Cowbridge U3A History Group meets for the first time since lockdown

  Posted: 10.09.21 at 17:31 by Steve Monaghan

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For the first time in 19 months, Cowbridge U3A History Group welcomed a guest speaker in August 2021! The reduced capacity audience was socially isolated according to the venue’s directives, but at least there was a live talk.

Malcolm Cowper, a Porthcawl U3A member, presented the story of National Service, whereby some 2 million men were conscripted into the Armed Forces. A quick poll showed at least three men in the audience had become “reluctant warriors”.

National Service was started by the Government for several reasons; WWII veterans were being demobilised, but there was still an Empire to police, troops were required for the military occupation of Germany and there was a need for a cadre of trained men to be available in the event of any future conflict (a lesson learned from the country’s unpreparedness for war in 1939).

There were insufficient volunteers, so conscription was introduced, with the length of service eventually becoming two years.

National Service could be deferred, but not avoided, by university studies. Joining the Merchant Navy for seven years meant no conscription at all. Conscientious objectors were still required to undertake non-military “good works”.

Speaker Macolm Cowper

The Royal Navy held the view that a man couldn’t be trained properly in two years, so was reluctant to take conscripts unless they joined for five years.

Life for most of the young conscripts involved 6 -16 weeks of basic training, as they were moulded to become cogs in a machine. After the regulation short back and sides, they were housed in bleak barrack huts and engaged in seemingly-endless “square bashing”, cleaning kit and polishing boots, badges and buttons, all under a regime supervised by unforgiving NCOs. The ethos was “Do as you’re told and you’ll get on well”.

After training was completed, discipline was relaxed and servicemen were posted to units. Men could be sent to Germany (especially the Berlin area), Cyprus, Egypt or Kenya. National Servicemen were involved in the Korean War. Some never left the UK.

The views of conscripts about National Service range from the negative (boredom, a waste of two years, resentment at the disruption to careers, education, training or relationships) to the positive (travel abroad, comradeship, the opportunity to learn skills).

Men who signed on for four years received better pay and had more choice of job specialisation. Some National Servicemen became officers (on Short Service Commissions).

Malcolm’s talk was interspersed with extracts from conscripts’ stories of their National Service, many amusing, but others reflecting the fact that some men were involved in anti-terrorist activities or even wars.

Why did National Service end? Maintaining a large military establishment was expensive, many of the former colonies had gained, or were soon to gain, independence, the Armed Forces wanted longer-service volunteers rather than pressed men, and the Government had, overall, fewer defence commitments.

National Service has been portrayed in comedies on TV (“The Army Game”) and in film (“Carry on Sergeant”), but there was a sombre side to the story. 395 National Servicemen were killed in action and their sacrifice, as “reluctant warriors” should not be forgotten.

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