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Charts reveal why British Army boss wants to 'train up citizens' for potential war

General Sir Patrick Sanders believes Britons should be prepared to fight in the event of a wider conflict against Russia.

Aberdeen, Scotland, UK - 29th Jun, 2019 : Military personnel, veterans and cadets taking part in a parade along Union Street, Aberdeen, to mark Armed Forces day 2019 in the UK.
Britons could face conscription if the UK goes to war with Russia, the chief of the British Army has warned. (Getty)

Britons face being called up if the UK goes to war with Russia because the military is “too small”, the chief of the British Army has warned.

General Sir Patrick Sanders, the outgoing chief of the general staff, has previously criticised staff shortages in the military and has now called on UK citizens to be prepared to fight in event of a wider conflict against Russia as it continues its war with Ukraine. He told attendees at the International Armoured Vehicles Conference in Twickenham, south London, that ministers should “mobilise the nation”.

Sanders is not believed to support conscription but thinks that the mindset of the public should “shift” over who should be willing to defend the country.

In a speech on Wednesday, the military top brass said increasing army numbers in preparation for a potential conflict would need to be a “whole-of-nation undertaking”.

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The comments, first reported by the Daily Telegraph, are being read as a warning that British men and women should be ready for a call-up to the armed forces if Nato goes to war with Russia.

It comes after defence secretary Grant Shapps in a speech last week said the world is “moving from a post-war to pre-war world” and the UK must ensure its “entire defence ecosystem is ready” to defend its homeland.

But Downing Street ruled out any move towards a conscription model, saying that army service would remain voluntary.

How the size of the army has shrunk since 1950

Sanders’ comments come as figures show that that the size of the British Army has shrunk significantly since conscription ended in 1960. According to UK armed forces data, there were 74,000 personnel in the army in 2023 – down from more than 800,000 in 1952, when conscription was still in force. The figures also show that there has been a reduction in personnel from as recent as 2006, when there were 102,000 personnel.

The figures were seized upon by General Lord Dannatt, a former general staff of the British Army, who said the size of the army was “falling fast”. He drew parallels with the 1930s when the “woeful” state of the UK’s armed forces failed to deter Hitler, saying there was “a serious danger of history repeating itself”.

How would conscription work?

It is difficult to say how conscription would work if it was brought back in the UK. As it stands there is no conscription service in the UK and forces rely on people wishing to pursue a career in the army.

However, in times of war the government has used conscription, and did so during and after both the First and Second World Wars. Single men aged between 18 and 41 were initially called up for military service, with the law soon being changed to include married men and with an increased age limit to 51.

During the Second World War, single men aged between 20 and 22 were initially called up – but the escalation of the war meant that all men aged between 18 and 51 were eventually liable to be called up to fight. Exemptions included police officer, students, minister and religious ministers.

A second National Service Act widened the scope of conscription still further by making all unmarried women and all childless widows between the ages of 20 and 30 liable to call-up.

If conscription were brought back, women would likely be called up due to different attitudes to gender equality in the decades since it was last used. Since 2018, women have been able to serve in all combat roles next to their male counterparts.

Britons do not support compulsory conscription. (YouGov)
Britons do not support compulsory conscription. (YouGov)

What do Brits think about conscription?

While Gen Lord Dannatt has called for conscription if necessary, Britons do not generally support a forced call up.

According to a YouGov survey from September last year, Britons are more likely to support a voluntary scheme rather than a compulsory one. In fact, there is no majority for any compulsory scheme, with only a community service scheme lasting a month garnering 45% support, with another 45% opposing it.

Britons consistently oppose any forced military conscription, with 64% opposing a year-long scheme, compared to less than a third (28%) who support it.

Breaking down supporters and opponents by age, younger people are overwhelmingly not in favour of a year-long compulsory conscription, with nearly 80% of 18-24 year olds – the age range of people who would be called up – saying they opposed it, compared to just 10% who were in favour. Support grows in older age groups, with 46% of people aged 65 or older supporting it and 46% opposing it.

Young recruits during an inspection, Thursday, March 2, 2017 at the regiment in Enkoping 70 km north-west of Stockholm, Sweden. Sweden's left-leaning government introduced a military draft for both men and women Thursday because of what its defense minister called a deteriorating security environment in Europe and around Sweden. (Fredrik Sandberg /TT via AP)
Young recruits during an inspection at the regiment in Enkoping, Sweden. (PA)

Which European countries still have conscription?

While conscription is not common across Europe, there are still 15 countries in the continent that do have it. The UK abolished its compulsory national service scheme over 60 years ago but several countries have kept theirs, even during peacetime.

They are:

  • Austria – Compulsory (military or alternative services) for males over 18

  • Cyprus – Compulsory for all males aged 18-50

  • Denmark – Compulsory (military or alternative services) for males over 18

  • Estonia – Compulsory for males over 18

  • Finland – Compulsory (military or alternative services) for males over 18

  • Greece – Compulsory for males aged 19-45

  • Latvia – Compulsory for males aged 18-27

  • Lithuania – Compulsory for selected males aged 18-23

  • Moldova – Compulsory for selected males aged 18-49

  • Norway – Compulsory for men and women aged 19-44

  • Russia – Compulsory for males aged 18-30

  • Sweden – Compulsory for men and women over 18

  • Switzerland – Compulsory for males aged 18-30

  • Turkey – Compulsory for males aged 21-41

  • Ukraine – Compulsory for males aged over 25