Tuesday, 7 May 2013

At Last: Bevin Boys have Memorial

Today at the National Memorial Arboretum a group of what must be one of the most misunderstood and least honoured heroes our nation has ever produced were remembered. These were the men who were sent down mines to work and produce the coal that fuelled the furnaces of British Industry to maintain the 'war effort' as, in 1943, the nation's coal supplies dwindled to around three week's worth of the stuff.

In response to this Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour and National Service, took 10 percent of those called up for military service (18 to 24 year olds) and sent them to work in the mines (regardless of what they'd done in civvy street!). The way they were selected was for someone to pull out a number from 0 to 9 and whichever number was pulled, those whose conscript numbers ended in it were sent down the mines - desperate measures for desperate times indeed!

The sadness was that those who went down the pits were often abused because they 'stayed at home' whilst others went to war. The reality was that whilst war has its moments of danger and times of peril, going down the pit was to enter into a dangerous environment every day regardless. Some of those I have spoken to over the years tell of how some of those who had UK posting, but were in uniform, engaged in fights and claimed that those working in the pits were 'conscientious objectors' or had opted for a cushy life with all the women and civvy life - nothing could be further from the truth.

Others who had seen their sons taken from the mines and sent to war were resentful that 'foreigners' were drafted in when their own could have merely stayed and continued in the bosom of their family and in an industry they knew rather than leave to potentially die on foreign soil.

I met a man who had managed to escape the mines and get himself enlisted into the army where he served with some distinction. Having been awarded a medal for gallantry he found himself brought home to receive medical treatment and then, immediately after his medal ceremony, was arrested and taken back to the mine in handcuffs - where he stayed until the war ended. But it didn't end, for there were no medals for the Bevin Boys and because they hadn't been conscripted into the forces there were no jobs either and some, like the man I met, stayed on in the only job now open to him. That said, apparently the majority legged it as fast as they could once war was ended!

The fact is that there were some 48,000 young men who to the pits and of these the number who died is unknown because there are no records. They were recognised by the nation in 2008 when a commemorative badge was produced by the government and today, we have gone a step further recognising their service to, and for,  our nation.

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