Authors: Richard van Emden
This book is dedicated to the memory of my father,
Wolfgang van Emden, 1931–2002
In August 1914 a young private named John Parr was shot and killed near the Belgian town of
Officially recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as aged twenty, he had in fact just celebrated his seventeenth birthday when he died. That he lied about his age on enlistment and had fallen in the service of his country was hardly a revelation. It was who he was that was so significant. This former golf caddie from London was the very first of three-quarters of a million British servicemen to die in the Great War and the truth about his real age came as a shock. I had never investigated the British Army’s first casualty because I thought I knew his age.
It is seven years since
Boy Soldiers of the Great War
was first published, time enough to collect much additional material for a revision. All authors know to their irritation that a book is never truly finished, no story fully told: it is always a work in progress. The story of how Britain passed a generation of young boys as fit to fight on the Western Front is one that continues to grip my imagination, and since 2005 I have kept a keen look out for new facts and details.
There are many new and poignant stories. There is the thirteen-year-old boy who impersonates his elder brother and reaches the Western Front with no knowledge of even how to hold a gun; there is the sad case of an apparently healthy sixteen-year-old who, after serving for months on the Western Front, dies within hours of finally gaining his release from the army, and there is the boy who deserts after breaking down under fire. Such additional
stories have helped to broaden the scope of the book, adding new original source material to what was already published.
It is not just the stories of boys’ own experience that have been developed but also those of families at home, the nervous, sometimes panic-stricken, parents who fought to get sons released from the forces. Their correspondence with the military authorities is analysed in greater detail, throwing new light on the official attitude to underage soldiering, as well as the plight of parents, many of whom had already lost one or more sons in the war. In particular, as voluntary recruitment slumped in the summer of 1915, the degree to which recruitment sergeants harried and chased boys into the forces has been further explored, with remarkable hitherto unpublished stories.
During the course of my research, I studied in depth the service records held at the National Archives, in particular the pension records (WO364), from which I extracted the histories of 2,046 lads discharged as having made a ‘mis-statement’ about their age. Within this number, I also identified details of 251 boys who served in a theatre of war while under age. From the size of the sample and from the wealth of information collected, it has been possible to make the first-ever assessment of their service as a group or class, not just as individuals. Fascinating patterns emerge. What was the difference between stated and true age? What proportion of all underage soldiers was discharged quickly or managed to serve overseas? When did they enlist and did the numbers ebb and flow depending on external factors, such as news of enemy atrocities? What was their average height and weight, where did they come from, and what were their jobs? How long did they serve overseas and does the evidence point to boys who were unable to cope? These and many other questions will be examined for the first time.
In the original book, I suggested that around 250,000 underage boys served in the forces during the Great War and I based this on good but also circumstantial evidence described in detail
in the book’s final chapter. This evidence has been revisited and a more mathematical approach taken. The new evidence supports my original core assertion but has also provided some important and interesting qualifications.
In all, I have added approximately 10,000 words to the original text. The result is a more rounded picture of this enthralling story of how underage boys, some as young as thirteen, served the British Army and the nation during the Great War.
Richard van Emden
In May 2004, I visited Cecil Withers, then nearly 106 years old and one of the very last veterans of the Great War. It was my third visit to his home on the outskirts of London, where he lived with his eighty-one-year-old son Raymond, and he welcomed me warmly. We talked for a while, and then at an appropriate moment I reached for a cardboard tube, unrolling and handing to Cecil an original copy of
newspaper, dated Friday, 10 March 1916. I asked him to read an advertisement in the personal column on the front page. Slipping on a pair of black-rimmed spectacles and using a magnifying glass, he slowly began to read the following:
Cecil C. W. – All’s well, will not apply for discharge if you send full address; past forgiven – Father.
Cecil Clarence Withers was reading about himself, eighty-eight years after his father had paid five shillings to place the advertisement in the national newspaper. Cecil, born in June 1898, had enlisted under age in the British Army in 1915, and his father was forgiving his son’s action and indeed accepting it, by guaranteeing not to ask for a discharge. Cecil then gave his true identity to the military authorities and sent his whereabouts to his worried family. He was by that time anxious to own up. He had not only enlisted under age but had given false details on the attestation form, changing both his name and address. Now that he was due to go overseas, it had dawned on him that, in the event of his
death, no one would ever know who he was or where he had come from.
At seventeen, Cecil had done nothing that thousands of other boys had not already done, by enlisting under age in order to serve their country, but he is almost the last who is able to tell the story. When I spoke to him in January 2005, he was one of only sixteen known veterans of the First World War alive in the United Kingdom: six served in the infantry, one in the Army Service Corps, two in the artillery, one in the cavalry, two in the air services and four in the Navy; a further two British veterans lived in Australia. No doubt there were a few elsewhere but, in all, the number of those who could bear witness to the war was surely fewer than twenty-five: twenty-five out of six million servicemen.
In 2004, the year before I spoke to Cecil, ten British veterans died, including the last man who saw action in the naval engagement at Jutland, and the last man who won a decoration for bravery. The former, Henry St John Fancourt, enlisted as a twelve-year-old and fought at Jutland at sixteen; the latter, James Lovell, enlisted at sixteen and went abroad at nineteen, the age at which he won the Military Medal.
Britain has a long tradition of taking young soldiers overseas; what was different in the First World War was their sheer number. Among all those serving in France by the end of 1915 were more underage soldiers than the entire force that Wellington took to Waterloo exactly one hundred years earlier.
The connection to that event is stronger than one might imagine. A veteran who died at the end of 2002 remembered that in 1905 he had met a former boy soldier who had served at Waterloo. His mother had impressed on him how remarkable the meeting was, and the memory had stayed with him all his life – a twenty-first-century link to the great battle of 1815.
My own interest in the First World War began while I was still at school, and on my first visit to the battlefields I was the same age
as many of the young soldiers whose graves I saw. On my second, to the Somme in late June 1986, I met my first veteran. He was Norman Skelton, then eighty-seven years old. He had enlisted at sixteen and had been sent abroad a year later. He told me that as a seventeen-year-old wireless operator on the Somme, he had had his eardrums burst by a shell explosion, steel fragments of which had killed several of his mates. At the time, I saw no great significance in Norman’s age; he made no issue of it himself. He was one of a group of veterans making a trip to France, and over the next two days I met a further twenty old soldiers, a third of whom, I discovered, had enlisted under age. They included Donald Price, aged eighty-eight, formerly of the Royal Fusiliers, who had joined up in December 1914 aged sixteen, and Frank Lindley, aged eighty-six, who had enlisted in 1914 and gone over the top on 1 July 1916, when he was sixteen. There were Alec Stringer and Harry Goodby, aged eighty-eight and eighty-seven respectively, both of the London Scottish, who had enlisted, independently of each other, when they were both also sixteen. There was Horace Calvert, then eighty-six, formerly of the 4th Grenadier Guards, who had been recruited shortly after his fifteenth birthday and had served in France from March 1916.
Meeting them and seeing so many graves of underage soldiers strengthened my interest in the whole subject, and the question of how many such young men there had been. Amazingly, this had never been researched. These lads had undergone some of the fiercest and most costly fighting in the history of the British Army. Why had they, and other youngsters, joined up?
There were many reasons for enlisting in the army in 1914 and 1915: boredom with work, a longing for adventure, a desire to escape family pressures or responsibilities, as well as a belief in King and Country. Most Britons still believed in the innate superiority and righteousness of their country, and had little interest in, let alone knowledge of, other cultures. Within society, there was a broad acceptance that the rich man had a God-given right
to his castle while the poor man stood eternally by his gate. These are, of course, oversimplifications, but few would have questioned a man’s abiding duty to his country.
Whatever the motive, one characteristic was particularly pronounced among boys aged eighteen or less – described most clearly to me by a South African telephone engineer working at my house. He had been called up at eighteen for a period of compulsory military service under the old apartheid regime. During training, he had asked his sergeant why boys were called up at eighteen when they would have been fitter, stronger and generally more competent at twenty or twenty-one. The answer was simple: not only were eighteen-year-olds very susceptible to propaganda and more willing than older men to accept orders, but they were also great believers in their own indestructibility, with a general incomprehension of risk or danger. Today, we can see this on every ski slope or skateboard park. In 1914, boys climbed high trees or ice-skated on frozen lakes. They had also survived childhood illnesses that frequently took siblings or friends, and seen men injured at work. They were aware of death and injury but inured to their ramifications. If they had thought for one moment that they might actually die in France, I wonder if as many would have enlisted so willingly.
Anecdotes about boys enlisting under age are commonplace. In researching this book, I had only to bring the subject up in conversation and there would be recollections, if sometimes vague, that someone, perhaps a great-uncle, had been sixteen on the Somme. Inevitably, there would be some incidence of false memory: it is easy to see how a lad of nineteen who served on the Somme in 1916 becomes a lad of sixteen who served on the Somme. But, mistakes apart, there is no doubt that, when the ‘myths’ about the First World War have been unpicked, the belief that thousands of boys as young as fourteen and fifteen served at the front has never been challenged. What has perhaps not been previously considered is the
number of lads who
enlisted under age and fought and in many cases died for their country. Given the enormous volume of literature on the Great War, it is surprising that the story of the underage soldier has not been researched. Campaigns are studied in depth and the life of the individual soldier explored, and in many of the books and articles a comment has been made about a lad of fifteen killed in action or about the grave of a sixteen-year-old, but nothing has brought all these stories together.
On the Western Front, the younger the boy soldier was at the time of his death, the more ‘popular’ his grave has become, often with several poppy crosses in front of the headstone. The graves of the very youngest victims are well known. Two of the most visited are those of Private 6322 John Condon, 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, who was killed in May 1915; and Private 5750 Valentine Strudwick of the 8th Rifle Brigade, killed in January 1916. Condon was reputedly fourteen years old (although there is currently some dispute about this) and, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), the ‘youngest known battle casualty of the war’. The CWGC notes that Private Strudwick was ‘one of the youngest battle casualties of the war’ when he was killed at fifteen. Strudwick’s grave is famous, in large part, because of the cemetery he lies in. Known as Essex Farm, it was where Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.