Services Editions – Books for the British Armed Forces during World War II

Our latest donation to the collection is a small number of Services Editions. For those of you who haven’t seen them before (and that included me) these are special editions of novels that were printed in vast numbers for distribution to the British Armed Forces during World War II. They are rarely seen now, despite print runs of 50,000 for the first 70 editions produced, so we are very grateful to Margaret Crompton for donating these books of her father’s to us. Perhaps Margaret’s father, who was an officer in the Indian Army, was unusual in taking some of these novels home and then keeping them? They are certainly not built to last, being printed according to ‘war economy standards’: this means thin, cheap paper, and a very thin paper cover.

These services editions were produced by several different publishers. Margaret’s donation includes novels published by Chatto & Windus, Cassell and Co. and Peter Davies, all published under ‘The British Publishers Guild’:

In Hazard by Richard Hughes (Chatto & Windus. First pub. 1938, this edition 1941) Guild Books No S75

The Wisdom of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton (Cassell and Co. Ltd. First pub. 1914, this edition 1945) Guild Books no S190

Rungli-Rungliot (Thus far and no further) by Rumer Godden (Peter Davies. First pub. 1944, this edition 1946). Guild Books No S209 (stamped ‘Control Commission for Germany (BF)Kreis Group Headquarters’, & was a library copy; Margaret’s father was in the German Control Commission & presumably liberated this copy- the stamp is overstamped ‘cancelled’).

The Barber’s Trade Union by Mulk Raj Anand (Jonathan Cape first pub 1944, this edition 1946) Guild Books No. S193

The fourth books is different.

The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake is ‘Printed Specially for the Army and Royal Air Force in India and SEAC’, and is a Collins White Circle Pocket Novel printed in India ‘on behalf of the Welfare General of India’. On the back cover: ‘treat this book with care and give it a chance to entertain others’.

There’s a good blog about Services Editions with lots of images:, but apart from this, I’ve found very little information about these editions. Who chose which books would be reissued in this way? This selection alone seems very eclectic! The Anand book, in particular, is an interesting choice for British troops as Anand was an Indian writer critical of British rule in India. Do any of you know more about these editions? Has any academic research been done? I have found several articles about the American Armed Services Editions, but nothing on the British.

One of the articles looking the American Armed Services Edition is fascinating: ‘Reading: Our Wartime Discovery’, The English Journal, vol 34, no 6 (June 1945), pp. 295-303, by Jean Hatfield Barclay.

There has been, Barclay writes, a ‘boom’ in reading across the American population:

More Americans are reading now than ever before. There is an unprecedented book-buying boom; book-club memberships have reached a peak; rentals are up; and library circulation is beginning to rise. (p. 295)

Lots of detail is given, with lists of titles and authors in demand, and borrowing and sales statistics. it’s clear from this article who was making the decisions about Services Editions in America – the Council on Books in Wartime. They also issued directives for civilians, of ‘recommended’ and ‘imperative’ reading.  Apparently sales of One World, U.S. Foreign Policy and A Bell for Adano doubled when they were named ‘imperatives’.

The Services Editions were issued as follows:

Each of the monthly Armed Services sets consists of thirty-two books, distributed at the rate of a set for one hundred fifty men or for fifty hospital beds. Emphasis is on use of the books; they are, by definition, expendable. […] each covers a wide range of reading interests, including best-seller novels, popular classics, serious fiction, humor, westerns, poetry, history, and politics, the war, inspirational books, biography, and miscellaneous nonfiction.

On the whole, it seems that they have been well received, although they are sometimes called highbrow and are probably above the average soldier’s pre-war literary taste. One man said there were few of them he would have chosen as a civilian, but some were the best stories he had ever read. (p. 302)

It would be intriguing to know if these men’s reading tastes were permanently changed by the war, or whether the return to peacetime conditions, without pre-selected books, and with less time to read, meant the old tastes returned?

4 thoughts on “Services Editions – Books for the British Armed Forces during World War II

  1. There was also an appeal for people to donate used books to the troops. I have a 1941 yellow Penguin (Beyond the Headlines, by Timothy Shy) in which the following plea is printed: “When you have read this book, please leave it at your nearest Post Office, so that the men and women in the Services may enjoy it too.” I believe the scheme, which included a variety of books, not only novels, ran in conjunction with the volumes printed for the services, but I’m trying to find out how long it lasted, and whether it applied to all books, or certain editions.

  2. When people speak of Total War or the Home Front, it’s easy to forget that libraries too played their part. A huge effort was made by the country library system to get books, new and old, to service men and women. These things only happen if people believe it is important and worth the effort.

  3. And look at Angela Thirkell’s reitaeration of the Red Cross’s book-collecting activities for the armed services in WW2, in (I think) Marling Hall and Private Enterprise..

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