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British Military Personnel - National Service

The National Audit Office [NAO] reported in April 2018 that the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (the Review) required the Department to maintain a target number of regulars in the Army and make small increases in the size of the Navy and Royal Air Force (RAF). The Strategic Defence and Security Review set headcount targets to maintain the size of the Army (at 82,000) and increase the number of regulars in the Navy (by 400 to 30,450) and RAF (by 300 to 31,750) in anticipation of new equipment and future military deployments. As at January 2018, the Armed Forces had 137,300 trained regulars. This was 8,200 (5.7%) below their requirement – the largest gap in recent years. More significantly, the aggregate figures mask much larger shortfalls in the number of regulars with critical skills, such as engineers, pilots and intelligence analysts.

In 2016-17, the Department spent £9.6 billion of its defence budget on military personnel (27%). It forecasts this will rise to £10.3 billion by 2020-21. Head Office and the Commands are implementing a range of measures to address recruitment and retention problems. Despite these efforts, the Department does not expect to resolve the majority of the shortfalls in the next five years.

National Service ended in 1960, though periods of deferred service still had to be completed. The last national servicemen were discharged in 1963. Both the Territorial Army and the Regulars have entry requirements like passing a medical and being under age 26 years for officers or soldiers in Army phase 1 training before their 33rd birthday. Volunteers need to be 16 to join as a soldier or 18 to become an officer. Individuals can apply for the army from the age of 15 years and 7 months old — once enlisted, they can leave after the first six months of their contract if they wish — Ministry of Defense figures indicate one in three recruits who join up at 16 or 17 leave the army after a few months — but those who stay past the age of 18 are locked into military service until 22.

According to 2007 Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups, the internationally agreed definition for a child soldier (aa child associated with an armed force or armed group) is any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.

Compared with older personnel, younger recruits are significantly more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, consume alcohol at harmful levels and behave violently upon returning from deployment. Young recruits from disadvantaged backgrounds are at greatest risk — they're more vulnerable to stress, be given jobs more exposed to traumatically stressful events on the battlefield, and lack strong social support when they leave the forces in order to manage the effects of any mental health problems they may be experiencing.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 25 May 2000, and entered into force on 12 February 2002. OPAC sets 18 as the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities and for compulsory recruitment by state armed forces. States may accept volunteers from the age of 16 but must deposit a binding declaration at the time of ratification or accession, setting out their minimum voluntary recruitment age and outlining certain safeguards for such recruitment.

Press gangs were well known for the physical force they used in recruiting men into the Royal Navy during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was, however, a practice which Parliament had first sanctioned several centuries earlier. In time of war impressment – as the practice was known – was also a tactic employed by the Army to acquire extra men, usually when the non-violent methods of the recruiting sergeants failed to enlist sufficient numbers.

The Crown claimed a permanent right to seize men of seafaring experience for the Royal Navy, and the practice was at various times given parliamentary authority. Impressment was vigorously enforced during the naval wars of the 18th century by Acts passed in 1703, 1705, 1740 and 1779. The men pressed into service were usually sailors in the merchant fleets, but might just as often be ordinary apprentices and labourers. During the wars with France from 1793 to 1815, an impress service operated in British coastal towns. Although further laws passed in 1835 upheld the power to impress, in practice it fell into disuse after 1815.

During the 18th century, public perception of standing armies as instruments of despotic government obliged Parliament to keep Britain’s peacetime forces as small as possible. There were times, however, when involvement in continental and colonial wars made it necessary for Parliament to legislate hastily for the speedy recruitment of vast additional forces. These extra men were raised either through voluntary enlistment or by compulsion. Recruiting Acts were passed annually during the periods 1703-11, 1743-44, 1756-57, 1778-79, and in 1783, while the British army was engaged in major wars in Europe and elsewhere. The Acts offered a financial bounty or reward to men who enlisted for limited periods – in 1757 the sum was £3. They also gave powers to magistrates to press unemployed, but otherwise able-bodied, men.

For much of the war with France in the late 18th and early 19th century, Britain faced the threat of imminent invasion from across the Channel. The magnitude of the threat, and the real possibility of its success, was unprecedented in modern times. With much of Britain’s army heavily committed on the continent and elsewhere, the government drew up wide-ranging plans in 1798 for putting the nation on an effective defence footing. The proposals were embodied in the Defence of the Realm Act of 1798 and a series of subsequent measures which created a nationwide force of local armed volunteers – known as fencibles. The Act anticipated and planned for a people’s war against a possible French invasion. Mobilisation of the civilian population on this scale was inspired by the existing militia forces which had been successfully revived - having fallen into disuse by the late 17th century - after Parliament passed the Militia Act in 1757.

With the return to peace at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 military expenditure was heavily reduced. As a result the regular army was gradually slimmed down from 230,000 men to 91,000 by 1838. In these conditions recruitment was hardly a problem. By the 1850s, however, Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War against Russia had revealed serious weaknesses in the size of the army.

Terms of service required men to serve for long periods of 21 years during which many became unsuited and unfit for actual military combat. The alternative was to resign early without a pension. During the Crimean conflict Britain’s effective fighting force was only some 25,000 strong, and the War Office had been forced to send militia men to increase numbers. With its other forces serving elsewhere in the Empire, Britain critically lacked sufficient troops for its own defence.

In 1859 the War Office decided that the army should be supplemented by a part-time volunteer force. Each county was to raise its own men, and by 1862 a new volunteer force of over 160,000 had been recruited. In 1863, in response to a royal commission report on the army, Parliament passed the Volunteer Act, the purpose of which was to deal with any actual or anticipated invasion.

In 1870 Parliament passed a law that helped to make the regular army more attractive to potential recruits. The Army Enlistment Act, introduced by Gladstone’s war minister, Edward Cardwell, allowed short-term enlistments. This meant men could sign on for a maximum of twelve years, but serve usually six years with the regular army, and the remainder as part of a reserve force. Service in the reserves would involve only part-time training, but with a commitment to serve wherever necessary if called up.

By the early 20th century these part-time forces had established their worth in the Boer War in South Africa and were regarded as an essential part of the British Army. An Act passed in 1907 reorganised the volunteers and gave them their modern name - the Territorial Army.

Within a year of Great Britain declaring war on Germany in August 1914, it had become obvious that it was not possible to continue fighting by relying on voluntary recruits. Lord Kitchener’s campaign – promoted by his famous "Your Country Needs You" poster – had encouraged over one million men to enlist by January 1915. But this was not enough to keep pace with mounting casualties.

The government saw no alternative but to increase numbers by conscription – compulsory active service. Parliament was deeply divided but recognised that because of the imminent collapse of the morale of the French army, immediate action was essential. In March 1916 the Military Service Act was passed. This imposed conscription on all single men aged between 18 and 41, but exempted the medically unfit, clergymen, teachers and certain classes of industrial worker. Conscientious objectors – men who objected to fighting on moral grounds– were also exempted, and were in most cases given civilian jobs or non-fighting roles at the front. A second Act passed in May 1916 extended conscription to married men. Conscription was not applied to Ireland because of the 1916 Easter Rising, although in fact many Irishmen volunteered to fight.

Conscription was not popular and in April 1916 over 200,000 demonstrated against it in Trafalgar Square. Although many men failed to respond to the call-up, in the first year 1.1 million enlisted. In 1918 during the last months of the war, the Military Service (No. 2) Act raised the age limit to 51. Conscription was extended until 1920 to enable the army to deal with continuing trouble spots in the Empire and parts of Europe. During the whole of the war conscription had raised some 2.5 million men.

During the spring of 1939 the deteriorating international situation forced the British government under Neville Chamberlain to consider preparations for a possible war against Nazi Germany. Plans for limited conscription applying to single men aged between 20 and 22 were given parliamentary approval in the Military Training Act in May 1939. This required men to undertake six months’ military training, and some 240,000 registered for service.

On the day Britain declared war on Germany, 3 September 1939, Parliament immediately passed a more wide-reaching measure. The National Service (Armed Forces) Act imposed conscription on all males aged between 18 and 41 who had to register for service. Those medically unfit were exempted, as were others in key industries and jobs such as baking, farming, medicine, and engineering. Conscientious objectors had to appear before a tribunal to argue their reasons for refusing to join-up. If their cases were not dismissed, they were granted one of several categories of exemption, and were given non-combatant jobs. Conscription helped greatly to increase the number of men in active service during the first year of the war.

In December 1941 Parliament passed a second National Service Act. It widened the scope of conscription still further by making all unmarried women and all childless widows between the ages of 20 and 30 liable to call-up. Men were now required to do some form of National Service up to the age of 60, which included military service for those under 51. The main reason was that there were not enough men volunteering for police and civilian defence work, or women for the auxiliary units of the armed forces.

In June 1945 the process began of demobilising the thousands of men and women who had served in the forces during the war. The government had begun preparations for this in 1944 with the Reinstatement in Civil Employment Act which allowed men and women to claim back their old jobs in civvy street, provided their employer was still in business.

There was still an urgent need to keep up high levels of military manpower in parts of the world where Britain had strong ongoing commitments – in Germany, Palestine, and India. The government concluded that these requirements could only be met effectively by continuing National Service in peacetime. This was not, however, popular, especially now that Britain was no longer at war. It was therefore with difficulty that Clement Attlee’s Labour government persuaded Parliament in 1947 to pass the National Service Act.

The National Service Act came into force in January 1949 and meant that all physically fit males between the ages of 17 and 21 had to serve in one of the armed forces for an 18-month period. They then remained on the reserve list for another four years. During this time they were liable to be called to serve with their units but on no more than three occasions, for 20 days maximum. Students and apprentices were allowed to defer their call-up until they completed their studies or training. Conscientious objectors had to undergo the same tribunal tests as in wartime. After 1945, however, National Service did not extend to women.

In 1950 a further National Service Act lengthened the period of service to two years. During the 1950s national servicemen took part in various military operations in Malaya, Korea, Cyprus and Kenya.

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