Conscription had been introduced in 1939 and continued after the Second World War. It was formalised in peacetime by the National Service Act 1948. From January 1 1949, every man over the age of eighteen was expected to serve in the armed forces for eighteen months (this was extended to two years in 1950 as a response to the Korean War), and remain on the reserve list for four years thereafter.
From the end of the war until the birth of The Beatles 2.5 million young men were called up at a rate of 6,000 every fortnight. Although it officially ended on 31st December 1960, the last National Serviceman, Lieutenant Richard Vaughan of the Royal Army Pay Corps, was not discharged until 13 May 1963.
Some young men went willingly, some went reluctantly, but considering that WWII was over, few were prepared for some of the deplorable conditions and the ridiculous circumstances they had to endure during their involuntary servitude.
Presented here are one man's recollections of the first and only peace-time conscription in the UK. Bill Hawksford's account of his service is a nostalgic walk down memory lane for some and of general interest to all. Enjoy reading about this young man's humorous personal escapades and see the British Army through his eyes as a lorry driver, a boxer, a general's chauffeur, a pay clerk, a janitor and a barber, in addition to an enlightening insight into the lesser known military court-martial and the feared detention barracks.
Find out why Bill's father, an ex-RSM, warned him that in the army they played a lot of 'Silly Buggers '.
Copyright © Bill Hawksford.
Life began for Billy in the light industrial town of Luton, Bedfordshire, England in 1928 when Luton was known for Vauxhall cars and a third division football club. The boy was born to an Irish mother from Cork and an English father who grew up in a small village in Bedfordshire.
Billy saw little of his father through his teens, because his father was in the army fighting WW11. His father was an extremely honorable hard working man who climbed his way through the ranks to the position of Regimental Sergeant Major in the RASC. Billy had the utmost respect for both of his parents.
The school leaving age in those days was 14 and Billy’s father arranged for him to stay on another year hoping to improve his knowledge. Although he tried as hard as everyone else, the information just went in one ear and out the other as though there was nothing in between to absorb it. He was never a good student and the crowded school conditions caused by the evacuees from London during the war exacerbated the situation. However the truth of the matter was that Billy just didn’t have what it takes, which they now say is the result of unfair genomes distribution (Biological makeup). So what he’s trying to say, is being a dum-dum wasn’t his fault and he’s not guilty your honour.
The un-achiever’s problem was mainly a lack of recall and his spelling, which was atrocious and although he improved it considerably over the years, it is still atrocious. These shortcomings affected many other things and most importantly discouraged him from pursuing further education. An example of the difficulty caused by these problems, was the boy’s failure to pass the Morse code and Semaphore tests in the Sea Cadets. If he could remember the codes, he couldn’t spell the words and if he could spell the words, he couldn’t remember the codes.
He was never keen on history and considered it to be dull chronological events of the past, which had no importance in his life. Billy was unaware that if he didn’t learn from the past he was doomed to repeat some of the bad parts - Now practiced with regular monotony by heads of state that normally know the history, but just ignore it.
Unsupervised during the war Billy enjoyed the company of numerous kids from the neighbourhood and had many friends, however his closest companion was always trouble, which just followed him around all the time. Climbing over fences, he was always the one to tear his pants and cuts and bruises were a way of life. He was a menace with fireworks and enjoyed all the other questionable boyhood activities.
Being a rather small boy was a disadvantage at the hands of bullies and not appreciating their attention he devised ways to thwart them. One such ingenious idea was to run away, which was not very successful, because they could always run faster than him. Realising that the aforementioned scenario could be turned into an advantage, Billy modified the exercise by stopping in full flight and rolling himself up into a ball.
The result was that the pursuer, running at full speed, couldn’t stop and would run right into the back of him and emulate a glider for a few feet before dropping to the ground with an agonizing thud. (Don’t try this at home!) From then on these bullies passed him on the other side of the street as if they didn’t recognize him. Billy will always have fond memories of the first flyer whose name was Reggie Peat, but he doubts if Reggie shares his sentiment.
Billy’s father told him that bullies are cowards and insisted that he punch them straight in the nose whenever they attacked him in the future and the advice turned out to be as good as the source. It goes without saying that the bullies were the biggest boys in the school and were considered the best fighters. Armed with the experience gained from combating the bullies on the street, some instruction and encouragement from his father, young Billy was well prepared when he started school. One at a time he put the antagonists in their place with his speed and agility, combined with an undaunted determination, which was lacking in his adversaries. It became apparent they didn’t have the stomach for this activity when it wasn’t going in their favour and to assure that it never would, he was motivated to continue improving his skills. The unexpected outcome of all this physical stuff, which was basically all self-defence up until this point, was that other boys who he had no quarrel with also challenged him to fight. Never one to back down, he always convinced them of the error of their ways and was eventually considered the schools ‘Best Fighter.’ The major benefit of this exalted position, which carried a lot of respect from the other boys, was that he was seldom picked on and no longer required to defend himself.
As some of us find out when we are complacent, things have a way of changing and the evacuees from London during the war altered the routine at school for a long time. First the evacuees would use the school in the mornings and the natives in the afternoons, and then it was changed to alternate days, which remained. The large influx of evacuee children included many with pugilistic aspirations and contenders for the ‘Best Fighter’ title began to surface. It was not unlike the Wild West movies where ambitious gentleman in spurs challenged each other to gunfights to satisfy their egos. Groups of evacuees would lay in wait for the titleholder and the hopeful contender would offer up customary insults in the best Marquis of Queensbury tradition, until there was an exchange of bare knuckles. Again Billy exceeded expectations and maintained his title until moving on to secondary school. There his reputation preceded him and the Wild West nonsense started all over again. After a number of altercations the folk hero worshippers bestowed the questionable title of ‘Best Fighter’ on him again, where it remained.
Later Billy enjoyed the sport of boxing where he developed an excellent defence as a result of his natural instincts and fast reflexes, which saved his bacon on a number of occasions outside of the ring when particularly large individuals became physical. For reasons, which he never understood and could only assume that it was the embarrassment in front of people, these large antagonists would cease and desist, when they were unable to connect with his swift moving frame after a certain period of time.
As an athlete, amateur boxing became one of his favourites and he derived satisfaction, both as a spectator and a participant from the pure skill of the sport. He never liked hurting people, never struck anyone first outside of the ring and always disengaged at the first opportunity. He retired from the ring after a swelling on one of his ears and being advised that if it happened again, it would have to be lanced resulting in a wrinkled configuration known as a cauliflower ear. Not wishing to be known as the greengrocer, he quickly found other interests.
His first commercial venture was in the newspaper business as a private contractor, which he felt was an honourable profession and his propensity for hard work and natural business acumen was a good formula for success. He chose this enterprise because he owned the necessary transportation and the merchandise was available at no charge. Unfortunately it was a seasonal business, which was not exactly what he wanted, but he made the best of it while it lasted. It was actually a two-part operation starting in the beginning of November and finished abruptly on the 5th. The first part was to position his soapbox cart with a stuffed effigy at a busy intersection and suggest passers by contribute a penny for the Guy and you know who the guy was! The other side of the business which was equally as lucrative was to collect newspapers door to door for the bonfire on the 5th and sell them to the fish and chip shops for 1 penny a pound. He wasn’t concerned that the newspapers were not being used for the implied purpose, because he felt that there was something immoral about burning items which could be put to better use such as keeping fish and chips warm for the populace and providing sweets for small boys. It was also felt that no one would really mind except Guy Fawkes, who probably enjoyed fish and chips in his day also.
He was an industrious boy, which was the only trait in common with his father, but most of what he learned was obtained the hard way. The following story is a good example: A neighbour gave Billy a metal fireplace surround, telling him to sell it to the scrap yard and keep the money, which he did and received 2 shillings. Seizing on the opportunity to get rich, Billy organized a number of friends with soapbox carts to scour the countryside for old metal parts. At the end of the day they converged on the scrap yard with their carts piled high with metal, where the man placed it all on a large scale and handed them 4 pennies. "How can that be?" Billy questioned "You paid me 2 shillings yesterday for only one piece of metal." The man patiently explained that the fire surround was made of brass, which has a much higher value than the other stuff, which was iron and steel. Billy then realized why the metal was dumped in the fields in the first place. Now being able to relate to the subject, he had no difficulty learning about the characteristics and value of metals and alloys. One thing about learning the hard way is that you rarely forget it!
While Billy was growing up his father was away in the army. When his father returned, Billy was busy chasing the girls, drinking and gambling. His father, a man of few words, gave him little advice, but what he did convey turned out to be pearls of wisdom. On reflection, Billy couldn’t have been all that stupid, because chasing the girls, drinking and gambling has remained some of the most popular pursuits for the masculine persuasion.
What compares with beautiful females and their stimulating effects? What compares with the pleasure of drinking with good company and the excitement of winning money? Few would turn away from fast horses, friendly women and a little libation!
The boy the army conscripted the same month he turned 18 in 1946 was a 5 feet 5 inch healthy lad with a premature receding hairline. He was almost completely uneducated, having forgotten much of what he learned in school, but he was somewhat wise in the ways of the street after wasting his youth in places like billiard halls and gambling with unsavoury characters. The boy’s only accomplishment was learning the art of fisticuffs, which gave him a needed confidence and although he respected everyone, he feared no one - A mindset, which has disadvantages, but probably an asset on balance.
Another shortcoming causing Billy a lot of difficulty later in life was his reluctance to accept nonsense from people. He could only hold his feelings in for a certain period of time and eventually would have to blurt out something regrettable. He resented insincerity, politics and politicians - people of little substance, manipulators, Philadelphia, small dogs and the army. Not necessarily in that order. He empathized with the less fortunate, always believing - ‘ There but for the grace of God go I.’---- Unknown.
"You will die in the electric chair," were the words of encouragement predicted by Sister Pat, his first schoolteacher - A tough Irish nun with a knock out punch in both hands, who missed her calling as a prize-fighter. Comforting thoughts when he eventually immigrated to America!
Billy’s upbringing left a marked impression. His Irish mother ensured that he didn’t place his elbows on the dining table, reached for food or ate with the wrong knife and fork, which had to be positioned correctly on the empty plate. He was disciplined to tip his cap in the presence of ladies, doctors, solicitors, priests, insurance agents and any one else his mother held in high esteem. His mother was intimidated by the class system in England at the time and it was many years before Billy realized that everyone was not his superior. Consequently he developed a mild abiding contempt for authority and the Oxford accent.
Continually in trouble as a boy and recalling some of his exploits in latter years he asked his father how bad he really was when he was young. "You were never malicious," replied his dad, which was an exceptionally welcome compliment.
The stories in this blog relate the true accounts of the ridiculous situations Billy experienced in the British Army 1946-1949, which now appear incredulous and funnier in retrospect. Army life would have been so much more acceptable had the humorous events been fully appreciated at the time. On second thoughts they probably would have certified him for being a laughing idiot! - So swing the lamp and come with him on a journey into another place and another time. Enjoy reading his memoirs as he did recalling and writing them.
In November 1946 Billy was ordered to report to Kempston Barracks in Bedfordshire for 6 weeks basic training in the British army. Entering the gates of this impressive foreboding looking fortress, which was built in 1875 and could easily be mistaken for a prison, he couldn’t help thinking that his only crime was to reach the tender age of 18. He was now one of many young men who were compelled to fulfil a National Service in a uniform and take up arms against the enemies of the Queen to protect the honour of the British Empire - And he hadn’t even received the Queen’s shilling!
Billy was a romantic young man and the words of the song ‘Lily Marlene’ were playing in his head as he strolled into the barracks, resigned to become a soldier. In keeping with the song, his imaginative mind conjured up visions of sneaking out of the gate at night to meet an attractive lady under a lamplight. It was all very exciting and bewildering to the young man who had no knowledge of what was in store for him.
Reality soon came crashing down and before he could ask, "where are the ATS quarters?", the recruits were ushered into a building and issued with a disgusting looking uniform, a ridiculous hat, large ugly boots and enough webbing to bridle a horse. In addition to an old Enfield 303 rifle, which looked like it dated back to the Boer war.
The new recruits were then herded into sleeping quarters with 25 steel frame beds lined up neatly on both sides, which would be their home for the next two months. There were no lockers for storing possessions, which would be superfluous anyway because everything the soldiers possessed, with the exception of what they were wearing during the day, was positioned on top of the beds in neat squares in a particular pattern - socks on the top left, underpants on the top right, small packs here, large packs there etc. Most of the recruits were under the impression that someone with a nervous compulsive disorder was responsible for dreaming up the idea of displaying underwear and other personal items in a neat orderly sequence on top of the beds. Others considered it to be a fiendish scheme to save the army buying additional furniture.
In the evening the soldiers were granted special dispensation to remove the objects and use the beds for their intended purpose. One night when all the beds were free of the neat little adornments a trainee from another room entered and ran down the line of beds stepping from one to the other, which was quite funny, but lost on the trainees who were conscientiously shining their boots and polishing their badges and buckles.
The following night the same thing happened and the third night the man entered and repeated his act, only this time when he reached the seventh bed it collapsed and sent him crashing to the floor. The trainees, who were all waiting for this to happen, thought it was hilarious and fortunately the man wasn’t hurt, with the exception of a few bruises. The trainees helped the man to his feet, reassembled the bed and this time locked the supports into position. From then on the exhibitionist’s interest in slapstick was not apparent.
It didn’t take the new recruits long to realize that the army had its own culture, which was imposed by the training instructors known as NCOs, standing for Non Commissioned Officers, who wore V-shaped white chevrons on their sleeves indicating their position in the hierarchy. These gentlemen who demanded respect, had exceptionally loud voices and showed very little tolerance for the trainees. They also displayed sour expressions on their faces, conveying the impression that they were not very happy with their chosen profession. In short they were graduates of charm school who had learned how to lose friends and alienate people. However to their credit, they were immaculately turned out in beautifully pressed uniforms, with brass buttons and buckles all shining and boots so highly polished, they resembled bright light bulbs. And they moved about the barracks with mechanical precision only equalled by robots, which was a good example to some and amusement to others - It was military theatre at its best.
So I’ll meet 'im later on In the place where ‘e is gone---- Where it’s always double drill and no canteen E’ll be squattin’ on the coals, Givin’ drink to pore damned souls, An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din. Din! Din! Din! You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din! Tho’ I’ve belted you an’ flayed you, By the livin’ gaud that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!