15 June, 2008Issue 7.3EuropeHistory

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Forgotten Conscripts No Longer

James Appell

Tom Hickman
Called Up, Sent Down: The Bevin Boy’s War
The History Press, 2008
256 pages
ISBN 978-0750945479

Last March, over 60 years after World War II, Prime Minister Gordon Brown recognised 27 men for their service during and after the war in a ceremony at Downing Street. Given the intensity with which Britain has remembered and commemorated World War II veterans, it hardly makes sense that men who served their country had to wait more than half a century before the government acknowledged their contribution. Yet this has been the fate of the Bevin Boys. Tom Hickman’s new book Called Up, Sent Down describes their peculiar wartime fate. Unlike Britain’s other veterans, the Bevin Boys served their country without ever leaving the United Kingdom or seeing military action.

World War II presented the opportunity for young men of fighting age to do for their country what their fathers and grandfathers had done in the Great War: to serve in the Armed Forces, to wear the uniform of the British Army, and to fight for King and Country. Month by month, those who reached the age of 18 registered, underwent medical examinations, and within weeks received their instructions to report for conscription. In December 1943 hundreds of young men, like those who had gone before them, anxiously awaited their assignments. They received an unwelcome early Christmas present: they were to be the first of 48,000 or so ‘Bevin Boys’, sent to mine coal in Britain rather than to fight the enemy in greater Europe. They would wear blackened overalls and steel toe-capped boots rather than military uniforms, and they would wield picks rather than pistols. They became Britain’s forgotten conscripts.

The minister of labour and national service, Ernest Bevin, devised this scheme in response to a severe shortage of both coal and coal workers. The declaration of war in 1939 saw a surge in the demand for coal, as industries at home and abroad mobilised. But export demand tailed off considerably by May 1940 with the fall of France and Italy’s decision to side with the Axis Powers. With around 5 percent of the mining workforce losing their jobs virtually overnight, Bevin dropped the protected status of miners, allowing them to seek employment in the construction and munitions industries. Former miners could now help the war effort rather than remain idle.

This was to be the fatal mistake with which Bevin’s name is now popularly associated. Miners streamed out of the pits in far greater numbers than he had anticipated, and coal production screeched to a halt. The government tried to convince miners to continue working at the pit-face, but to no avail. In the end Bevin settled upon compulsory conscription into the mining workforce to sustain production. Young men who had prepared themselves for war were picked by ballot, allegedly out of Bevin’s own hat, to prepare to go underground.

The shocked recipients of conscription papers in late 1943 and early 1944 reacted with disbelief. Some refused to report and went absent without leave, even on pain of imprisonment. Others sought to appeal on medical grounds or simply argued for their greater suitability for the Armed Forces. They wrote to national newspapers, campaigned publicly, and generally made a nuisance of themselves in their efforts either to shame the government into improving their lot, or simply to express their disappointment at not being able, like so many of their peers and family members, to ‘do their Duty’.

Many continued to serve down the mines until 1948, long after those serving in the Army had been decommissioned. Bevin’s reputation suffered and MPs began calling the experiment a failure. Unlike soldiers, the Bevin Boys received no medals, no benefits and no pensions; while soldiers could return to their old jobs, the Bevin Boys, who had been forced out of previous employment by law, had no such provision. This was all the more damaging given the post-war demobilisation of industry, which brought the 5 million men and women who had served in the forces back into the civilian labour force. Many conscripts returned from the mines bearing physical and mental scars from work that was as demanding on the body and senses as war. Though many were injured or killed in combat overseas, miners suffered a considerable number of casualties underground. At the time, however, the government did not see merit in such a comparison.

Tom Hickman’s book charts the lives of the Bevin Boys in their own words, an oral history of the forgotten conscripts. Hickman marshals the individual testimonies of some 70 former Bevin Boys, who came from all parts of Britain to serve in coalfields in Wales, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham, the North East, Scotland, and Kent. These testimonies form the basis of Called Up, Sent Down, the author’s voice taking a backseat to the words of the men themselves. Hickman’s real skill has been to present the words of his interviewees both thematically and chronologically, giving the book a genuine narrative structure while allowing the conscripts plentiful focus.

Hickman’s subjects underwent such varied experiences in their host communities that Called Up, Sent Down maintains a pluralism in the story it tells. Some of those interviewed continue to look back in anger at their period in the mines. Ken Tyres’s story is perhaps the hardest to read in this respect. Tyres was injured after getting trapped between two tubs full of coal at a mine in County Durham:

The pelvis healed but never the internal injuries. I’ve never been able to travel far because of urinary problems, never more than a few miles. And since that day I’ve never had a full night’s sleep. Being a Bevin Boy wrecked my life.

Tyres received no war pension, despite having made a claim for one. The War Pensions Agency turned it down, explaining that he was ineligible either as a conscript or a civilian. As a Bevin Boy he had been ‘called up and allotted a National Service Registration number [but] was not enlisted and therefore remained a civilian’. As a civilian his ‘physical injury [was] not caused either by the enemy or in combating the enemy’.

But the book contains contrasting recollections. Other conscripts, initially critical, turned out to be grateful for the experience. One Bevin Boy may have spoken for many when he noted that ‘mining was a risky business, but I wasn’t shot at or shot down. Would I have survived as a ship’s stoker or if I’d taken part in the D-Day landing?’ A notable number continued in the mining trade after being decommissioned. Ian McInnes’s experience in the mines helped him obtain a first-class degree in mining at university in Nottingham, leading to a lifelong career as a consultant.

Hickman clearly is enthused by his subject. His previous works on National Service and the BBC during wartime demonstrate his preoccupation with the interaction of individuals and state institutions in the context of war. In this book he has collaborated with the Bevin Boys’ association, and he has integrated material from the published memoirs of Bevin Boys. This seductive technique allows the reader to become acquainted with the Bevin Boys themselves, through hearing their stories first-hand. But it also becomes very easy to be uncritical. The reader needs little invitation to recognise the dichotomy between the state’s crass treatment of the conscripts and the Bevin Boys’ stoicism. Such highly personal histories inevitably run the risk of becoming celebratory, lionising the efforts of ‘heroes’ in the face of huge obstacles. Yet the more one immerses oneself in the testimonies of the Bevin Boys, the more one cannot fail to be impressed by their story–irrespective of one’s academic reservations.

Called Up, Sent Down in fact offers much more than a portrait of the Bevin Boys’ courage in adversity. For one, it puts into perspective the popular aversion to war today. The choice between serving on the battlefield or in the mines would doubtless be unenviable in any age, but would the draftees of today be as disappointed as their predecessors in the 1940s if told they would not serve on the front? No doubt the combined weight of twentieth century conflicts and the unrelenting and often graphic news coverage of them has taken its toll on the romanticism of war. Moreover, the imperatives are different. Times have changed since adolescents 60 years ago ‘entertained the…hope that the war would last until they were old enough to get into the fight’. That, perhaps, is a good thing.

Hickman’s study also hints at some fascinating patterns in the sociological map of Britain. The North-South divide at times reads as a gaping chasm, with Bevin Boys from London and the South East posted up to the coalfields of the North seeming to enter a different country, where regional dialect ‘might just as well have been a foreign language’. The mining communities come to life through the eyes of the interviewees as distinctive social entities, with idiosyncratic cultures, languages, manners, and rhythms. To one London Bevin Boy posted to Staffordshire ‘it was…like living in a time warp’. One gets the feeling that Britain’s mining communities were a world apart from the Britain that was busy at war.

Indeed, Hickman makes few references to the ongoing war which the Bevin Boys were helping to power. Notwithstanding the odd meeting with soldiers on leave, or the encounters with civvies that left many Bevin Boys ashamed of their status (they were often mistaken for conscientious objectors or shirkers), Hickman barely mentions the action on the battlefields over the Channel or the nightly bombing raids suffered by many across the country.

Is this an oversight by the author or his demonstration of the all-consuming nature of mining work? The latter suggests an important undercurrent of the book, perhaps one not anticipated by Hickman. That miners and their communities were so integral to the war effort and yet so removed from the war, almost forgotten by it, may be the most valuable conclusion one derives from Called Up, Sent Down. Although the book tells the story of the forgotten conscripts, it is the unheralded local career miners–those who worked alongside the Bevin Boys–who take centre stage.

Coal-mining in Britain during the 1940s was quite literally a matter of life and death. The coal that miners hewed fired the factories and fuelled the troops to keep the war effort going. It was the fuel that kept the home fires burning (especially during the famously bitter winter of 1947-1948). Conscripted or not, the miners faced daily threats to life and limb. Rock-falls, dust, low ceilings, flammable gas, and the grind of manual labour all threatened lethal consequences, making mining ‘the industry with the worst safety record in Britain’. One miner told Bevin Boy Tom McGuiness: ‘Son, you have a worse job than a rear gunner.’ Presumably he was fully aware of the irony of his comment. For Bevin Boys mining was a hazardous, but ultimately temporary, form of employment; for the men of the mining communities, it was their life.

Miners have had a tough time in recent years in the British popular consciousness. The mining industry in Great Britain has dwindled considerably since the war. UK Coal, Britain’s largest mining company, has only 12 mines in operation today, employing only 3,500 workers. The dark days of the 1980s, when Arthur Scargill led unionized mineworkers out on strike, formed the iconic image of British mining. The wounds from the year-long Miners’ Strike, as well as the subsequent closure of the pits and destruction of the very communities about which Hickman writes, have reconfigured Britain, making British miners an endangered species. In the popular mindset, the Bevin Boys are to be pitied for having had to live and work in such places, when 40 years later the miners drew ire for striking or leaving the mining profession.

As if to underline this disparity, the Bevin Boys are no longer ‘forgotten’. Former Bevin Boys such as Warwick Taylor (The Forgotten Conscript) and Reg Taylor (The Reluctant Miner) have published their experiences. School curricula on the Second World War make mention of the Bevin Boys. Since 1998 they have been allowed to march to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. And in March 2008 Gordon Brown presented a number of former Bevin Boys with commemorative badges in honour of their service.

The Bevin Boys have been acknowledged, and rightly so, for their employment in the mines was without choice. They most certainly ‘did their Duty’. But Called Up, Sent Down also highlights the contribution of the men who worked alongside the Bevin Boys and, though sometimes as hostile as they were helpful to the young conscripts, shared in the hard, dangerous but vital work. Now their industry and way of life have largely disappeared. Perhaps Hickman has missed the ‘scoop’ here: are they not also forgotten?