A Look at British Policy

Traditionally, the British have not felt any necessity of raising large armies for the defense of their island realm. Trusting to the navy to protect them from invasion, they have relied upon volunteer land forces to supplement their sea power in maintaining the Empire and in carrying out ground operations wherever necessary. Throughout the nineteenth century this combination of preponderant sea power supplemented by volunteer land forces provided security for the Empire. There was no need for the British people to think seriously about adopting peacetime universal military training or even a policy of conscription in time of war.

In the first World War the British faced an unprecedented need for a huge land army. For the first time since the days of Napoleon a situation confronted them that could not be dealt with by the traditional method. Even so, they hesitated to adopt a policy of conscription, for, as Prime Minister Lloyd George remarked in his War Memoirs, "the idea was unfamiliar. ... Bred on a soil for centuries inviolate we were accustomed to send abroad only small, professional armies, the ranks of which, in so far as they were British, could be filled by the recruiting sergeant on a voluntary basis. ... Our national defence has been the fleet, which requires far fewer men than does an army. ... We also had a strong traditional objection to the creation of large land forces, as potential instruments of warm and an infringement of personal liberty."

Stark necessity, however, overcame the forces of tradition, and after much bitter argument a conscription bill, the first in British history, became law in January 1916, It required the enrollment foi possible military service of all men from 18 to 41, and it was enforced without incident for the duration. As in the United States, only a minority raised their voices after the war for a system of obligatory peacetime military service on a universal basis. The prevailing view was that Britain could safely continue to rely upon her traditional military arm, the navy, and that there was no anticipated need for another British mass army. Conscription was therefore put aside as a wartime matter which could be disregarded until the country faced another national emergency.

In 1935, when Germany began to rebuild her army in violation of the treaty of Versailles, a few voices in favor of universal training were raised in England, but they aroused little general interest until it became increasingly clear that the Nazis were bent upon territorial expansion even at the price of another major war. By that time two things were obvious. First, the British navy could not protect the British Isles from attack by Goering's much publicized Luftwaffe. Secondly, in the event of a conflict, Britain would be compelled to send a substantial expeditionary force to the Continent to assist the French army.

Hitler marched into Prague in March 1939. This act, which completely destroyed the Munich agreement of the previous fall, finally convinced the British people and government that another war was inevitable. Overnight, British policy changed to one of all-out preparation, including compulsory military training. At the end of April Britain adopted her first peacetime training law. It obligated men to take a six-mouth training course, after which they could choose between the reserve forces of the regular army or a period of enlistment in the territorial army. Before this new system could be started, the Nazi invasion of Poland precipitated the war and Britain turned again to a system of full conscription.