When did the UK have conscription and could it make a return?

General Sir Patrick Sanders believes a major expansion of the British Army is needed (PA Media)
General Sir Patrick Sanders believes a major expansion of the British Army is needed (PA Media)

Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, the head of the British Army, recently said that people must be prepared to support the armed forces by participating in a war if called upon to do so.

Referring to people in the UK as a "prewar generation", the army chief suggested that preparation for any major conflict would be a "whole-of-nation undertaking". Sanders' remarks were read as a warning to civilians to be ready should Nato go to war with Russia.

Sanders, who is retiring as chief of the General Staff in the Army this summer, referred to the UK's allies as examples of countries "laying the foundations for national mobilisation". He highlighted the role that Ukrainian civilians have played in the war against Russia, implying that he envisions a similar strategy for the UK should conflict ever break out.

"Taking preparatory steps to enable placing our societies on a war footing when needed are now not merely desirable but essential," he said, adding: "Within the next three years, it must be credible to talk of a British Army of 120,000, folding in our reserve and strategic reserve."

Since making the statement, social media has been alight with concerns about conscription. Some expressed scepticism that it would be possible to mobilise many people, given the low popularity of the government and anti-war sentiment.

Several posts and memes emerged on social media as young people mocked the idea of an army general forcing them to fight for their king and country – especially when UK leaders fail to support or listen to younger generations.

Failing to spot the irony of calling Gen Z "snowflakes" yet expecting them to defend the country, several profiles then mocked young people for being soft and unable to handle a war without their "avocado toast and lattes".

Sanders' remarks don't mean that the UK will re-introduce peacetime conscription but they do suggest that the Government anticipates conflict in the future.

When asked in 2023 about the possibility of conscription, a spokesperson for the prime minister said: "There is no suggestion of that. The Government has no intention to follow through with that. The British military has a proud tradition of being a voluntary force. There are no plans to change that."

But what exactly is conscription?

What is conscription?

Conscription is when a government orders its civilians to join the army, usually to support a war effort. Also known as being "called up" to the army, conscription is mandated by law, meaning that it is a requirement to fight for your country if necessary.

The UK has relied on conscription twice in recent history. Over 2.5 million men aged between 18 and 41 were conscripted to fight in the first world war. The number of UK casualties sustained during the war was over 880,000.

In the second world war, about 1.5 million people were conscripted, and it was the first time women were conscripted into the army.

Following the second world war, the UK had national service, which required men aged between 17 and 21 to serve in the army for 18 months or remain on a reserve list for four years.

A number of countries around the world still have some sort of military service in place. Other countries have legally authorised conscription, but haven't implemented it during peace time.

When did UK conscription end?

National service officially ended in 1960 and hasn't been re-introduced in the UK since. There has been no official confirmation that conscription is coming back. However, some leading figures have suggested that civilians may need to get involved in wars in the future.

General Sir Patrick Sanders (PA Archive)
General Sir Patrick Sanders (PA Archive)

What happens if you refuse conscription?

People who refuse conscription are often referred to as conscientious objectors. In past UK wars, conscientious objectors had many reasons for refusing conscription, such as political or religious beliefs.

In WWI and WWII, people who refused to accept conscription faced a tribunal where they could argue their case. They were ordered to enlist in the army if the case was rejected. Those who continued to reject conscription risked being jailed, fined or having rights taken away.

Recent reports suggested there has been a fall in people signing up to join the army.

Who is exempt from conscription?

In WWI and WWII, people who were medically unfit or had important roles, such as engineers or farmers, were exempted as their work was considered critical.

Women were also exempt in WWI; however, in WWII, unmarried women and childless widows between 20 and 30 years old could be called up.

Any future conscription would potentially follow similar lines, meaning people with medical conditions or those over a certain age would be exempt.

How many soldiers are in the UK army?

One of the reasons that the idea of conscription has been raised is because the UK Army's numbers continue to dwindle.

The number of personnel in the UK Army has constantly declined over the last few decades. According to Parliament data, 109,600 people were in the British Army in 2000, as opposed to just 76,950 in 2023.

Another article quoted an MP that told a committee session: “people are leaving the Armed Forces at a ratio of three people leaving for every one who joins”.

The decline doesn’t appear unique to the Army either; the Royal Navy, Marine and Royal Air Force have all recorded a slump in recruits.

According to the Defense Post, this is the lowest amount of Army personnel since the Napoleonic War in 1815.

There are also several reasons why the number of UK military staff is in decline. In 2022, the Financial Times reported that military morale had slumped as soldiers were told to step in for civilian roles.

The Defense Post also cited a ban on beards and substandard military housing may also deter many potential signups. In 2022, military officials were was forced to apologise as nearly a third of military houses required repairs.