First War Conscription
Conscription during the First World War began when the British government passed the Military Service Act in 1916. The act specified that single men aged 18 to 40 years old were liable to be called up for military service unless they were widowed with children or ministers of a religion. The law went through several changes before the war ended. Married men were exempt in the original Act, although this was changed in June 1916. The age limit was also eventually raised to 51 years old. Conscription lasted until mid-1919.
Second War Conscription
Conscription legislation lapsed in 1920. However, as a result of the deteriorating international situation and the rise of Nazi Germany, Leslie Hore-Belisha, Secretary of State for War, persuaded the cabinet of Neville Chamberlain to introduce a limited form of conscription on 27 April 1939, with the Military Training Act being passed the following month. At the outbreak of war, on 3 September 1939, the Military Training Act was overtaken by the National Service (Armed Forces) Act, and the first intake was absorbed into the army. This act imposed a liability to conscription of all men 18 to 41 years old. Men could be rejected for medical reasons, and those engaged in vital industries or occupations were “reserved” at a particular age beyond which no one in that job would be enlisted. For example, lighthouse keepers were “reserved” at 18 years old. From 1943, some conscripts were directed into the British coal mining industry and become known as the “Bevin Boys“. Provision was also made for conscientious objectors, who were required to justify their position to a tribunal, with power to allocate the applicant to one of three categories: unconditional exemption; exemption conditional upon performing specified civilian work (frequently farming, forestry or menial hospital work); exemption from only combatant service, meaning that the objector had to serve in the specially created Non-Combatant Corps or in some other non-combatant unit such as the Royal Army Medical Corps. By 1942 all male British subjects between 18 and 51 years old and all females 20 to 30 years old resident in Britain were liable to be called up, with some exemptions. Men under 20 years old were initially not liable to be sent overseas, but this exemption was lifted by 1942. People called up before they were 51 years old but who reached their 51st birthday during their service were liable to serve until the end of the war. People who had retired, resigned or been dismissed from the forces before the war were liable to be called back if they had not reached 51 years of age.
Britain did not completely demobilise in 1945, as conscription continued after the war. Those already in the armed forces were given a release class determined by length of service and age. In practice, releases began in June 1945, and the last of the wartime conscripts had been released by 1949. However, urgently needed men, particularly those in the building trades, were released in 1945, although some restrictions on their immediate employment were supposed to be enforced. All women were released at the end of the war.
National Service, peacetime conscription, was formulated by the National Service Act 1948. From 1 January 1949, healthy males 17 to 21 years old were expected to serve in the armed forces for 18 months, and remain on the reserve list for four years. They could be recalled to their units for up to 20 days for no more than three occasions during these four years. Men were exempt from National Service if they worked in one of the three “essential services“: coal mining, farming and the merchant navy for a period of eight years. If they quit early, they were subject to being called up. Exemption continued for conscientious objectors, with the same tribunal system and categories.
In October 1950, in response to the British involvement in the Korean War, the service period was extended to two years. In compensation, the reserve period was reduced by six months. National Servicemen who showed promise could be commissioned as officers. National Service personnel were used in combat operations, including the Malayan Emergency, the Cyprus Emergency, in Kenya against the Mau Mau Uprising, and the Korean War, where conscripts to the Gloucestershire Regiment took part in the last stand during the Battle of the Imjin River. In addition, National Servicemen served in the Suez Crisis in 1956.
The end of National Service
National Service ended gradually from 1957. In November 1960 the last men entered service, as call-ups formally ended on 31 December 1960, and the last National Servicemen left the armed forces in May 1963.