Conscription in the United Kingdom has existed for two periods in modern times. The first was from 1916 to 1919, the second was from 1939 to 1960, with the last conscripted soldiers leaving the service in 1963. During World War I and World War II, it was known as War Service or Military Service. From 1948 it was known as National Service.
World War 1
Conscription began during World War I when the British government passed the Military Service Act in 1916. The act specified that single men 18 to 41 years old were liable to be called up for military service unless they were widowed with children or ministers of a religion. There was a system of Military Service Tribunals to adjudicate upon claims for exemption upon the grounds of performing civilian work of national importance, domestic hardship, health, and conscientious objection. The law went through several changes before the war ended. Married men were exempt until June 1916, and the age limit was eventually raised to 51 years old. Recognition of work of national importance also diminished, and in the last year of the war there was some support for the conscription of clergy. Conscription lasted until mid-1919.
World War 2
Conscription legislation lapsed in 1920. However, as a result of the deteriorating international situation and the rise of Nazi Germany, Leslie Hore-Belisha, Secretary of State for War, persuaded the cabinet of Neville Chamberlain to introduce a limited form of conscription on 27 April 1939, with the Military Training Act being passed the following month. Only single men 20 to 22 years old were liable to be called up, and they were to be known as 'militiamen' to distinguish them from the regular army. To emphasise this distinction, each man was issued with a suit in addition to a uniform. The intention was for the first intake to undergo six months of basic training before being discharged into an active reserve. They would then be recalled for short training periods and attend an annual camp.
At the outbreak of war, on 3 September 1939, the Military Training Act was overtaken by the National Service (Armed Forces) Act, and the first intake was absorbed into the army. This act imposed a liability to conscription of all men 18 to 41 years old. Men could be rejected for medical reasons, and those engaged in vital industries or occupations were 'reserved' at a particular age beyond which no one in that job would be enlisted. For example, lighthouse keepers were 'reserved' at 18 years old. From 1943, some conscripts were directed into the British coal mining industry and become known as the 'Bevin Boys'.
Provision was also made for conscientious objectors, who were required to justify their position to a tribunal, with power to allocate the applicant to one of three categories: unconditional exemption; exemption conditional upon performing specified civilian work (frequently farming, forestry or menial hospital work); exemption from only combatant service, meaning that the objector had to serve in the specially created Non-Combatant Corps or in some other non-combatant unit such as the Royal Army Medical Corps.
By 1942, all male British subjects between 18 to 51 years old, as well as all females 20 to 30 years old resident in Britain, were liable to be called. Only a few categories were exempted:
• British subjects from outside Britain and the Isle of Man who had lived in the country for less than two years
• Northern Ireland
• Persons employed by the government of any country of the British Empire except the United Kingdom
• Clergy of any denomination
• Those who were blind or had mental disorders
• Married women
• Women who had one or more children 14 years old or younger living with them. This included their own children, legitimate or illegitimate, stepchildren, and adopted children, as long as the child was adopted before 18 December 1941.
Pregnant women were theoretically liable to be called up but in practice were not called up.
Men under 20 years old were initially not liable to be sent overseas, but this exemption was lifted by 1942. People called up before they were 51 years old but reached their 51st birthday during their service were liable to serve until the end of the war. People who had retired, resigned or been dismissed from the forces before the war were liable to be called back if they had not reached 51 years of age.
Britain did not completely demobilise in 1945, as conscription continued after the war. Those already in the armed forces were given a release class determined by length of service and age. In practice, releases began in June 1945, and the last of the wartime conscripts had been released by 1949. However, urgently needed men, particularly those in the building trades, were released in 1945, although some restrictions on their immediate employment were supposed to be enforced. All women were released at the end of the war.
The system of wartime conscription between 1939 and 1948 was called National Service, but is usually referred to as 'war service' in documents relating to National Insurance and pensions.
National Service as peacetime conscription was formalised by the National Service Act 1948. From 1 January 1949, healthy males 17 to 21 years old were expected to serve in the Armed Forces for 18 months, and remain on the reserve list for four years. They could be recalled to their units for up to 20 days for no more than three occasions during these four years. Men were exempt from National Service if they worked in one of the three "essential services": coal mining, farming and the merchant navy for a period of eight years. If they quit early, they were subject to being called up. Exemption continued for conscientious objectors, with the same tribunal system and categories.
In October 1950, in response to the British involvement in the Korean War, the service period was extended to two years. To compensate the reserve period was reduced by six months. National Servicemen who showed promise could be commissioned as officers. National Service personnel were used in combat operations, including the Malayan Emergency, the Cyprus Emergency, in Kenya against the Mau Mau Uprising, and the Korean War, where conscripts to the Gloucestershire Regiment took part in the last stand during the Battle of the Imjin River. In addition, National Servicemen served in the Suez Crisis in 1956.
During the 1950s there was a prohibition on serving members of the Armed Forces standing for election to Parliament. A few National Servicemen stood for election in the 1951 and 1955 General Elections in order to be dismissed from service.
National Service ended gradually from 1957. It was decided that those born on or after 1st October 1939 would not be required, but conscription continued for those born earlier whose call-up had been delayed for any reason. In November 1960 the last men entered service, as call-ups formally ended on 31 December 1960, and the last National Servicemen left the Armed Forces in May 1963.
Currently, the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda practises conscription. This makes the Bermuda Regiment the only conscripted force still under the British Crown.