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Britain`s Boy Soldiers


PhilB
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Teapots,

Did you find out how long ago the interviews with the veterans were recorded?

I got the impression that it was some time ago which suggests that this programme was a long time in the making.

It makes me wonder why it took so long or, if it didn't take so long, has the programme been aired now for some particular reason?

Just curious ;)

Ken

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In trying to work out the number of under-age soldiers sent to the front, don't be too preoccupied with the quantitative (statistics to you and me) data. Much of it is not reliable (measured in different ways it will produce different figures) and much of it is invalid (people lied about the age of under-age soldiers - and not just the youngsters concerned).

Rather, look to the qualitative evidence - the stories, the reports, the eye-witness accounts of what was going on on the ground. These include the testimonies of the young solders themselves about their enlistment; the pressure that was placed upon them to enlist (for me the reports of harassment and verbal abuse from RSMs reported in last night's programme was both new and eye-opening) and the failure of attempts to get the youngsters out of the line.

In this context, small-scale studies of what was happening in particular locales, such as Andrew Thornton's reported above are worth tons of conjecture about the many meanings that can be read into the CWGC data-base. Repeat the picture painted by Andrew many thousands of times across the UK, then a picture of officially sponsored massive evasion of the age limits emerges.

Now whether that means that there were 3500 under-age youngsters killed at Loos (or anywhere else) or 'only' 2500; or whether there are 1500 or 1700 similalry placed youngsters on the Menin Gate, really does not really matter. It is not an exercise in bookkeeping. The point is made: recruitment of under-age youngsters; sending them to the front and then refusing to release them was wholesale, massive and widespread. That's the point.

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Guest Pete Wood

It's a very good point, too, Hedley.

But would the battle of the Somme, and all its tales of sadness, heroism, and/or waste, be complete without knowing that there were 60,000 casualties on the 1st July 1916....??

I admit that until van Emden's prgramme was aired, I had no idea that such large numbers of boys were in the trenches. I was a boy soldier myself - I signed the dotted line while I was still 15 - which is why I am keen to understand the true story; sensationalism, if the figures have been inflated, is not required.

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Having watched the programme tonight (courtesy of a friend who videoed it), I must say I found it very interesting. Putting aside the debate on the figures provided & the statistical analysis Pals here have undertaken (as mentioned before hopefully how these figures were assembled will become clearer when Richard van Emden's book is published) I noticed a couple of interesting & subtle ways the programme tried to influence the viewer (these are merely observations & not criticisms).

Firstly in real terms it was talking about a demographic of males which fell between the ages of 14/15 through to 18 (19 being officially the youngest a soldier could be to participate in active service). However in the modern mindset there is a fairly large gulf between a 14 year old - who we see today as a schoolboy/child & an 18 year old - who we see as an adult. However by continually referring to these soldiers as boys, we naturally levitate to the 14 year old end of the scale when thinking about them.

Secondly, the use of very young looking fresh faced actors to play these underage age soldiers reinforced this levitation towards the younger end of the scale. This I thought was quite a clever piece of viewer 'manipulation'. (I speak as someone who never looked that young even at 14 & was often mistaken for being 18+ at that age............in fact I've had that weary 30 something look since my late teens).

Irrespective on whether you feel the programme was accurate, misleading or whatever you can't get away from the fact that young men (boys) did go and fight in the Great War & that sadly some of them didn't come home.

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I Joined the Army in 1961. I was 15years and 9 months old . We were issued with ww1 uniforms which we wore daily. We were paid 10 shillings a week, until we achieved the age of 17 and a half. At that age we went onto "mans pay", which was 7 guineas a week . A veritable fortune compared to what you had been paid the previous week and it happened automatically without the aid of computers'. When you are that age and you have been traineed in "Musketry"and fieldcraft,Firstaid and other military skills, you are immortal. Your comrades are your family. Your unit is your Mother and Father. The discipline and order was paternalistic but strict, the demands on us were many but achievable, to go the last mile , togetherall of us with loyalty to each other and our unit. I suppose thats how those lads of 14-18 felt. I would have bitterly resented my parents intefering . I know times have changed , and I'm not the best judge, because times have changed so much, beyond all recognition. All that I can say is that 43 years on , I'm glad I did it. It made a man of me and many others like me . I was proud to serve my country as those lads were then. History is a cheap judge in hindsight and we are all wise men in hindsight. In this PC age we we understand materiel, ambition, qualifications and wealth, but know very little of economy,worth ,self respect and responsibilty. Having said that I read and saw on the National anews a Regiment who did a bayonet charge in Iraque. That takes "Guts", and these kids did it, and Fought Hand to hand. Most of them are only 18-20 years old.

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The point is made: recruitment of under-age youngsters; sending them to the front and then refusing to release them was wholesale, massive and widespread. That's the point.

This thread has been gnawing away at me. One of the reasons that I haven't written anything up to now is that I'm a bit uncomfortable with my own feelings as they aren't as humanitarian as for instance, Hedley's quote above.

The programme seemed to pinpoint three main areas of villainy. The worst of these to me, is something I too had not heard of before, the press gangs of CSMs challenging underage boys to join up when they appeared suitable candidates for the army.

Then there are the recruiting officers. None of them should have accepted anyone underage.

The other notable villain was the man from the War Office who refused to admit to there being any underage boys in the army at all, and then only after a vast amount of cajoling, advertised writing to the CO at the front as the only way to realistically get any boy withdrawn from the front line.

Of the above three points, the only one that I am totally disgusted with is the press-ganging; I wouldn't be terribly impressed with it if they were dealing with legally aged men, but underage, that's just not on. This is not to say that I am happy with the other two points, it's just that I can find the merest extenuating circumstance in each case.

Regarding the recruiting officers. Apart from the press-ganging, the extent of which I am guessing might not have been that big or successful, the flood of underage recruitments would have been in the fevered days of 1914, when the war was new and exciting. For the thousands of boys trying to join up, they were all volunteers, no-one was forcing them to do it. Of course, neither they, or the recruiting officers had any idea of the nature of the hell that was awaiting recruits.

As for the War Office saying that all recruits had declared to a legal age, they were correct. When you consider the lengths that some boys went to in order to join up, how could they then expect to be treated differently when they realised what they were in for? Somewhere along the line everyone has to be accountable for their actions, don't they? And apart from the executed A.Harris, who of these boys gave evidence of wanting to get out of the front? Surely if the programme could have found more evidence, they would have produced it.

If questioned about the death penalty, my reply would always have been that I was against it, for the selfish reason that if I was ever wrongly convicted of murder, then at least I knew I couldn't be executed for it, and maybe I could attain justice at a later date. To me, that is humanitarian, and because I can't go along with what I perceive to be the public's humanitarian views about boy soldiers, I feel I will be out on a limb, possibly castigated, and therefore distinctly uncomfortable.

But here are more of my thoughts. First of all, the idea of this being a huge tragedy, infers that the boys were all innocents. But I can't get round the fact that virtually all of them were willing conspiritors in being recruited. If they hadn't tried to do something they shouldn't have, there would be no issue to address, and as stated above, the vets in the programme showed no regret over their actions, and didn't seem to want to leave their comrades when given the chance.

What is the difference between the tears of a mother of a 16/17 year old, and a mother of an 18 year old? A 17 year old could have decided to try and join, and encouraged his older, but more easily-led friend to do the same. When the mothers find out, who is left without hope? The mother of the boy, whose son has committed fraud, at least holds the tiny chance of getting him out of the army if his age is exposed. The young man is lost to his mother unless he survives. And what really gets my goat is that (like the SAD, and other soldiers buried with them) who is going to be especially remembered? The boy of course, because he fits in with someone's campaign to highlight his agegroup. At a year older, his friend is just the smallest of statistics. The experience of the boy (as was done in the programme with Horace Iles) will count as being innumerably times worse than his friend of a legal age. Is it just not possible that impressionable or streetwise men maybe even ten years older could have suffered as much? Why was Pte Iles supposed to have suffered so much more mentally because he died at 16? Yet, there was a couple of mins devoted to the sights and sounds Pte Iles would have been aware of having gone over the top. Dick Trafford must have seen conditions at least as bad, for longer, and at a younger age when at Loos. Yet while Dick recounted the horror that he saw, he still didn't say that he regretted his having joined up early. What does leave a chill on the heart is wondering if Pte Iles was one of the soldiers who were wounded, but were unable to crawl back out of No Man's Land towards his own line. But again, that would be true of any specific soldier you knew that had been killed on that day, or on any other attack.

If all the recuiting officers are considered culpable, what about all the boys' comrades-in=arms? Surely they must have known who was underage and who wasn't? Wouldn't they have had a duty to report them? It is fairly easy to imagine that the boys' military lives, although hard, were enjoyable. These youngsters would have, to some extent, been looked out for by comrade 'uncles' during training, etc; they wouldn't have been completely neglected and isolated. Maybe at times, been made a fuss of. These relationships would have been intact up until the time of the battalion reaching the front line. Many a soldier of tender, but legal age, would not have had such fatherly support. Good comradeship could well be a strong reason for boys not wanting to return home, even when their parents have found out where they were and had written to their CO.

The truth is, the whole Great War experience was a ghastly nightmare for pretty well everyone. Of course I, and everyone else, am glad we didn't have to go through it, and would, if it were possible, have made sure as few as necessary actually did. I just don't feel that so much emphasis should be placed on one particular group of people, especially as they were all keen to do whatever was necessary to join up illegally. Consequently, I don't think it right that all the blame is left at the feet of the establishment though matters should have been dealt with in a far better fashion.

Perhaps I should start a campaign for the rememberance of the 18 year olds called up during the last couple of years of the war, when no choice was given to them, and when they would have been much more aware of the horrors facing them. There is often the extra pathos of how a lot of them nearly, but not quite managed to survive the war.

These are emotions that stirred within me by watching the programme. They are nothing if not honest, and certainly not written to offend however misguided a reader may feel them to be. And it has taken me hours and hours to write them down.

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Two quick points:

Denbee's point that the Army's régime in the 1960's was beneficial to the youngsters concerned was true for many concerned. But the big difference is that what happened to Denbee happened within the rules. That was not the case for the youngsters discussed in the TV programme.

I wouldn't villify the soldiers and doctors who knew what was going on and turned a blind eye, or in some cases, cooperated more fully by harassing the kids concerned. The people who did the recruiting were towards the end of a very long feeding chain which started in Whitehall. It's the Army and the Government who must shoulder the blame, not any particular individual.

I agree that age limits are very arbitary; some people mature faster than others and, as we all know, some people never grow up at all.

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Repeating myself: I haven't seen the program yet.

However out of the comments on the Forum I am under the impression that, in my view, an important aspect of recruiting 'boy soldiers', as well as all other volunteers, hasn't been touched namely: the financial part. I can imagine given the economical and social situation that also parents of young people didn't exactly try to persuade their youngsters not to join. Am I wrong in supposing that the program didn't deal with this aspect ?.

Anyway I am looking forward to see it. The comments on this DF makes me very curious because with all the different angles of view already developed I am sure I will have to look at it at least 5 times.

Jacky

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I am under the impression that, in my view, an important aspect of recruiting 'boy soldiers', as well as all other volunteers, hasn't been touched namely: the financial part. I can imagine given the economical and social situation that also parents of young people didn't exactly try to persuade their youngsters not to join. Am I wrong in supposing that the program didn't deal with this aspect ?.

Jacky............You are correct that the programme did not make any mention of this

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Equons/Jim? Don't worry it'll be bought up by UK History or something similar. Keep an eye on Sky's News and Documentaries. Any other reason for having a TV now?

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I have read that the German Army also had its' fair share of "Boy Soldiers",whether it was on the scale or practice as seemed to be the case within the British Army I cannot say. I think though at that time, It might not have seemed so out of place as it does today. A great deal more was expected of a boy by society in general. Think of those aspects of life which would make us shudder today , which were accepted as the "norm" by people in 1914. Hanging,corporal punishment, the absense of an NHS, working conditions, poverty,etc. I'm trying to contextualise social perceptions then with those of today, [and I'm making a right pigs ear of it]. It would be interesting to know if practice like this took place in the 2nd World War. WW1 was so uniquely horrible, that I can imagine anything could have been probable , and that from our evolved position in time we cant make an objective comment. The whole 14-18 war must have seemed horribly surreal . Sorry for rambling on folks.

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Denbee - there's the rub. People are looking at this from a 21st century perspective. Having typed in almost four years worth of enlistments/local gossip from the trenches stories, the truth is that a lot of young fellas were desperate to get intae it.

They were sons of empire, brought up to believe Brits ruled the waves or that Germans were the top military power. They were patriotic. Of course NCOs took their names ... there are too many accounts of this. And maybe there are are so many accounts because these young lads lasted a year or two beyond the 'normal age' recruits.

I give you the other side of the coin ... and I argue that we cannot and should not judge the actions of people then by the standards we set now. To me, there was nothing shocking about the documentary except for the moral courage of the MP who stood up and asked awkward questions.

Here's an oldie who should NEVER have been there:-

Sapper Charles Loughrey, Carninney, Ballymena, of the Royal Engineers, who has had six month's experience of the front, has been discharged with a pension owing to the loss of an eye caused by a splinter from a shell.

Sapper Loughrey is an employee of Mr. John Carson, Builder. He is an old campaigner and was through the Afghan war in '79 with the Cameronians. He is 60 years of age and like an old warrior he enjoyed his service at the front.

Comparing the luck of some with his own experience, he says: "Some of the young ones are out more than three years and I was only 8 days up in the danger zone when I got it in the eye. Sure I was through the Afghan war and only got a wee skit of a bullet."

Ballymena Observer, September 7, 1917.

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I do very clearly remember the Cuban missile Crisis. It ocurred whilst I was a "Boy Soldier". We all thought that world was on the brink of WW3. I recollect the sentiments of disappoint ment from those who were too young to be involved.Thank God nothing came of it . To young men whose testosterone is high it seemed like a Great adventure.Perhaps youthful disillusion may not have been the sole perogative of the youth of 14-18 . Thats sad .

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I give you the other side of the coin ... and I argue that we cannot and should not judge the actions of people then by the standards we set now.

Hello Des

I'm afraid I disagree. This is one of the few occasions were we can judge because the standards of the time match those of today. Boys less than 19 years of age, by law, could not be sent to fight. The people of that era obviously thought the idea of sending boys of 14 and 15 to war abhorent and 90 years on, so do I.

Andy

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Guest Pete Wood
I have read that the German Army also had its' fair share of "Boy Soldiers",whether it was on the scale or practice as seemed to be the case within the British Army I cannot say.

snip

It would be interesting to know if practice like this took place in the 2nd World War.

There are plenty of photographs (and cine film) of German boys defending Berlin, and other cities/towns, in the last stages of WW2.

Many of these youngsers were semi-trained, through organisations such as the Hilter Youth.

In Russia, there were also many boys (and girls) in uniform.

Throughout occupied Europe, also in WW2, many young boys and girls carried out dangerous roles as resistance fighters, couriers and spies, and assisted allied soldiers/airmen to escape.

I have seen one photo of, what appeared to me, to be a very young German soldier wearing (I think) a WW1 helmet. It has been published a few times, but whether it was taken in WW1 or WW2, I couldn't say.....

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Equons/Jim? Don't worry it'll be bought up by UK History or something similar. Keep an eye on Sky's News and Documentaries. Any other reason for having a TV now?

:-) Unfortunately we don't have Sky!

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Guest Desmond6

Max - totally agree that the concept of boy soldiers fighting is abhorrent. I've seen plenty of 13 year olds with AK47s and it is grotesque.

However, in the case of the boy soldiers in WW1, they were willing, if naive, volunteers. Certainly many recruiting sergeants turned a blind eye in contravention of regulations but just as many eager kids deceived the recruiting teams. And if there were 'intimidating recruiting sergeants' stalking the streets in search of cannon fodder there was a far greater peer pressure brought to bear by society in general.

What's the concept of children? I suggest that modern society's definition of a child is drastically different from that of the post Victorian era.

Somewhere I read that there was no concept of 'teenager' as a defined age group until the rock'n'roll era. Before that the transformation went from boy to young man. They were expected to act like men from a relatively early age, securing work and contributing to the family income etc.

To the point in question. Did this programme have any examples of young boys who went to their officers and said 'get me out of here - I joined up under false pretences'? I didn't see any.

I would like to know of cases where boys who did request a discharge were denied. How they were treated in those circumstances would be very revealing.

I think it is very hard to judge or apportion blame in this case because so many of the victims were doing their damndest to avoid being 'saved'!

Looking back through my files, I can now see that a significant number of the recruits of September/October 1914 were either on the borderline or below the legal recruiting age. There is newspaper evidence of numbers of men being turned away because they did not fit the health criteria and I assume that many of the boys who were obviously too young were rejected also.

Most of the recruits of 1914 would spend a considerable time in training both in Britain and in France and I suggest that many of those under-age recruits would be of legal age by the time they were on 'active' service. I suppose many of the recruiting teams were taking this 'time gap' into consideration when they signed people on.

Des

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If I can get a copy of the DVD it would be fantastic

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There was a case in the US Navy in WW2 of a boy who managed to join up even though aged only 12.

The dentist who saw him twigged his age (something to do with the state of his teeth) and told him to go home, but while his back was turned the boy grabbed someone else's record and went through the rest of the process.

He ended up in the Pacific where he was in line for several awards, until his Captain received an order to have him sent back to the USA for discharge after his sister had complained.

Unfortunately, the US Navy had never heard of a case like this and he found himself being thrown into a Naval Prison as everyone had assumed that he had been sent back for punishment. He eventually got out when he found a missing child whilst in a working party in a park and managed to convince the mother that she should contact his sister.

Why he didn't talk to a chaplain in the prison or someone similar is unexplained.

There is a TV film about him. It's a bit Disney and romantic, but does tell the story pretty well.

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A few years ago I remember there was a discussion about how the married men who had fathered children should have gone to war rather than the single men without children; the argument being that the young men would have then had a chance to produce the next generation. Just imagine the uproar !

My grandfather joined up in 1915. He was 16 at the time but according to the oral family history, he said he was 17 ? He was with the Royal Horse Artillery at Woolwich and then stationed at Deal Castle, where he was involved in the transportation of ammunition to the ports. He was about to go to France when the war ended. If he had gone to France he may not have returned and therefore not married and had three children. He died aged 55 of silicosis, however he was one of the lucky ones who had the chance to father his children and see his grandchildren before he died.

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Somewhere I read that there was no concept of 'teenager' as a defined age group until the rock'n'roll era. Before that the transformation went from boy to young man.  They were expected to act like men from a relatively early age, securing work and contributing to the family income etc.

This is true to a certain extent, but then they certainly weren't paid a man's wages at that age! Edwardian society certainly lacked the modern concept of the "teenager," but there were still rigidly-defined age-brackets that differentiated between "boys," "youths," and "men."

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In trying to work out the number of under-age soldiers sent to the front, don't be too preoccupied with the quantitative (statistics to you and me) data. Much of it is not reliable (measured in different ways it will produce different figures) and much of it is invalid (people lied about the age of under-age soldiers - and not just the youngsters concerned).

Rather, look to the qualitative evidence - the stories, the reports, the eye-witness accounts of what was going on on the ground. These include the testimonies of the young solders themselves about their enlistment; the pressure that was placed upon them to enlist (for me the reports of harassment and verbal abuse from RSMs reported in last night's programme was both new and eye-opening) and the failure of attempts to get the youngsters out of the line.

In this context, small-scale studies of what was happening in particular locales, such as Andrew Thornton's reported above are worth tons of conjecture about the many meanings that can be read into the CWGC data-base. Repeat the picture painted by Andrew many thousands of times across the UK, then a picture of officially sponsored massive evasion of the age limits emerges.

Now whether that means that there were 3500 under-age youngsters killed at Loos (or anywhere else) or 'only' 2500; or whether there are 1500 or 1700 similalry placed youngsters on the Menin Gate, really does not really matter. It is not an exercise in bookkeeping. The point is made: recruitment of under-age youngsters; sending them to the front and then refusing to release them was wholesale, massive and widespread. That's the point.

I totally agree that having underage soldiers serving in the line is unacceptable, and that it was in contravention of regulations, but I do not subscribe to the highlighting (as in the SAD debate) that these young soldiers were yet another set of "victims" of a brutal military system. There may well have been individual cases of young lads being pressured into enlisting, but they were not dragged off the streets, they made the decision (however people may feel this was ill-informed) to enlist voluntarily. Yes, the recruiting staff should have been more thorough in providing documentation, but it is also clear from their own accounts that these young recruits were very determined and if they were not accepted at one office, would try another one. Similarly, from letters and other evidence I have found on soldiers who were underage, they did not wish to leave their comrades in the line and wanted to "do their bit". Their motivations to enlist were just the same as older recruits.

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As well as all the boy soldiers remebered how many are not ? One such soldier is buried a few hundred yards from my house in Bolton. He has no CWGC headstone but is buried with his mother and father. There is no mention on the grave relating to a war casualty. However, CWGC have him listed on their site although Soldiers Died has omitted the entry. The grave stone details are as below,

In Loving Memory Of

William Henry

The Beloved Husband Of Mabel Northey

Who Died Jan.12th 1928, Aged 59 Years,

Also Mabel, His Beloved Wife,

Who Died Jan.24th 1933, Aged 55 Years.

Also Edwin, Their Son,

Who Died Oct.4th 1920, Aged 17 Years.

EDWIN NORTHEY Pte.3848685 2nd Bn., Loyal North Lancs., Reg, died 4th Oct.1920. The CWGC site have his age as 18. Even id Edwin had enlisted in 1918 he would have been at the oldest 17. I thought by late war all enlisting men had to show some details regarding their age?

EDWIN NORTHEY is buried in St.Michaels Chuchyard, Great Lever, Bolton.

Bill

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Guest Pete Wood

He was only just 17, having been born between June and September 1903.

Did he actually see active service in WW1....??

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