National Service: Conscription in Britain, 1945–1963 by Richard Vinen - review by Alan Allport

Alan Allport

Boys in the Barracks

National Service: Conscription in Britain, 1945–1963

By

Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 586pp £25 order from our bookshop
 

The age of peacetime conscription in the Western world is over. All but five of NATO’s twenty-eight member states have abolished it completely, and of those that retain the institution, only one, Turkey, enforces it with any real rigour any longer. Relying on a call-up is now regarded as evidence of military obsolescence, of dependence on a defence model that has had its day. The United States abandoned it long ago. China has tacitly dropped it. Russia has greatly relaxed its terms of service and only retains the practice at all out of grim necessity. Putin’s lack of confidence in his own draftees may have affected his decisions regarding Ukraine this spring. What was once seen as an indispensable component of national security is now dismissed as a symptom of weakness. Saddam Hussein had a conscript army of 375,000 men in 2003, significantly larger than the American-led coalition force (made up mainly of professional volunteer soldiers) that it faced on the Kuwaiti border. It survived for twenty-one days.

The British historical experience of conscription was especially short. Naval impressment, which was only ever applied on any large scale during wartime, was abolished in 1814. The Victorian empire was conquered by volunteers – gentleman-officers of the county squirearchy in command, ‘the sweepings of the gaol’ making up the rank

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