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World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

The historiography of Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada during Second World War contains a striking paradox.

On one hand, military aspects of their respective undertakings, battles, campaigns, strategies and actions of senior commanders are among most widely studied topics in human history.

On other hand, many of characteristics of recruits, including those that are important to course of events on battlefield, have received little attention from scholars, especially when drafted into military.

The reason little academic attention has been given is that during war years, people were in a state of ups and downs. Apart from national government, no one even wanted to pay attention to these victories. Service to national institutions.

World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

The British conscription system during World War II was different from World War I. For most of period from 1939 to 1945, British commanded men to enter armed forces, and then conscription was extended to industrial and military activities. , and included Women and men, which means it quickly becomes a web that entangles all military life.

However, historiography of conscription during World War II in these four countries is limited and fragmented, and most studies discuss its behavior in a broad analysis. Even when conscription has been reported in more detail, scholars have tended to focus only on its political or institutional aspects, or its impact on certain groups in society.

Over past 20 years, a small number of scientists have begun to counter these trends with broader and deeper approaches. By placing military conscription at center of its research and drawing on methodology of social and cultural history to study how people from all walks of life experienced and responded to multiple coercions, research provides important new insights.

Even so, scope of analysis is almost entirely limited by national boundaries, which eliminates benefit that could be gained from cross-country comparisons. Because of the war, scientists at that time could only care about their own country's system, so they were not going to care about others, which also made cross-country comparative studies a luxury.

World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

The author believes that adoption of conscription in UK is both earliest and most comprehensive. The Peacetime Military Training Act of May 1939 covered men between ages of 20 and 22 who were to be drafted into camp for six months of training before being sent to Army Reserve.

When National Service (Armed Forces) Act was passed in UK after start of war, all men between ages of 18 and 41 were eligible for military service throughout conflict, these provisions were not fully applied.

Subsequent British amendments to legislation expanded eligibility for men aged 17 to 51 and, in a serious break from tradition, made it mandatory for women aged 20 to 30 to enlist in various auxiliaries. service strength.

World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

From 1941, men and women between ages of 16 and 60 could also be forced into civilian work, which was considered state work.

Despite important role that conscription played in British war effort, there is currently only one book devoted to study of conscription. A key strength of Broad's work is that it combines a discussion of political and institutional aspects of voluntary service with an analysis of how it affects social groups.

A review of relevant laws and regulations, with an assessment of their practical application in relation to recruitment of women and treatment of conscientious objectors, as well as other chapters on labor instructions for men and medical examinations of recruits.

It is this broad and comprehensive approach that makes Broad's book so successful.

World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

These attributes show little in rest of historiography, and brief discussions of conscription are sometimes endpoint of studies focused on other areas.

Analyzing evolution of defense policy between two world wars,scholars examine why May 1939 marked first time that British government formally conscripted large numbers of civilians into military service in peacetime.

This decision was driven by two reasons that overturned a long-standing commitment not to force men into service prior to outbreak of hostilities. It began with British Parliament and public demands from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to take a tougher stance against aggression that followed German occupation of Prague.

The second was diplomatic pressure from French government to publicly demonstrate Britain's commitment to sending a sizeable expeditionary force to fight alongside them on Continent.

Another way scholars talk about conscription is by describing its role in debate over distribution of labor.

These works are largely based on extensive documents left behind by Department of Labor and National Service, which also form basis of two official histories of British warfare.

World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

Despite fact that many studies pay sufficient attention to military conscription, they always study its impact on certain groups in society.

Some scholars have focused their attention on women, who were assigned to occupations that were previously considered exclusive prerogative of men, especially in heavy industry and agriculture.

However, relocation to these areas is exception rather than rule, as much of increase in women's employment is in more traditional areas such as office work and textile work.

In addition, these studies have often focused on assessing whether Second World War resulted in long-term changes in legal and social status of women.

World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

New Zealand, while not as extensive as British model, also had adequate conscription during World War II.

His government abolished "voluntary male recruitment" on July 22, 1940, replacing it with a system of periodic ballot recruitment (enrollment in navy and air force remained voluntary).

21-40 years old can be sent abroad, and 19-46 years old can serve in territories.

By December 1941, all free men were abandoned. The process then moved on to married men who all voted at end of 1942, followed by a back and forth combing of those individuals who were originally released.

The threat posed by Japanese advance across Pacific, combined with a growing shortage of manpower, meant that 1942 was also year New Zealand's conscription was expanded into civil defense duties and labor training.

In time, all men between ages of 18 and 60 and all women between ages of 18 and 40 who do not care for young children will be eligible for some form of draft.

World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

Given these rules, it is unfortunate that no book in New Zealand appears to match Baker's description of World War I conscription, closest of which is Taylor's two-volume essay on home front, which is second part of official History of New Zealand in First World War.

Exploring impact of conflict on society, these highly detailed works include sections on why conscription was introduced and how it applies to different groups.

Furthermore, Taylor's contributions are product of an old form of social history, which means that he is often descriptive rather than analytical, and often disparages historical activity by referring to people and communities affected by military conscription.

This criticism applies equally to shorter discussions in other domestic volumes of Official History.

The rest of historiography has focused on conscription, and many scholars have wondered why New Zealand's first Labor government chose to force men to serve overseas despite fact that several of its members were imprisoned during First world war for opposing similar measures.

World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

The recruitment of women into industry and mentoring of men and women in civil defense is of general interest to oral historians. Using first-hand accounts, these studies provide information about varied experiences of subjects.

However, reliance on interviews greatly raises concerns about whether situations experienced by a few people are representative of others, especially given that memory can be skewed over long periods of time.

However, Maori men and women are responsible for leading workers in a specially created Maori War Effort. Orange (2000) argues that this body, controlled by tribal elders, may have formed a plan for post-war Māori self-government, but that ambition was thwarted by powerful New Zealanders.

In New Zealand, as in UK, academic attention has focused on conscientious objectors, despite fact that they represent only 5,000 out of a population of more than 300,000.

But many believe that New Zealand treated its adversaries particularly harshly: few received immunity, and many were held in internment camps.

World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

This result is largely due to underlying intolerance in society that allows groups such as service associations to have significant influence.

However, Cookson believes that some members of Armed Forces Appeals Board and high-ranking officials of Department of National Service are particularly to blame for an overly restrictive interpretation of exception rules.

Perhaps most comprehensive study of conscription during World War II in New Zealand is Montgomery's (2001), and although she seeks to destroy notion of permanent change in women's social status, relevant sections of her book are mostly dedicated to national and statistical level.

However, chapter on response to military service on job draws on a range of oral, newspaper and archival sources to compare cases from various social and economic groups, and Montgomery explores how war affected gender relations, not just on women, which means it also provides valuable insights into how civilian men respond to being drafted into military.

World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

While Australia's experience in World War II is often described as broadly similar to New Zealand's, relative degree of conscription was a notable difference. Much of debate surrounding this topic has to do with memory of First World War.

In 1916 and 1917, Australia's attempt to introduce conscription failed in two referendums, both of which caused significant social unrest.

Therefore, at beginning of World War II, government of Prime Minister Robert Menzies acted cautiously.

Conscription into existing militia (later renamed Civil Armed Forces) was announced on September 15, 1939, and from January 1, 1940, suspension of compulsory education was lifted, which made it possible for all men aged 18 to 60 to undergo military service. military service.

However, relevant legislation expressly prohibits sending of conscripts outside of Australia and its territories (Papua and New Guinea) unless they voluntarily transfer to Australian Imperial Force.

World War II: The Conscription Paradox for Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada

Obviously, conscription system in Australia has also undergone some upheaval. It's not that government can recruit soldiers if it wants to. It should also pay more attention to mood of people. Voluntary conscription is main conscription.

However, voluntary recruitment can only take place in peacetime. When World War I and World War II broke out, flames of war engulfed almost entire world.

Few people escaped flames of war, so system of compulsory certification gradually entered Australian politics and became object of study for countless generations of scholars.


Baker, P. (1988). The King and Call to Nation: The New Zealanders, Conscription, and First World War. Auckland University Press.

Barker, R. (1982) Conscience, government and war: conscientious objection to military service in Britain, 1939-45, London, England: Routledge and Keegan-Paul.

Bond, B. (1980). British Military Policy Between World Wars. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Burke, P. (2019) Irish Loyalty: Ayer's conscientious objectors to New Zealand during World War II. Wellington, New Zealand: Cuba Press.

Burns, E. L. M. (1956). Canadian Army Personnel, 1939–1945. Toronto, Canada: Clark, Owen.

Buterin (1955). The Economics of War, 1939–1942. Canberra, Australia: AWM.

Darian Smith (2009). Behind Lines: Melbourne at War, 1939–1945 (2nd ed.). Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press.

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