National Service life stories: masculinity, class and the memory of conscription in Britain

The introduction of National Service had an enormous impact on the lives of the 2.3 million young men called up in Britain between 1949 and 1960. Many deferred until the end of their education or training, some failed the medical but most went into the Army, some to the Royal Air Force, and a few to the Navy. In uniform, the experiences of individual men could be very different indeed. A minority served in the front line, fighting wars in Korea or Malaya. Many had two years of boredom in camps in Britain. But all were subject to strict military discipline at a time when they were just beginning their adult lives. These young men came from all walks of life and all areas of Britain (apart from Northern Ireland); they had different characters, ways of behaving and outlooks on life. 

Although historians have taught us a great deal about what went on during National Service – how class barriers continued to be important, for instance – we know almost nothing about how it affected men in later life. In this research, I hope to find out more about the longer-term impact of conscription, the often-subtle ways in which military participation shaped individuals and their relationships. I am particularly interested in discovering more about how National Service influenced men’s understanding of themselves as ‘men’ and their understanding of ‘class’. How did it affect their working and family lives, how they got on, loved and raised families? How did it mould political values and attitudes to such things as post-war immigration and Britain’s changing world role? And, most important, how is it remembered by people?

The best way of exploring these questions is by means of in-depth oral interviews with ex-National Servicemen themselves, particularly those from more working-class backgrounds who tend to be under-represented in earlier studies. This project builds on a pilot study already undertaken in Essex that has produced fascinating material. I now intend to extend it to other areas by recruiting participants from Glasgow, Newcastle, Birmingham and Cardiff. One major outcome of the project will be an archive of the extensive interviews generated – well over 100 in total – which will be publicly available through the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex and which will represent the most important source of information on this subject in the country.

Dr Peter Gurney
University of Essex

National Servicemen in the Army: R D Clarke, a national service recruit cleaning his boots at the Royal Army Ordnance Depot at Blackdown, Aldershot in his first week in the Army. All personal equipment had to be kept in immaculate condition. 'Bulling' kit was also a disciplinary measure. Image © IWM.