A box of dusty papers discovered in the tower of a 12th-century castle has exposed a previously unknown facet of the life of Alan Clark, the late Tory MP, junior defence minister, army historian and self-styled military man – he squirmed out of two years of national service.
Clark wrote a history of the First World War, The Donkeys, criticising the British generals who ordered thousands of soldiers to their deaths in the trenches; and, in his diaries, made numerous knowing references to army life. He also referred to his military service in a CV written for a possible parliamentary candidacy.
But the papers prove his only personal experience of the military was in the army reserve at Eton and a single day as a member of the Household Cavalry. It was this record that the former MP, who died in 1999 aged 71, later employed to side-step his call-up.
The revelation, reported by The Sunday Times, comes after Clark's biographer, Ion Trewin, found documents in two bags of papers he salvaged two weeks ago from Clark's home, Saltwood Castle in Kent.
"Decades of depredations from damp and deathwatch beetle have failed to destroy vital evidence that goes some way to solving the mystery of how Clark avoided national service," Mr Trewin told the paper.
While at Eton, Clark was in the Household Cavalry's training regiment, based at Combermere Barracks in Windsor. He joined up in February 1946, but transferred to the army reserve the same day. He was discharged on 31 August, shortly before leaving Eton to study at Oxford.
But Clark later received a letter calling him up to the RAF's education service. "He must have been surprised when he came down from Oxford and suddenly gets this note saying will you present yourself for a medical. He thought he had got out of it, but he hadn't. They had merely postponed it," Mr Trewin told The Sunday Times.
"We have to assume he wrote back pleading his six months with the Household Cavalry, but it was a bit like doing Officer Training Corps."
One of the letters Mr Trewin found came from an army district office in Harlesden, in November 1949. It says: "Dear sir, I am instructed to inform you that in view of your previous service you are no longer liable for service under the National Service Acts."
Clark's widow, Jane, found the documents in mouldering box files and Mr Trewin went through them to glean further details for future editions of his biography, which comes out in paperback this week. In the CV, Clark claims to have enlisted in the Household Cavalry on his 17th birthday, which would have been three weeks before VE Day. Mrs Clark told the newspaper: "We never discussed how he managed to sidestep national service. But I come from an army family – my father was a colonel and my grandfather a brigadier. If I had known, I would probably have lined him up against the wall and shot him for deserting."
The historian Corelli Barnett, a contemporary of Clark's, was equally scathing. "I think Alan Clark was not merely a bounder but a cad for the way he avoided national service."
Clark's book, The Donkeys, inspired the musical Oh! What a Lovely War. Barbarossa, his history of the Nazi invasion of Russia, caused controversy by partly exonerating Hitler from blame for the disastrous campaign.