Were They the Best Days of Our Lives? Today We Often Hear Calls for the Return of National Service - but What Was It Really like? Wirral Author Peter Saunders Tells Jane Haase How the Experience Shaped His Life

Article excerpt

Byline: Jane Haase

THE dark days of the Second World War may have been over, but young men were still being called upon to fight for their country.

Despite the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Labour government decided that Britain still needed conscription and passed the 1948 National Service Act.

Knots of youths became a familiar sight at Liverpool Lime Street and many other railway stations, looking apprehensive, clutching shabby little suitcases and travel warrants to the depots where they would undergo basic training.

The Unknown Conscript is a novel set in that era and written by Peter Saunders, a retired Daily Post and Echo reporter who covered Wirral for 32 years. It is his first published book, at the age of 76, and is dedicated to the 2.5m young Britons who went into uniform for National Service, which ended in 1961.

Peter says: "This was the only period when the UK had military conscription in what was then regarded as 'peacetime'.

"Most lads were called up at 18 and served for two years. They were not old enough to have the vote - that was restricted to adults aged 21 - but 400 National Servicemen were killed in action in places like Korea, Malaysia, Kenya, Cyprus and Egypt.

"Another 200 died in what were described as accidents and many more were injured, some severely, some traumatised, on active service or during rigorous training.

"This period is now history to people younger than 50. My elder daughter, Kate, said on reading the manuscript 'I didn't know anything about this, dad'."

The Unknown Conscript starts with a prologue recording the arrival of call-up papers at the home of the central character, Michael Croft. The story then flashes back to his childhood and adolescence in a town shabby from years of wartime neglect.

The spoils of victory for its citizens are continuing austerity, food and clothing rationing, shortages of many consumer goods and cold homes in winter.

Peter says: "I have vivid memories of this period and recall people asking 'did we really win the war?' They also frequently said 'The only good German is a dead German.' They were bitter. Even bread was rationed, something which was never imposed during the war."

Like the majority of his contemporaries, Michael views with resignation the approach of conscription. He has a sheltered family background, and initially Army life provides a culture shock, due to the varied social mix of recruits, the raw language with its basic vocabulary and repetitive use of four-letter words; the lack of privacy, harsh discipline and physical rigour of training."

Peter explains: "The book is fiction, not a service memoir. I wanted the setting to be in a sense allegorical, to illustrate the sort of experience National Servicemen had in overseas trouble-spots.

"I was prompted to write the book because it was more than 50 years since I was called up. I spent my time in the RAF. But I gave the book an Army background because nearly 70% of conscripts went into the Army.

"My own service career was unremarkable and spent mainly at a Fighter Command HQ. The only time I faced 'danger' was during an exercise when we had to defend our HQ against Royal Navy sailors from HMS Royal Arthur and Army Pioneer Corps squaddies from nearby camps. My face was scorched by blank ammunition fired at close range and the umpire adjudged me to be a 'casualty'. I was ignominiously evacuated by stretcher.

"Incidentally, many National Servicemen received their introduction to the RAF at two basic training camps in our region - at Padgate, near Warrington, and West Kirby. More than 100,000 recruits did their square-bashing at RAF West Kirby.

"The site is now woodland, but remnants of the camp roads can still be seen and former airmen have placed a memorial stone at the entrance."

Peter says National Service was the making of him. …