BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
BOY SOLDIERS OF THE GREAT WAR: Their own stories for the first time, by Richard van Emden
, July 30, 2005
Youths to the slaughterBOY SOLDIERS OF THE GREAT WAR: Their own stories for the first time
by Richard van Emden
Hardcover RRP: $59.95Attend any veterans' gathering and read and listen to war stories and it will not take long before you hear of someone who lied about his age to enlist.
First World War accounts, in particular, are replete with stories of those who fought well below the minimum age, in some instances as young as 14 or 15.
While individual accounts of such soldiers have appeared in print from time to time, Richard van Emden's Boy Soldiers of the Great War
appears to be the first comprehensive study of this phenomenon.
Although the focus of this study is on the British Army, van Emden makes passing reference to under-age enlistments in the Dominion forces, for example, the Australian, Canadian and South African armies.
Despite the fact that the minimum age for front line service was 19, a large number of boys were able to enlist successfully in the British Army during the Great War, particularly in the period before the introduction of conscription in 1916.Patriotic fervour
Given the horrors of trench warfare and high casualties, how was this possible? Caught up in a patriotic fervour at the outbreak and in the early stages of the war, many boys - like their older counterparts - rushed to enlist.
As presentation of a birth certificate was not required, many youths lied about their age, in some cases with the connivance of recruiting sergeants who were paid a bounty per recruit.
For example, if a doctor was uncertain about their age, a sergeant would tell the boys to return after taking a walk around the block, by which time they would have grown up by a couple of years.
Encouragement also came in the form of newspaper clippings extolling the heroic actions of under-age soldiers, and also from members of local communities who actively encouraged and/or pressured those under-age to enlist.
In some cases, boys enlisted with parental support; in others, they gave false names.
This practice persisted despite mounting pressure to prevent it.
Although awkward and direct questions were asked in parliament, the then most practicable solution - namely, the compulsory presentation of a birth certificate upon enlistment - was never adopted.
Parents could request their sons be withdrawn from the front, but this solution was often only possible with the co-operation of their sons, and only after encountering extensive red tape.
Wholesale under-age enlistment largely disappeared with the introduction of conscription; and a policy was adopted whereby those already in the army who were under-age were withdrawn from front-line service and sent to French military bases, such as Etaples, where they undertook further training or other duties until they reached 19.
However, given the desperate need of troops in the wake of the March 1918 German offensive, those aged 18 were included in drafts to the front.
Boy soldiers suffered fates similar to their older companions in the front-line. Some, unable to cope with the stresses of battle, were successful in getting themselves discharged or removed from the front, by declaring their real age.
Many were killed in action or died of wounds, often under aliases, so that their families never discovered their fate, while others were promoted or commissioned and/or won medals for bravery.Boy Soldiers of the Great War
is an interesting account, based in part upon the oral histories of boy-soldiers themselves and collected by the author in recent years.
Richard van Emden's study brings to light one of the more disturbing aspects of the Great War.Numbers and percentages
Dealing with the material chronologically, van Emden concludes by trying to determine numbers and percentages.
While it is difficult to arrive at an exact figure, given the deliberate falsification of ages - and, in some cases, names - upon enlistment, extensive studies suggest that in certain units, as many as 12 per cent of soldiers were under-age.