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Following the end of the First World War, in 1920, conscription lapsed. It wasn’t until the international situation became noticeably more bleak that then Secretary of State for War, Leslie Hore-Belisha, persuaded Prime Minister Chamberlain in 1939 to re-introduce a limited form of conscription.
Initially, only single men between the ages of 20-22 were likely to be “called up” to serve as ‘militia-men’, a term designed to distinguish them from soldiers in the regular Army. The idea was for each man to undergo 6 months of military training, followed by active reserve duty and regular weekend and annual training camps.
However, the outbreak of World War 2 made these plans obsolete and the very first intake from the Military Training Act in April 1939 was absorbed straight into the Army.
Later in 1939 the National Service (Armed Forces) Act was passed which required all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 41 to sign-up. There were, of course, other exemptions that applied in some cases, such as Conscientious Objectors, who had to justify their objections before a tribunal and were then placed in to one of three categories:
Exemption conditional on performing specified civilian work. For example farming, hospital work and, increasingly as the war went on, coal mining.
Exemption only from combatant service. Those in this category would still have to serve in another, non-combatant, role such as the Army Medical Corps or the specially created Non-Combatant Corps.
By 1942 it was not only men who had to sign up; men between the ages of 18 and 51 and women between 20 and 30 who were resident in Great Britain were now eligible for conscription. Again, there were exemptions, and these were:
British subjects from outside Great Britain and the Isle of Man who had lived in Britain for less than two years or were students
Persons employed by the government of any country of the British Empire except the United Kingdom
Clergy of any denomination
Mental patients and the “mentally defective”
Women who had living with them one or more children under the age of 14 (including their own children, legitimate or illegitimate, stepchildren, and adopted children, as long as the child was adopted before 18 December 1941)
Interestingly, Britain was the only country in WWII to conscript single women. Even pregnant women were liable for conscription though in practice this didn’t happen.
National Service, which had begun in 1939, didn't actually finish until 1960. During the war this was known, fairly understandably, as War Service (which is how it appears on official documentation for things like Pensions and National Insurance) and after the war as National Service.
The National Service Act of 1948 formalized the rules of conscription wherein all men between 17 and 21 was expected to serve in the Armed Forces for 18 months and then remain on the reserve list for a period of four years.
All women were released from National Service at the end of the war.
I'm pleased we don't still have National Service - I'm an artist not a soldier!