Nostalgia: ‘It ruined my life’ - former Harold Wood Coaches driver looks back at national service
PUBLISHED: 11:45 14 August 2013
This summer it’s 50 years since the British armed forces stopped using people on compulsory national service. The Recorder spoke to a man who believes conscription ruined his life – without even sending him to a battlefield.
By his 18th birthday, Douglas Brown had spent a year in prison.
His crime? He didn’t want to go to war.
Former Harold Wood Coaches driver Douglas, and others like him, were thrown in jail because they dared refuse national service.
For him, it wasn’t a case of moral objection – rather, he saw war as a death sentence.
Orphaned at 16, he had a life to rebuild.
With his elderly grandmother and sole carer living in a tied cottage, there was no guarantee he’d even have a home to come back to during leave.
“I was absolutely devastated [when I was called up],” he said. “I lost my father at 11 and mother at 15 or 16, and they just put me in prison.
“I thought when my mother died I would try and get a roof over my head.
“But instead they gave me accommodation in prison.”
After two six-month spells in Wandsworth, he was signed off by a sympathetic medic as being unfit for service.
It was then that the problems really began.
“Someone put it round that I got out of national service by being a conscientious objector,” remembered the 77-year-old, who now lives in Hutton.
“It would be on a par with being a child molester today – no one would employ me or speak to me. I was regarded as a fugitive.”
He added: “Churchill hyped it up that we were fighting for the country, and if you weren’t fighting then you were an outsider.
“There was no compassion at all. Due to the war, the people were so hard.”
And when his grandmother died, leaving him without a roof over his head, things seemed even more hopeless.
So for three years that should have been spent enjoying the prime of his life, Douglas found himself living alone in barns and woodlands.
He had to forage in bins for food.
It was a strange time for young people – they weren’t legally adults until the age of 21, even though they could fight wars and get married.
With no homes for orphans, Douglas was caught in a cultural no-man’s land.
Miraculously, he made it to his 21st birthday – and a way out presented itself when a bookie’s runner who had befriended him won big on the dogs.
The man gave Douglas some cash to get back on his feet – and he used it to escape Billericay, where his infamy would have prevented him finding work.
Even as he walked to catch a bus to Chelmsford, an uncle spotted him and shouted across the street: “You should be stood up against the wall and shot.”
Securing work as a trainee mechanic, Douglas gradually worked his way up the ranks. In the 1960s he changed careers and became a bus driver, eventually transferring to Harold Wood Coaches in Woodlands Road.
But even there he couldn’t forget what he’d been through.
“I was taking schools from Romford and Harold Wood to [Cambridgeshire barracks] Bassingbourn where they’d put on a display,” he said. “They were trying to get these children to go into the services to be shot and killed.
“But I didn’t say anything because I didn’t feel I could.”
So when national service was finally ended in 1960, and the last recruits left the army in summer 1963, it was a case of too little, too late for Douglas.
“It shouldn’t have started in the first place,” he said. “It just ruined my life. I don’t expect I’m the only one – people aren’t prepared to talk about it.”
In retirement, Douglas has spent his time volunteering, driving buses for disabled people’s holidays and repairing wheelchairs for the British Red Cross.
“It makes you a caring person when you go through something like this,” he said.
But he never married or had children. “It was all too late,” he said. “I could never trust anyone again.
“People talk about the good old days. I never talk about the good old days.”
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