Conscription

In August 1939 Adolf Hitler had long been making speeches suggesting he was going to send the German Army into Poland. The British government began to prepare for war with Nazi Germany, and Neville Chamberlain asked Parliament to approve the Emergency Powers (Defence Act). Passed on 24th August, it empowered the government to take measures to secure public safety, the defence of the realm and the maintenance of the public order.

Over the next five days around 100 new measures were taken. This included the calling up all military reservists and Air Raid Precautions (ARP) volunteers to be mobilized. About half a million people enrolled in the ARP and others enlisted in the Territorial Army or the RAF Volunteer Reserve.

On 27th April 1939, Parliament had already passed the Military Training Act. This introduced conscription for men aged 20 and 21, who were now required to undertake six months' full-time military training.

Parliament also passed legislation that protected some important occupations from national service. After consulting with business leaders, the government published the Schedule of Reserved Occupations. Employers were also able to ask for individual key workers employed in one of these occupations not to be conscripted into the armed forces. By the end of 1940 more than 200,000 men had been granted deferment at their employers' request.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Parliament passed the National Service (Armed Forces) Act, under which all men between 18 and 41 were made liable for conscription. The registration of all men in each age group in turn began on 21st October for those aged 20 to 23. By May 1940, registration had extended only as far as men aged 27 and did not reach those aged 40 until June 1941.

Provision was made in the legislation for people to object to military service on moral grounds. Of the first batch of men aged 20 to 23, an estimated 22 in every 1000 objected and went before local conscientious objection tribunals. The tribunals varied greatly in their attitudes towards conscientious objection to military service, and the proportions of conscientious applications totally rejected ranged from 6 per cent to 41 per cent.

The political and moral views of the tribunal chairman were vitally important. It was difficult always to get a fair hearing in London, especially during the Blitz. On one occasion the chairman told the applicant that his request was rejected because "Even God is not a pacifist, for he kills us all in the end".

On 18th December 1941, the National Service Act was passed by Parliament. This legislation called up unmarried women aged between twenty and thirty. Later, married women were made liable to be directed into war-related civilian work, although pregnant women and mothers with young children were completely exempt.

By the end of 1939 over one and a half million men had been recruited into the armed forces. Of these, 1,128,000 joined the British Army and the remainder were equally divided between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

Primary Sources

(1) Winston Churchill, memorandum (6th November, 1941)

It may be a convenience to my colleagues if I set out the provisional views which I have formed on some of the major issues which we have to settle.

(1) The age of compulsory military service for men should be raised by ten years, to include all men under 51. While this might not make very many men available for an active fighting role, it would assist the Minister of Labour in finding men for non-combatant duties in the Services.

The possibility that the age should be raised again later on need not be excluded; but it would seem that an increase of ten years in the upper limit would be sufficient at the moment.

(2) The case for calling up young men at eighteen and a half, instead of nineteen, seems fully established. Indeed, I would go further and call them up at eighteen if this would make any substantial contribution.

(3) On the whole, I am not yet satisfied, in view of the marked dislike of the process by their Service menfolk, that a case has been established for conscripting women to join the Auxiliary Services at the present time. Voluntary recruitment for these Services should however be strongly encouraged.

(4) Should the Cabinet decide in favour of compelling women to join the Auxiliary Services, it is for consideration whether the method employed should not be by individual selection, rather than by calling up by age groups. The latter system would inevitably discourage women from joining up until their age group was called.

(5) The campaign for directing women into the munitions industries should be pressed forward. The existing powers should be used with greater intensity.

(6) Employers might well be encouraged, in suitable cases, to make further use of the services of married women in industry. This would often have to be on a part-time basis, and means must be found to ease the burden on women who are prepared to perform a dual role.

(2) Ethel Robinson lived in Liverpool during the Second World War. She wrote about her war experiences in Jonathan Croall's book, Don't You Know There's A War On (1989)

My husband had wanted to go in the navy, but he had spondylitis in the spine, which is a form of arthritis, so they wouldn't take him in. He was shattered really, because he'd set his heart on getting into the navy. Which they found he had spondylitis, they couldn't give him any treatment, so he had to just pet on with it. He had to give the pub up and go and work on the docks, repairing ships. It was horrible, he'd never done anything like that in his life, you see, and it nearly killed him. He had to climb rigging and climb over ships' sides and things like that. Then, after the children were born, he had to go and work in the Royal Ordnance factory, making guns on shift work, and he hated that as well. But he wouldn't go on the disabled list, not with the sort of jobs they offered you then. So he stuck it out actually.

Although he couldn't go to the war, he'd get a lot of women saying, "Why aren't you fighting for us? My husband's out fighting for you." Well, you just don't bother to answer; and these were the same women who were carrying on with all kinds. This was the abuse they used to get, men that were working during the war, a lot of abuse from women and other men.