Conscription was reintroduced for young men, with an option of joining the Territorial Forces to get evening and weekend training, and the Territorial Army was doubled.  I was affected by this and, being in the middle of exams, elected to join the 6th Battalion Devonshire Regiment T.A. at Barnstaple Drill Hall - a culture shock as a private being mixed in with all sorts and sizes.

Memories of Mr. R B Blatchford MBE, Barnstaple



Conscientious Objectors

Spartacus Encyclopaedia  

Blackpool memories



After Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia the British government began to prepare for war, so in May 1939 the Military Training Act was passed.  This said that men aged 20-22 could be called up for 6 months military training.  There was just one call-up before war was declared – in June – the first ever conscription in Britain in peacetime.  When war was declared 3 September 1939, all men aged between 18 and 40 became legally liable for call-up under the new National Service (Armed Forces) Act.  As casualties in the armed forces rose, in 1941 the age limit had to be raised to 51.  Certain occupations – such as Tax inspectors, engineers or coal miners – were exempt, on the grounds that they were essential to the war effort at home.


Although conscription had been introduced, many people still did volunteer, particularly for the more glamorous 'teeth arms', such as the air force and submarines.  Many others, in exempt occupations, or too old or too young to join the armed forces, volunteered as Air Raid Precautions wardens or for the Local Defence Volunteers (‘Home Guard’).


Neville Chamberlain believed that people should have the right to refuse service on grounds of conscience, and a system of tribunals was set up to which Conscientious Objectors could apply.  Nevertheless, the press ran a fierce campaign against them, many employers refused to give them a job, and a total of 60,000 objectors were sent to prison.  Many Conscientious Objectors worked on farms, in hospitals or in the Pacifist Service Units amongst the socially deprived.  Others risked their lives with the Friends Ambulance Unit on the battlefront.

In May 1940, the Emergency Powers Act gave the government the power to conscript workers into essential industries.  The government tried not to use conscription because Ernest Bevin, Minister for Labour, believed that people would work better if they were not forced into work.  Nevertheless, the labour shortage became so severe that in March 1941 the Essential Works Order introduced conscription.  Under this, women between 20 and 30 became liable for conscription into war work.  Women with children under 14 were exempt but many volunteered anyway, encouraged by the introduction of day care nurseries.  In 1943, 22,000 ‘Bevin boys’ were conscripted to work in the mines.  However Bevin – in order to prevent industrial troubles – was careful to expand welfare facilities, improve working conditions, and ensure ‘fair wages’; developments which eventually resulted in the introduction of the Welfare State after the war.

Source A

A poster issued by the government in 1939.   The 'Home Guard' man shown is lighting a pipe.




Did You Know?

¼ million men volunteered for the Home Guard on the first day of recruitment.   Churchill spoke of ‘a country where every street and every village bristles with resolute, armed men…’  Certainly the men were resolute and – although it was months before they had uniforms or weapons – LDV battalions were well-run. 

       The Home Guard has been idealised by the TV series ‘Dad’s Army’.  In fact, working all day then going out at night to drill and train was exhausting for the men.


Source B

One day an envelope marked OHMS fell on the mat.  Time for my appendicitis, I thought.

‘For Christ’s sake don’t open it’, said Uncle, prodding it with a stick.  ‘Last time I did, I ended up in Mesopotamia, chased by Turks… Weeks went by, several more OHMS letters arrived, finally arriving at the rate of two a day stamped URGENT.

‘The King must think a lot of you son, writing all these letters,’ said Mother as she humped sacks of coal into the cellar.  One Sunday, while Mother was repainting the house, as a treat Father opened one of the envelopes.  In it was a cunningly worded invitation to partake in World War II, starting at seven and sixpence a week, all found.  ‘Just fancy,’ said Mother as she carried Father upstairs for his bath, ‘of all the people in England, they’ve chosen you, it’s a great honour, Son.’

It was now three months since my call-up.  To celebrate I hid under the bed dressed as Florence Nightingale.  Next morning I received a card asking me to attend a medical at the Yorkshire Grey, Eltham.  ‘Son,’ said Father, ‘l think after all you better go, we’re running out of disguises, in any case when they see you, they’re bound to send you home.’ The card said I was to report at 9.30 a.m.  Please be prompt.’ I arrived prompt at 9.30 and was seen promptly at 12.15.  We were told to strip.  This revealed a mass of pale youths with thin, white, hairy legs.  A press photographer was stopped by the recruiting Sergeant: ‘For Christ’s sake don’t!  If the public saw a photo of this lot they’d pack it in straight away.’

I arrived in the presence of a grey-faced, bald doctor.

‘How do you feel?’ he said.

‘All right,’ I said.

‘Do you feel fit?’

‘No, I walked here.’

Grinning evilly, he wrote Grade I (One) in blood red ink on my card.  ‘No black cap?’ I said.  "It’s at the laundry,’ he replied.

     The die was cast.  It was a proud day for the Milligan family as I was taken from the house.  ‘I’m too young to go,’ I screamed as Military Policemen dragged me from my pram, clutching a dummy.  At Victoria Station the RTO gave me a travel warrant, a white feather and a picture of Hitler marked ‘This is your enemy’.  I searched every compartment, but he wasn’t on the train.  At 4.30, June 2nd, 1940, on a summer’s day all mare’s tails and blue sky we arrived at Bexhill-on-Sea, where I got off.  It wasn’t easy.  The train didn’t stop there.

Spike Milligan, Hitler – My Part in His Downfall (1971).

This comedy extract was not meant to be taken wholly seriously, and Spike Milligan was not the coward he makes himself out to be; can you find the clue in the text which tells us what really delayed him call-up?

OHMS = On His Majesty’s Service.  RTO = Regimental Travel Officer




Did You Know?

Conscription was never introduced in Northern Ireland. The Nationalists there had no desire to serve in the British Army, and the Unionists did not want to see nationalists given military training.





Did You Know?

New Zealand & Australia (1940) and Canada (1942) introduced conscription.  French Canadians rioted when they heard about it – in the end, conscripted Canada troops were sent overseas only if they volunteered; men who elected to stay at home were called ‘Zombies’.