on 19 June 2013
An extremely well researched book about a very controversial issue that very people....even those who consider themselves to be Great War enthusiasts...know too much about. The issue is examined from the perspective of the boys themselves, the officers who commanded them, the War Office, the small group of MPs who fought so hard to get these young boys "out of the firing line" and the parents of the boys. This is a very moving...and often heart rending...book and a fitting tribute to all the young boys who gave up everything they had (including for so many of them their lives) to serve their King & Country in that terrible conflict. This "must read" book would be a very worthy addition to anyone's personal library of books about the Great War.
This is a fascinating and well-researched account of the very large number of boy soldiers who fought and in many cases died during the First World War. It focuses on those who were boys by the military standards of the time, which said that no one under the age of 19 should be fighting overseas (in this context it is worth remembering that the age of majority at this time and for over fifty years afterwards was, of course, 21). During the early years of the war, the rule was routinely breached, as boys as young as 13 (in the extreme case of George Maher) enlisted, though the majority of underage boys enlisting were 16-17. They were motivated by a mixture of feelings: patriotism; peer pressure or guilt at not doing their bit; the bravado of extreme youth; the desire for adventure and excitement; or a simple escapism from humdrum everyday life - many recruits from poor backgrounds had a much better diet, exercise and a sense of purpose in the army. So how were they able to get away with enlisting so young, when it must have been obvious in many cases that they were not the age they claimed to be? A combination of reasons - simply lying so they could fulfill one or more of the motivations above, especially with boys who were strong or tall; manpower shortages in the pre-conscription phase meaning that anyone willing to fight and not obviously decrepit was not turned away; combined with the perverse incentive caused by the bonus that recruiting sergeants and doctors conducting medical examinations received for every recruit admitted.
Due to public and Parliamentary pressure (especially from the Liberal MP Sir Arthur Markham), the rules were gradually better enforced, so that those underage were not sent to fight, and those underage boys already out fighting were removed from the front line and kept in reserve in the rear until they were old enough; but these rules were still often flouted, partly because the flow of volunteers was erratic and would sometimes decline after news of appalling losses reached Britain (though it would rise again on occasions such as the sinking of the Lusitania or the execution of Edith Cavell. The introduction of conscription in January 1916 changed the situation, though even then many commanders on the spot preferred to keep an underage boy who had proved himself rather than take on a perhaps reluctant conscript. From mid 1917, very few underage boys enlisted as the rules were tightened and better enforced, though during the desperate German Spring offensive of 1918, boys of eighteen years and a few months old had to fight as part of the mighty effort to push the Germans back and ensure final victory.
Complete with photos of a number of the boys whose stories are movingly told threaded throughout the generally chronological narrative, this is an excellent book and surely the definitive modern guide to this aspect of the Great War.
on 24 November 2012
This was a very enjoyable read, well contextualized and able to hold my attention throughout. Sensitively written and containing a good balance of sources which were both informative and, in many cases, quite wonderfully evocative of the period. The book was much more than just an itemization or collection of personal stories. The social and political context within which these boys were deployed to the Western Front is examined thoughtfully. Their participation in Active Service Overseas is revealed in often harrowing detail. I think this book deserves a wide audience, not just because of the poignant nature of the subject but also because it would serve to inform many about an issue which has all too often been treated to a superficial and purely emotional response in the past. The problem of juveniles in the armed forces was, and remains to people with an interest in The Great War, a difficult and complex matter. Not only has the author treated us to many illuminating insights but has managed to do that in a clear and dispassionate way which never patronizes or demeans his subject. Lucid, informative and well written.
I remember years back going on a school trip to Flanders and visiting the WWI battlefields and cemeteries. At Essex Farm standing in front of the grave of a fourteen-year-old soldier, I remember not being able to grasp that this kid, who was my age at the time, had gone into battle, gone into that hell and gone over the top and been killed and at fourteen.
This book really just reinforces that whilst that soldier may have been particularly young, there were thousands and thousands of under-age soldiers in the First World War, kids who joined up and lied about their age. A lot were sixteen or seventeen, but some were fourteen and a few even younger. One was twelve. Twelve. It's just hard to grasp. By some estimates up to 10-15% of all 1914 enlistments were under-age.
This is a wonderful book, including a lot of testimony in their own words from surviving soldiers who had enlisted under-age. It really brings to light just how many of these boys there were, but it's all so tremendously sad. And it makes you look at kids today, at my own generation, and realise that we could never have done that. Sorts the men from the boys, indeed.
on 7 June 2014
I had no idea about the boy soldiers of the First World War. I had been at a local Art Exhibition, there was an exhibit showing the Statue that has been placed at the Memorial Gardens in Staffordshire, it showed a 16 year old blindfold by a rag, as he waited to be shot by men in his troop. All of them had been given 'strong drink' by the Captain and the Padre the evening before.
I wanted to find out more.... The book is comprehensive, with lots of stories about the boys and their families. Strangely, given the subject is not morbid. In parts it is distressing, bringing home the awfulness of War.
The military historian Richard van Emden, b. 1965, has written many books on the Great War; this one, originally published in 2005, was completely revised with an additional 10,000 words added and appeared in 2012.
In the Introduction van Emden suggests that some 250,000 underage boys served in the British Regular and Territorial Army during the Great War, out of a total of almost 2.5 million; he further estimates that over 100,000 were killed. The focus is limited to service on the Western Front, and the author uses personal memoirs to illuminate individual stories that are integrated into a series of chapters that address general issues – the kinds of underage boys who were joining up and their reasons, how these numbers fluctuated as the war progressed, their experiences, what was done to try to prevent underage boys volunteering [not a great deal] and how they dealt with their reintegration to peacetime activities.
Paradoxically, some of the most desperate entries were penned by boys who were turned down when they attempted to join up, although they generally went to another recruiting office and tried again. When they reached the front they faced the unimagined horrors of aerial attack, poisoned gas, flamethrowers, shelling, tanks and machine guns, and the death and injury of their closest friends and colleagues. Such youngsters had no understanding of the dangers of warfare, most never having been abroad, and demonstrated an attitude of immortality.
Time and time again one is struck by the honesty of these missives as well as being brought up short by occasional comments that demonstrate the youth of the writers. Van Emden includes information from more experienced/senior officers and the boys’ families and acquaintances to put their comments into context. The author also interviewed a number of surviving WWI combatants before the first edition and their first hand comments and experiences make especially emotional reading. The discussion includes underage boys joining the Australian, Canadian and South African armies, and each chapter is preceded by an epitaph from the grave of an underage combatant.
The immediate pre-WWI period was one where a combination of jingoism and Empire, and lack of employment opportunities created an environment driving boys, some just in their teens, to enlist after lying about their ages and names. The authorities saw this as a strong encouragement to older men, who were stronger physically and had relevant military and other skills and experience. Newspapers described the heroism of under-age combatants and this, together with the pressures exerted by local communities, ‘encouraged’ those ho were under-age to enlist. Once in the Army, often without their family’s knowledge, a bureaucratic process existed for parents to request the return of their sons but this required the latter’s cooperation and was only relevant to educated and middle-class families.
In 1918 when the Germans pushed back after initial defeats the Army amended regulations to enable them to send younger men to the Front [this led an observer of Britain’s new forces to comment ‘For two days, companies of infantry have been passing us on the roads - companies of children, English children: pink-faced, round-cheeked children’]. After much political discussion, conscription was also introduced.
Although the focus is on boys, the author briefly mentions underage girls who served, for example as nurses and medical auxiliaries. Whilst the stories are impressive and shocking in themselves, what makes this book such an unforgettable read are the selection of photographs that accompany the text which demonstrate the childish looks and physiques of some of the boys [as can be seen from the front cover].
The book takes a chronological course that enables the reader to get to know a number of the characters quite well; the shock comes when their deaths or disappearances, ‘assumed killed in action’, are then reported.
There is an occasional flash of humour, as when an amateur astronomer told his colleagues to ‘come and see Cassiopeia’, they then rushed out expecting to see a belle fille. The reader is filled with admiration for the stories told and shame for the system that allowed it. However, as the author points out, without the numbers of under-age troops to oppose the Germans the war would probably have been lost.
on 13 September 2014
A truely horrific account of patriotic young boys, who were inspired to "do their bit" by the news coming from the Front, but were systematically abused by Government and Army alike, into fighting and dying for their country, regardless of how old they were.
Many had been bullied and abused into joining up by some Recruiting Sergeants accosting them in the street, who were being rewarded for each recruit they made, so, this seemed to be a very lucrative business to those who appeared to disregard pleas of being under-age by these recruits, many as young as fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, but some as young as twelve, to apparently make money, regardless of Regulations that stated soldiers had to be at least nineteen before being allowed to fight abroad.
These were despite pleas from some parents, many of whom had no idea that their sons had joined up, and had also showed proof of their under-age sons, but many were ignored, either by elements of Government with platitudes, or, Army hieracy, who either ignored the pleas, or took their time in withdrawing those under-age, to extent that some of them had been killed before they could be removed from "harms way", and brought home.
The excuse was that these boys had joined up giving fraudulent information, had been trained and kitted out at great expense to the Country, so it was their fault of being where they were...!!
There appeared to be little "Common Sense" by many in a desperation to get as many recruits as possible, to fill the places of those who had been killed or maimed for life.
on 30 December 2012
In depth study of a subject often passed over when reading about the first world war. Good views taken from the soldiers, both young and old, the parents and the governments view in parliament at the time. excellent read, highly recommended to anyone studying the history of the great war, and anyone looking for a good read.
on 13 June 2015
I knew of the boy soldiers and had read many years ago the recollections of George Coppard, a relative of the writer of the same surname. Until I read this I did not realize how much more there was to the subject. The book is well written, opinions are substantiated and well argued. It is an essential read for anyone interested in WW1. As another reviewer remarked, it is sad to see the graves of boy soldiers. Some were even NCO's before they were 18 years old. Some enlisted more than once and the lax registration of births and the 'blind eyes' of recruiting sergeants allowed many to bypass the rules. Even if the birth was registered many did not have copies of their certificates due to cost, thereby creating a massive loophole, and obviously doctors did not regard vetting the age of recruits as part of their duty at the medicals.
It might have been interesting to know at the other end how many older men lied about their ages to enlist. I read something recently that the oldest serving soldier being nearly 70.
This is a sad subject. I recall a visit to German cemetery of WW2 and being struck how at the end of that war in desperation young lives were thrown into the conflict. It is an extremely well researched book and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
on 13 January 2014
Richard van Emden has clearly researched this touching and revealing subject very well and produces a fascinating picture of the stark reality which a country faced when attempting to restore freedom and save Europe from the scourge of the Huns. We all have an inkling about boys fraudulently enlisting but this author reveals the big picture of a monumental cover up and denial of the truth, from the recruiting Sergeant and medical officer through the army rank structure and all the way to government. The struggle which rumbled on throughout the war is revealingly described and explains the situation so very well. The scandal is revealed as, well as the heart wrenching stories of some of the many thousands of somewhat misinformed boys who volunteered to fight. They were all heroes and should never be forgotten, in fact a specific curriculum should be devised to teach present day children about their forebears. These boy soldiers contributed so much to the eventual victory and I salute them all. Well done Richard van Emden.