The Legal and Constitutional Background
In looking at how the Brigade and its constituent Battalions came into existence in 1939 one key aspect is that of Government Legislation and the following paragraphs are a brief summary of the relevant Acts of Parliament.
The Military Training Act 1939 was an Act of Parliament, passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom on 26 May 1939, as part of the country’s preparation for what was expected to be a forthcoming European conflict with Germany. The Act applied to males aged 20 and 21 years old. These young men were expected to be called up for six months full-time military training, and would then be transferred to the Reserve. There was provision made for considering the situation of conscientious objectors. It was the UK's first act of peacetime conscription and was intended to be temporary in nature, continuing for three years unless an Order in Council sooner declared it was no longer necessary.
The name “Militiamen” was briefly revived during this time in 1939 when Leslie Hore-Belisha, the then Minister of War, introduced this limited form of conscription, the first since that activated in 1916, which of course had been taken while the UK was engaged in the First World War. It was thought that calling these young conscripts 'militiamen' would make this more acceptable to the general public, as it would render them distinct from the rest of the army. Only single men were conscripted (they were given a free suit of civilian clothes as well as a uniform), and, after serving full-time for an initial period, would be discharged into the Reserve, as mentioned above.
There was one registration required under the Act, of the first cohort of liable males, on Saturday 3 June 1939, and call-up for these men then followed. Although this first intake were called up, the war broke out soon after, and the militiamen lost their identity in the rapidly expanding army, although reference to their status and training progress can be found in the War Diaries – to which reference will be made in due course.
The Act was superseded on the outbreak of war in September 1939 by the National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939. This more comprehensive Act was enacted immediately by Parliament on the day the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. It enforced full conscription on all males between the ages of 18 and 41, resident in the UK, and was eventually continued in a modified form, in peacetime, by the National Service Act 1948.
I spent some considerable time looking at the record of the debates in Parliament, documented in “Hansard”, now thankfully available on a searchable basis online. What was most fascinating were the ranges of political opinion expressed forcibly in those debates, echoing almost word for word, especially on issues concerning conscientious objectors, the debates at the time of the First World War – and sometimes involving the same MPs as participants.
The minutiae raised in these debates were many and varied with, for example, impassioned pleas regarding the birthright of all young men in the Hebrides to be allowed to join the Navy, rather than the Army or RAF.
As I mention, the topic of conscientious objection caused some of the most fractious exchanges with fears being expressed about the nature of tribunals and demands that the alleged mistreatment in 1914-1918 be avoided at all costs. Availability of equipment, weapons and uniforms featured regularly with retired senior officers repeatedly seeking assurances that Bren Guns were indeed being manufactured, given that their local unit had not yet received its allotment of these new light machine guns, leading to doubts as to the veracity of their very existence. One could hardly credit that, at a time of national emergency, time could be allotted for a lengthy discussion on the production of a lapel badge for some particular class of volunteer.