At the outbreak of war in 1914, the British Army had 700,000 available men. Germany’s wartime army was over 3.7 million. When a campaign for volunteers was launched, thousands answered the call to fight. Among them were 250,000 boys and young men under the age of 19, the legal limit for armed service overseas.
For many, their experience of the war was no different to that of the adults they served alongside. It’s estimated that around half of those who fought on the front line were wounded, died or taken prisoner. Why did so many boys lie about their age, or give false names so they could leave home and fight in a catastrophic war? And why did the authorities recruiting suitable candidates to serve King and country allow them?
250,000 underage soldiers joined up, but many thousands more tried their luck and were turned away. Why were they so keen? Was it a tide of patriotism, or an escape from hard or dreary lives?
Official government policy was that you had to be 18 to sign up and 19 to fight overseas. In the early twentieth century most people didn’t have birth certificates, so it was easy to lie about your age.
It didn’t help that recruitment officers were paid two shillings and sixpence (about £6 in today’s money) for each new recruit, and would often turn a blind eye to any concern they had about age. At the same time, though, some officers thought the fresh air and good food of the army would do some of the more under-nourished boys a bit of good.
The recruitment process included medical checks, to make sure a potential recruit was fit enough to fight rather than if he was old enough. The minimum height requirement was five feet, three inches, with a minimum chest size of 34 inches, so a strapping 16 year-old was very likely to be let through.
The rule of thumb seemed to be if the volunteer wanted to fight for his country and was physically fit enough to do so, why stop him?
Teachers, parents and more
But it wasn’t just in recruitment offices. The whole of society seemed to be complicit in sending these boys abroad to fight. Parents, headmasters, even MPs helped get underage lads into the army.
There was collusion on all sides to get these boys and young men into the armed forces. Yet most people (including recruitment staff and parents) would have assumed the war would be over before any of them were ready to go overseas.
Britain’s underage soldiers in WW1
The levels of the underage recruits in the graphic above are proportional to the estimated number of recruits for that year, based on a sample of 1,000 underage soldiers. Source: Boy Soldiers of The Great War, Richard van Emden.
Sidney Lewis has been declared the youngest authenticated combatant of World War One. He enlisted in August 1915 at the age of 12 and ended up fighting at the Somme. He survived the war.
Bring the boys home
In 1916, the War Office agreed that if parents could prove their sons were underage, they could ask for them back