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Is conscription coming back? How it’s been used in previous wars – and what a UK ‘citizen army’ would involve in future | UK News

Conscription hasn’t been used in the UK for more than 60 years. 

But comments from top military officials about what could happen if NATO goes to war with Russia have made the possibility of being called up to fight feel closer than it has in generations.

General Sir Patrick Sanders, the outgoing head of the British Army, said such a conflict would need to be a “whole-of-nation undertaking”, which reignited a debate about defence cuts and volunteering to fight.

Here Sky News looks at how the UK has used conscription before, and what military experts and the government say about bringing it back.

What is conscription and when did the UK last have it?

Conscription legally requires certain groups to join the armed forces.

It was introduced in January 1916, 18 months into the First World War, when a law required all single men aged 18 to 41 to join up.

There were exceptions for certain workers and people considered medically unfit, and a few months later married men were also called up.

The law wasn’t popular; more than 200,000 protested against it. About 2.5 million men joined through conscription, which lasted until 1920. Although the main conflict with Germany ended in 1918, conscription was extended to “enable the army to deal with continuing trouble spots in the Empire and parts of Europe”, according to the UK parliament’s website.

Conscription returned in the Second World War, adding about 1.5 million people to the army, and was extended to women for the first time.

It started with “limited” conscription in May 1939 – as fears of another war in Europe grew – requiring single men aged 20 to 22 to sign up for military training. In September of the same year, when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, the law was toughened and widened to men aged between 18 and 41.

Conscription applied to women – those who were unmarried and childless widows between the ages of 20 and 30 – from December 1941. At the same time, the age ranges for men were changed – requiring military service up until the age of 51 and some form of service until 60. This was driven by a shortage of men for roles in the police and other services during the war.

Is conscription likely to make a comeback?

Military experts are split on whether conscription is a realistic prospect in 21st-century Britain.

Military analyst Professor Michael Clarke told the Sky News Daily podcast the UK will probably have to go back to having a “citizen army” – but stressed this is “not the same as conscription”.

“It will need to be a citizen army, but a citizen volunteer army of the sort that we’ve had in the past, and we will probably have to have once again in the future,” he said.

The UK army has “almost never” had conscription during its more than 360-year history, he said, adding it was “completely antithetical to the British thinking on the military”.

But former UK defence secretary Michael Fallon told Sky News it was time to “think the unthinkable” and consider conscription.

Not that he was a fan of the idea: “Conscription to most professional soldiers, and I count myself as one, is absolute anathema,” he said.

“Britain’s armed forces have traditionally and culturally relied on long service, volunteer, highly professional soldiers with huge experience – and that is really the way we would all want it to go on.”

But given the current global situation and defence funding cuts since the end of the Cold War, he said it was time to “get over many of the cultural hang-ups and assumptions” and “look carefully” at conscription.

“Sooner or later, if the military can’t improve the way they recruit, then, if it comes to conflict, obviously they will have to look at other methods,” he added.

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‘Right time’ to think about conscription

What has the government said about conscription?

Any talk of the UK introducing conscription to the army if NATO goes to war with Russia is “nonsense”, the armed forces minister, James Heappey, has said.

Mr Heappey said the UK “long had plans” readied for “mobilising volunteers” in the event that Britain enters a new conflict but stressed that “nobody is thinking” about bringing back conscription.

Number 10 has also ruled out any suggestion conscription was under consideration, saying there were “no plans” to change the British military’s “proud tradition of being a voluntary force”.

Read more:
Are we heading for World War Three?
British citizens should be ‘trained and equipped’ to fight
Putin ‘approached US about end to war’ – Ukraine latest

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‘There’s a 1939 feel to the world at the moment’

What is a citizen army?

A citizen army is made up of volunteers from the public, rather than career soldiers.

At the beginning of the First World War, 750,000 men volunteered to join the British Army in just eight weeks.

The volunteers had to undergo a series of medical and fitness tests before being accepted as a soldier.

Admiral Lord West, the former head of the Royal Navy, told Sky News this week that the UK would have to “mobilise” in the event of a war between NATO and Russia, hinting citizen volunteers would likely be part of that.

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What is the difference between conscription and national service?

National service was the standard peacetime form of conscription in the UK, introduced after the Second World War.

It came into force in January 1949 and required all men aged 17 to 21 to serve in one of the armed forces for an 18-month period.

It was discontinued in 1960, with the last servicemen discharged in 1963.

The UK’s political parties have debated whether or not to reintroduce some form of the service at a number of elections since the 1960s.

Often, calls to bring it back now focus on volunteering or public service for young adults, separate from the military.

Last year a thinktank proposed a “Great British National Service” volunteering scheme that won the support of the leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, and former Tory minister Rory Stewart.

It proposed a “civic” national service scheme for 16-year-olds that would see them complete a certain number of volunteering hours, although it would not be mandatory.

What happens if you refuse conscription?

People who refuse conscription on moral grounds are referred to as conscientious objectors. They may object to fighting for political, religious or other reasons.

In the First and Second World Wars, conscientious objectors had to appear before a tribunal to argue their case.

If it was accepted, they may have been given a non-fighting role. If it was dismissed, they had to join up or risk being fined or jailed.

Ukraine war: UK programme to train ‘citizen soldiers’ is expanding | UK News

The UK is significantly expanding a training programme in Britain to turn potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian recruits into frontline soldiers to fight Russia, Sky News has learnt.

The combat course is being extended in length to five weeks from three weeks, keeping more of the training in the UK, away from the threat of Russian missile strikes – a hazard for anyone learning how to become a soldier at sites inside Ukraine, it is understood.

Some 4,700 personnel have already been through the training at military bases in the north, southwest and southeast of England since it began in June, with commanders intending to continue the support for as long as Ukraine needs new troops to fight Russia’s invasion.

The UK is significantly expanding a training programme in Britain to turn potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian recruits into frontline soldiers to fight Russia
Pic: MoD

Military instructors from eight other countries, including New Zealand, Sweden and the Netherlands, have joined with their British counterparts to provide the expanded training mission.

Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said it demonstrated “our shared resolve to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine”.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace visits UK troops training Ukraine citizens to be soldiers. The UK is significantly expanding a training programme to turn potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian recruits into frontline soldiers to fight Russia. Pic: Ministry of Defence
The defence secretary said meeting the Ukrainians learning to fight was ‘humbling’. Pic: MoD

In quotes released to Sky News by the Ministry of Defence, confirming the expanded programme, Mr Wallace said the training course had “developed rapidly, and we are now extending it to five weeks to provide the best possible preparation for Ukrainian soldiers who will soon be in active combat operations”.

He added: “Meeting those citizen soldiers and witnessing first-hand their courage and determination is a humbling experience.

More on Ministry Of Defence

“We must do everything we can to help them defend their homes against this illegal and unprovoked Russian invasion, and will continue to do so for as long as it takes. We stand with Ukraine.”

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British troops take part in cold weather training with Swedish and Finnish armed forces

The UK is significantly expanding a training programme in Britain to turn potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian recruits into frontline soldiers to fight Russia. Pic: Ministry of Defence
Pic: MoD

Mr Wallace has paid four visits to check up on the training, including most recently on Friday.

Advanced training

A defence source said this was an indication that while “many politicians have been distracted by a summer leadership competition”, the defence secretary “only cares about keeping Ukrainians in their fight for national survival”.

If, as expected, Liz Truss becomes prime minister, Mr Wallace is tipped to retain his job as defence secretary.

Other countries taking part in the training programme to help Ukraine comprise Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Lithuania.

The main course on offer is based on the UK’s basic infantry training. It includes weapons-handling, battlefield first aid, fieldcraft and patrol tactics.

The extra two weeks will allow for more advanced training, such as trench and urban warfare, vehicle-mounted operations, and battlefield exercises in simulated combat environments.

The training is being conducted by elements from the British Army’s 11 Security Force Assistance Brigade and the RAF Regiment, alongside international instructors.