By John Boulton
If the history books are to be believed, the practice of ‘pressing’ the King’s/Queen’s shilling upon unsuspecting recruits by the Royal Navy and British Army (the most common point of delivery being at the bottom of an ale jug) seems to have been an effective one. I don’t doubt for a minute that today, there are those of you out there who believe that this archaic practice of recruitment, in respect to its level of deceit, is something that has never really gone away and serves as a sound analogy for the modern practice of enticing fresh crops of military recruits, with the lure and promise of education and the acquirement of ‘new skills.’
Well, it’s at least the subject of a documentary in the making that seeks to explore if the military are keeping to their side of the bargain but in particular, the focus being on ex-servicemen/veterans who ‘joined up’ below the age of eighteen and what affects if any, this junior engagement of service has had on them. A recent request for people to take part has prompted me to throw in my own two shillings worth having filled out my paperwork at fifteen years old and subsequently, joining as a ‘Junior Leader’ in the British Army at sixteen years and four months.
One thing’s for sure; unless things have changed since my day, the Queens shilling is still very much in play and after my attestation in August of 1990, I received the modern equivalent, amounting to something like eleven pounds. With the ceremony complete, I took my father to the nearest pub and spent it buying him his first beers ‘on me.’ As I recall the barman looking me over, wondering probably if I should really have been at school instead of nervously rattling my change in front of his woodwork. That recollection seems ever more pertinent now and indeed, if somewhat, a little telling because if that’s what the barman had been thinking, well, he’d have been right and with hindsight, I’m certain that I should have been at school.
When I signed up I was still a child and to allow one to make such a serious and binding commitment at such a vulnerable and ill-informed age is simply wrong. I served in what was essentially a peace time army and it was not an entirely negative experience. I can’t say I was lied to in any way and in terms of my individual role as an armoured crewman, the army delivered and I was suitably trained and employed. What got me in the end was the boredom factor (such was my mindset back then). Unlike most of today’s young soldiers, I was lucky in that I was not subjected to actual combat and allowed to forgo what at such a tender age, can surely be nothing but a traumatic experience.
I deployed to Afghanistan as a reservist at the age of thirty three. Just five years later, my views on that conflict have turned 180 degrees. So imagine me at fifteen years old, I didn’t know my own mind at all and that for me is clearly the point. Why the MOD does recruit from this age group is obvious and entirely for that reason. The acquisition of young, malleable, and to a large degree, unquestioning minds.
As a supposedly ‘civilised’ society, we really should be encouraging our precious youth to seek the supposed benefits of military service elsewhere and steer them well clear of the morally corrupt ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ which to my mind is nothing more than a tool used to wage war on behalf of the ‘money-men’, Those major financiers and corporations that really have the say in how this world is run. Brigadier-General Smedley Butler (U.S. Marine Corps) once said, “War is a racket!” so lets stop doing it!
In closing, and without hesitation, I would raise the age of recruitment to at least twenty one. When I think about my own two sons signing their lives over to those who couldn’t care less about them (during the expenses scandal the Armed Forces Minister reportedly claimed £7.20 to attend a service of remembrance!) it sends me cold. There’s no chance I’ll be countersigning any such papers and I wouldn’t expect anybody else to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself. Now that’s something positive that the Army did teach me!
John Boulton served in Afghanistan (Household Cavalry) and is a member of Veterans For Peace (UK)