At the start of the Second World War Britain had a professional army and it proved to be no match for the Germans, being driven backwards down to the beaches at Dunkirk. As the volunteers and conscripts joined the army grew not only in size but in ability. I put this down to the lower grade officers and NCOs now no longer being from the professional army, but being from real life.
What I suspect happened is the army changed from being a professional army to a citizens army. I think what comes with that is increase in both intelligence and common sense along with a sense of purpose. My mother told me that first tranche of conscripts were all 21-22 years old and were called the militia.
The picture at the bottom of this piece is of Tom Wintringham, the founder of the Home Guard. He very much preached the idea of a citizens army and probably scared a few of the pro-appeasement Tories with his threats to string them up. He was a leading writer before and during the war on military matters. He was also an ex-communist and ex-leader of the British section of the International Brigade in Spain which is the tie-in with Frank Ryan. When you read the histories of these guys you have to think there could be a good movie in them. Ken Loach, anyone? If you would like to read more about Tom Wintringham there is a good 2004 book by Hugh Purcell called "The Last English Revolutionary - Ton Wintringham 1898-1949".
Now looking back and trying to pick good examples of professional versus citizen armies is interesting. The American War of Independence was certainly a citizens army against the most professional army money could buy, with all the German mercenaries in red coats. Was Cromwell's New Model Army a citizens army? The Israeli Army is certainly organized on a citizens army basis and there seems to be an improvement even at the very top level. Other countries do this as well; Norway and Switzerland are examples.
Should we do it in Britain? I suspect where it doesn't work is when you ask a citizens army to fight in a foreign country that poses no threat to their homeland. I don't think it worked that well for the Americans in Vietnam and I don't think it would work that well for us in Iraq or Afghanistan. A citizens army is basically a defensive army and not suited to an aggressive government intent on using military might to sort out political problems. Probably professional armies do this better.
If we had governments who stayed out of conflicts of the Iraq type, that is a bit like Harold Wilson who would not get involved with the Vietnamese War. Could they convince us that some sort of conscription would be a good thing? I could see ways in which it would bring all the ethnic and religious sections of British youth together for a while. It's no good me saying it though as I never had to suffer conscription, it had already ended by the sixties. Has our professional army officer corps improved that much since the war? I doubt it and suspect we will still get too many public school boys in it.
Tom Wintringham and wife Kitty