The Call-Up: A History of National Service, by Tom Hickman

The old adage 'never volunteer' holds true
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The Independent Culture

We're pensioners now, those of us who did National Service in the late 1940s and the 1950s and have survived thus far. Tom Hickman, called up in 1958 and commissioned into the King's African Rifles in Kenya, has gathered a host of National Service tales ranging from the horrific to the hilarious. Some give the impression of having been honed over years of telling into myths of the wild deeds of youth, remembered in old age with "rueful affection".

We're pensioners now, those of us who did National Service in the late 1940s and the 1950s and have survived thus far. Tom Hickman, called up in 1958 and commissioned into the King's African Rifles in Kenya, has gathered a host of National Service tales ranging from the horrific to the hilarious. Some give the impression of having been honed over years of telling into myths of the wild deeds of youth, remembered in old age with "rueful affection".

The former conscripts speak of boredom and "an honours degree in comradeship". Some complain about the two years taken out of their lives; others would not have missed it for anything; but most had a sense of loss when it was over. The men who returned from overseas to regimental depots found their departure was of no great moment to those who remained.

Hickman has organised his material well (though its presentation is marred by sloppy proof-reading). He takes us, chapter by chapter, from the medical examination through basic training and service at home or abroad - those "savage wars of peace" in Korea, Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya - to demob and after. He gives us the facts and figures and the social background of the postwar era.

What saves this anecdotal history from triviality is the intensity of feeling displayed by its contributors. Many found their military experience far more memorable than, say, university. The chapter called "Paying the Price" had me evaluating my own experience.

I went through the same "potential officer" hoops as many others: basic training at an infantry depot, "Wosb" (War Office Selection Board) at Barton Stacey, and officer-cadet training at Eaton Hall. Commissioned into the 1/7th Gurkha Rifles, I had a spell of jungle bashing in Malaya. But I forgot the old army adage, "Never volunteer", and signed on for an extra six months to accompany the battalion to Hong Kong, complete my Far Eastern tour, and put off the moment of truth that would come with demob. The price I paid was paralytic polio.

But this was nothing compared with the experiences of others, for example those who fought in the Korean War and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder even before the term was invented. Or those unsuspecting human guinea pigs in chemical and nuclear warfare tests who have suffered all sorts of enduring health problems for which they have received no official recognition.

You go into the army and know you may end up as cannon fodder; but you do not expect that as a volunteer in tests "to find a cure for the common cold", you will be exposed to deadly nerve gases such as sarin. Never, never volunteer.

The writer's books include 'Imperial Warriors' (Granta)

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