This photograph shows George Orwell with his fellow volunteers from the St John’s Wood Company of the Home Guard. Orwell had intended to join the regular army when Britain entered the Second World War, but he had been rejected due to his poor health. He subsequently served as a sergeant for three years with the Home Guard, a part-time army of volunteers who guarded coastal areas and other strategic locations.
Orwell was convinced that the existence of the Home Guard had contributed to Germany’s failure to invade Britain. In an article he published in The Observer in 1943, he praised the volunteer army and argued that only a non-authoritarian state such as Britain would have freely distributed arms to volunteer troops:
Its mere existence – the fact that in the moment of crisis it could be called into being by a few words over the air, the fact that somewhere near two million men have rifles in their bedrooms and the authorities contemplate this without dismay – is the sign of a stability unequalled in any other country of the world. (‘Three Years of Home Guard’, The Observer, 9 May 1943)