and seven for women. Countries such as the US use a Selective Service where almost all men aged 18 must register in case a need for conscription should arise.

Emma Slattery Williams is BBC History Revealed’s staff writer

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This article was first published in the March 2020 edition of BBC History Revealed