Jump to content
The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Britain`s Boy Soldiers


PhilB
 Share

Recommended Posts

See "remembering Albert French" on this site "Chit Chat".

The injustice of the Albert French story (he is a local casualty whom I have undertaken some research on) is not that a sixteen year old boy was killed in action but that his father was refused a pension by the War Office BECAUSE he was sixteen years old & had therefore lied upon enlistment............Albert French took his chances & sadly paid the price.................The establishment let him take his chance but refused to pay.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The army had rules on the age of its soldiers fighting at the front. So it could be strongly argued it had both a legal and moral duty to enforce its own regulations. Notice we are not imposing our laws today; merely pointing out they existed at the time. If it is possible to understand why they were ignored, we have also to acknowledge that certain consequences follow?

For example, if subsequently the army wished to fulfil other military/legal requirement to meet different circumstances, say capital punishment, it follows they should also consider its own illegality as a contributing factor to the issue at hand if it is applicable.

And clearly, in the case of under-age soldiers it was critical. It is of no effect to then conclude that culpability was entirely in the hands of the condemned because, by and large, they had allegedly failed in duties for which they were in law considered incompetent. A recruit declaring a false or even illegal age is less important to the wider concern. The State should not be allowed to conspire in its own illegality; otherwise we first face the extinction of law and second the undermining of democracy.

Nevertheless, recruiting agents often encouraged, or coerced, under-age youths to lie about their age even though it was officially declared they had to be 19 before going overseas to the front line. If closely followed, the recruitment situation exposes the following considerations.

i. The army faced a perilous manpower shortage requiring instant

effective recruitment

ii. Unquestionably, part of the recruitment resource would comprise under- age youth

iii. Therefore, in order to maximise recruitment the army enlisted under- age recruits

iv. The instrument of enlistment was informally characterised by a

conspiracy between recruiter and recruited

v. Thus the army approved as legitimate, an illegitimate false age

vi. They then made lawful the false age as the official ‘army age

vii. Later recognising the public call for the release of under-age recruit

they placed the onus of the recruit to apply for release

viii. Even when an application by a parent was made, denying a soldier his

true age in favour of the illegal army age could frustrate it.

ix. They justified the execution of boy soldiers on the basis it was their

own fault for falsifying their age and ignored the role of its recruiting

agents who conspired to secure the illegal enlistment

x. Thus, the full panoply of military law was brought down on boy soldiers

who, under the same military law, were incompetent to serve

xi. The fact that the army directly obfuscated this process undermined its

own legitimacy

xii. As a final act in protecting its authority the army simply transferred

blame to the individual boy solider

xiii. Currently the same policy is followed by the Ministry of Defence

The army paid scant regard to the fact it had been a criminal offence not to register a birth since 1875. So why should they disregard this important issue in the recruitment process? It was because potential recruits in the form of young boys were coming to them in such numbers so the army pushed aside its legal duty of properly assessing an important detail of its young recruits.

During the post-recruitment period an Army Routine Order late in 1916 instructed commanding officers on what to do if a boy soldier or his parent claiming he was under 19 years of age and still serving in the trenches made an application.

Except for a handful of cases, there is no documentary evidence that officers commanding combat units observed this order. In any case, release from service was only implemented when an application was initiated by the individual on grounds of age, and it had to be supported with a birth certificate. In effect, the order was merely a cosmetic, if not impractical exercise, to demonstrate army willingness to enforce its own standards.

In September 1915, for example, Sir Arthur Markham complained that boys of 15 and 16 were being recruited from his constituency. He gave several instances where the parents had been vainly seeking the release of their sons. He went on to question the policy of the army in enlisting young boys, when definite ages had been approved. He remarked, "…The question has been raised time after time and we get no satisfaction from the Government. The War Office well knows that the declarations made by these boys – made for patriotic reasons – are false."

Markham continued to question the Under-Secretary of War on this issue. He demanded to know why no steps had been taken by Lord Kitchener to ensure that the recruitment regulations governing the age of enlistment, which had been approved by the government, were being adhered to? He stated it was common knowledge that under-age soldiers continued to be recruited and asked if confidential instructions had been given by the military authorities to ignore the age limits. The Government responded by blandly denying any claims of impropriety by the army, and adding with a touch of indifferent ambiguity that, "…no cases of under-age enlistment have come to notice…"

Just how big was the problem? It was a major embarrassment because the National Service League sent a letter to Lord Milner, the Minister for War, which estimated the army consisted of 15 percent of under-age soldier. On a conservative interpretation, this estimate would have embraced about a quarter of a million youths.

How did the War Office react? For example, as late as March 1917, the War Office complained that it was wrong for parents of boy soldiers to seek their offspring’s discharge from service when they were scheduled to join a draft for active service overseas. Moreover, the government exercised the threat of a financial deterrent in order to curb this attempt. They took the view that if those concerned were released, then it was expected the authorities should be refunded all the pay they had received from the date of a youngster’s enlistment.

It was not until 1918, the final year of the war, that the true ages of young men were properly identified. Some 3,000 were sent to a holding camp outside Boulogne, where they remained until they reached 18 years of age, when they were returned to serve in the trenches. The Canadians also addressed this problem and sent about a 1,000 youths to a camp in North Wales, pending their shipment back to Canada.

The significance of these two figures is hard to assess but when the respective sizes of the BEF and the CEF are taken into account, it could be argued that the British total represented only a small fraction of the numbers of under-age soldiers who were serving at the front.

Even in war, the British Army had a formal responsibility of ensuring the proper management of it soldiers and cannot therefore be excused because of the misplaced enthusiasm of its under-age recruits or the fact it was in a desperate struggle against tyranny. Casting aside the necessary legal standards of a democracy, even at war, is the first subtle step to totalitarianism. The very thing the army was established to fight!

This reminds us that the army simply did not adhere to King's Regulation that were approved by Parliament, which accounts for the fact so few young men were removed from the trenches. It is possible to see this as an abuse of its constitutional authority. But the fact remains, the army benefited in two ways.

Firstly, they retained the services of youngsters who were actually fighting at the front, and secondly, they were later able to evade a corporate responsibility for the physical or nervous breakdown of its under-aged soldiers.

Regrettably, the attitude of the MOD remains that of the Army of 1914-18 – if they faced capital charges, these often ignorant and sometimes frightened young men had only themselves to blame.

The sad story of the execution of a Jewish soldier, Abraham Harris (recorded also as "Beverstein" by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but correctly, Bevistein ) has been pieced together with the aid of his family. Pte. Bevistein was born in Russian-occupied Poland in 1899. A sister, Kate, was born a year later on 5 October 1900. The family emigrated to England about 1902 and settled in Whitechapel, in London’s East End.

Nowadays, Kate’s daughter, Betty Jacobs, lives in Ontario, Canada, where she heard about the service of dedication at the National Memorial Arboretum in June 2001. She contacted John Hipkin of the SAD Campaign and was surprised and indignant to discover additional details of Abraham’s court martial. During September 2001, John visited her and they pooled information about Abraham’s dedication and demise.

When Abraham voluntarily enlisted in September 1914, he gave his age as 18 years and 3 months and in correspondence with his mother he was at pains to sustain the fiction that he was about two years older than he really was. Aside from his enthusiasm to enlist, he concealed his true identity, for at the time military service was discouraged by his devoutly religious parents - and many newly-arrived settlers fleeing Czarist pogroms were unhappy about both supporting allies of Imperial Russia and possibly also killing German co-religionists.

The parents spoke little English and relied upon 14-year-old Kate as a translator, and in spite of assistance from Sylvia Pankhurst, the family lacked the necessary information, resources and self-confidence to pursue the illegality of the Army’s action in executing their son – who was another under-aged soldier.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest Pete Wood

Frisbee, on many counts I think I am in agreement with you, in the case of underage soldiers, who were SAD.

It seems to me that, in order to carry out capital punishment, the soldier must meet certain criteria; have been found guilty of the ‘crime’ and be of legal age.

So my questions to you are these:

Did any of the under-age soldiers, who were sentenced to death, claim in their defence that they were under age?? If so, who were these individuals, and what steps were taken by the military to ascertain the soldier’s true age in these cases (apart from their attestation papers)??

I believe that if a ‘boy soldier’ claimed at hsi trial that he was under age, the onus is on the War Office to prove that the soldier was of the correct age to be serving/punished – or cite the law that enabled it to carry out the punishment, knowing that the youth was under-aged. What method/law did the War Office use (see also the next paragraph), in a defence of being under-aged, to prove the soldier’s age and ‘justify’ the punishment??

There seems to be something in one of your considerations – “vi. They then made lawful the false age as the official ‘army age” - that suggests that a (military?) law was changed. If so, what was the wording, and did this change of law take place before, or after, the execution of an under-age soldier who used his youth as a defence….??

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Yes, this is an interesting question re. were real ages brought forth during SAD court martial proceedings. Have analyses of the ages of those SAD been based on real ages or "offical" army ages. It should be possible to establish the real ages of those executed via 1901 Census info etc.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

So my questions to you are these:

Did any of the under-age soldiers, who were sentenced to death, claim in their defence that they were under age?? If so, who were these individuals, and what steps were taken by the military to ascertain the soldier’s true age in these cases (apart from their attestation papers)??

I believe that if a ‘boy soldier’ claimed at hsi trial that he was under age, the onus is on the War Office to prove that the soldier was of the correct age to be serving/punished – or cite the law that enabled it to carry out the punishment, knowing that the youth was under-aged. What method/law did the War Office use (see also the next paragraph), in a defence of being under-aged, to prove the soldier’s age and ‘justify’ the punishment??

Pete.......Have had a quick scan through 'Shot at Dawn' by Putkowski & Sykes to see if they make any mention of this being used as a defence for any SAD case who was 18 or younger

In the case of Pte Joseph Byers (age 17) who was executed for desertion. He had no defence as he pleaded guilty!!........He also had no representation at his trial.

Re Pte Herbert Burden (age 17), executed for desertion. No mention of using his age as a defence. Again this soldier was unrepresented. Interesting the book states that such were the casualties suffered by his battalion that no survivor from their depleted ranks could be found to give Pte Burden a character reference at the court martial.

Re Private Henry Carter (age 18), executed for desertion. No mention of using his age as a defence. Prosecution seems to have made a lot of the fact of his poor record as a soldier. Previously AWOL, disobedient behaviour & sleeping at his post.

Re Private James Crozier (age 18) executed for desertion. No mention of using his age as a defence.

Re Private Herbert Morris (age 17) executed for desertion. No mention of using his age as a defence. Interestingly the book states 'Details have not emerged about whether the military authorities were aware of the soldiers' true age, it would certainly seem unlikely, and further to their discredit they did not enquire' - Nor did it seem that Pte Morris or his representative (if he had one) had the sense to tell the court martial - I find Putkowski & Sykes' comment a little obtuse. I mean as far as the army was concerned this soldier would be at least 19 years old because that's what he would have told them upon enlistment. Therefore why would they enquire specifically about it at his court martial?

Private James Mitchell (age 18) executed for murder. No mention made of his age as a defence. Although given the offence, I don't know whether it would have made any difference.

Based on this, either the soldiers didn't use their age as any defence or no evidence was found by Putkowski & Sykes to suggest they did. My guess if they had found evidence of this sort of defence they would have mentioned it within their book

Link to comment
Share on other sites

May I return to the November 1915 letter from the National Service League to the Minister for War. The enlistment of boy soldiers under 18 was strongly denounced as a ‘criminal practice’ and it was suggested that the only way this could be checked was by the production of a birth certificate on enlistment.

The recommendation appears to have been ignored.

They were also concerned that ‘reformatory boys’ were being enlisted and they were aware that one under-age boy soldier had been shot for desertion. The League wanted to know if it was possible to ascertain the real ages of soldiers who had been shot for refusing duty or sleeping on duty.

This alerts us to the fact reformatory institutions were a source of under-age recruitment. Where ‘Training Ships’ another source?

In any case, it is seems to have had no effect on the Government of the day.

What we know today is that the military authorities shot three under-age soldiers. John Hipkin, co-ordinator and National Organiser of the SAD Campaign believes he has found another who served in the CEF who was executed one year after joining up at the age of 16. He is Private Elsworth Young from Nova Scotia.

There is no evidence to suggest that the courts martial considered the age of the young soldiers, and surprisingly, not one of the youths mentioned it. But the age of these boys would have been known or guessed at by those officers and soldiers who were close. One would notice, for instance, if a soldier was shaving or not, and the mere appearance of some of the soldiers would have been a good indication of their youth? Yet curiously it appears, no one spoke up on the behalf of those who were executed.

Take the case of Bevistein, for example. When his regiment were being shipped out to France he was to be left behind. Was this because they had guessed at his youth? But an enthusiastic Bevistein begged and begged to go out with them and eventually got his way.

Is there any evidence that courts martial specifically took evidence concerning age?

The Corns and Hughes-Wilson book ‘Blindfold and Alone’ mentions the case of Private William Hunter. They state that Hunter was the ‘Youngest man knowingly executed by the British Army.’

They observe his is the, ‘…only case in which an under-age man’s true age emerged at his trial.’ Hunter convincingly claimed during his trial that he was 18 years of age.

Because of this, the tribunal recommended that the death sentence be commuted to fives years penal servitude. But even this failed when it reached higher military authority and he was shot. This tells us something about the heartlessness of the military, does it not who were prepared to execute under-age teenagers?

Regrettably, owing to poor research, Corns and Hughes-Wilson are wrong. Hunter successfully claimed he was 18 years of age when in fact he was twenty. How is this confirmed? Once again, John Hipkin has spoken with Hunter’s relatives in the North East, who confirm his true age and describe him as a bit of an artful dodger. In fact he had ‘done a runner’ twice whilst in custody and so to make sure he didn’t do another he was handcuffed when taken to be shot.

So, Racing Teapots, you see the military were entirely unconcerned with the youth of its soldiers from the point of enlistment to that of execution, even in a case where they believed one condemned soldier who was to executed.

I apologise if I have misled you but the army cannot make lawful that which is unlawful in the fullest sense of the legal concept. What they did ‘unofficially’ was to turn a blind eye to the law, giving it no effect whatsoever.

If we accept that a quarter of a million youths served in the military, and of these only four were shot, it says something about the discipline and heroism of these young men who admirably acquitted themselves in the most trying of conditions.

On the other hand, the fact that four were shot is evidence of a cruel indifference by those in higher military and political authority, whose conduct could be construed as unconscionable and even criminal.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In the army, if someone wanted to charge you they could always use the "Conduct prejudicial to good order......" if the alleged crime didn`t fit any other category. We often see civilians getting off what look like open and shut cases on a technicality, having found a loophole in the law. I never heard of a soldier getting off on a technicality. Did it ever happen? If not, was it because the military defence lawyers weren`t as cunning or is Military Law less of "an ass" than Civil Law? Phil B

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest Pete Wood

However poorly researched the Blindfold And Alone book is, I think it balances the many deficiencies of Shot At Dawn – and both books need to be read, together, to build up a better picture (if you’re not on first name terms with Putkowski, Sykes, Corn and Hughes-Wilson).

I have spoken to the lady who carried out much of the work on Blindfold and Alone, so I am well aware of what a difficult subject this is to research, and I am therefore definitely not being critical.

What strikes me, though, is that the authors ‘appear’ to be in different camps, so some of the statements/evidence, in both books, contradict each other. So I think we have to be careful about accepting anything without further checks.

B&A appears to suggest that many of the ‘under-age’ soldiers, even one that is recorded as such by CWGC (Pte J Byers 1 RSF), were not under-age at all. The SAD book often omits such crucial evidence, and the book has been reprinted on many occasions.

Anyway, I am totally confused by the following order, dated 15th September 1916, and quoted on page 290 of B&A:

502 Disposal of soldier whose release is applied for [also applicable to soldiers whose battalion officers know him to be under age] on account of being under age:

When the soldier is serving with an expeditionary force, he is to be dealt with as follows:

a If under 17 years of age – he will be sent home….

b If over 17 but under 181/2 he will be sent home, if he be willing…. If not willing to be sent home, his services will be utilized either behind the firing line, or he will be sent home at the discretion of the GOC-in-C…. If he is over 18 ½ but under 19 – he will not be sent home, but will be posted to a training or other unit behind the firing line.

I have no idea what has been ‘subbed’ from the dotted lines. But what the above suggests to me is that if the soldier is over 17 years of age, then he will be retained as a soldier (and may not be released as a civilian, which I presume is meant by the term ‘sent home’). If this is the case, the army (disciplinary) acts would SEEM to apply, and age (17+ years) may NOT be used as a defence.

I believe that this is why, even when Lt Gen Wilson recommended that the sentence be commuted to 5 years penal servitude (not to be suspended), the sentence was ABLE to be carried out…..??

If I have this wrong then please, everyone, correct me!!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

RT

AO 1186/16 of 13 June 1916 stated that when parents or guardians applied for underage soldiers who were serving at home, they would be discharged if under 17, placed on the Reserve if 17-18 and then called to the Colours when they attained 18, and if 18-19 placed in a Reserve unit until they reached 19.

For those serving abroad, If under 18 they were to be sent home. Those unwilling to return to Britain were to be posted to a training unit behind the lines. Those 18-19 were also to be posted to a training or other unit behind the lines.

Charles M

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest Pete Wood
... both books need to be read, together, to build up a better picture (if you’re not on first name terms with Putkowski, Sykes, Corn and Hughes-Wilson).

Fortunately, I am on first name terms with Charles. Many thanks for the confirmation, oh guru of the AOs. :D

Seriously, though, it would appear, therefore, that as none of these under-age soldiers had asked to be released, and as their parents/guardians had also not requested their release, they WERE legally in the military and bound by the army acts.

Unless the soldier was 16 years or younger, age is NOT a defence.....?? So it follows that the military appears to have been within its rights to carry out the punishment, as long as the soldier was 17 years old or more.....??

Link to comment
Share on other sites

... (snip) ... And clearly, in the case of under-age soldiers it was critical. It is of no effect to then conclude that culpability was entirely in the hands of the condemned because, by and large, they had allegedly failed in duties for which they were in law considered incompetent. A recruit declaring a false or even illegal age is less important to the wider concern. The State should not be allowed to conspire in its own illegality; otherwise we first face the extinction of law and second the undermining of democracy. ... (snip) ...

Hit the nail right on the head, Frisbee. Well done. And if we weren't fighting for the principles of law and order and the upholding of democracy then what were we fighting about?

Two further points: Can't agree with Andrew's that this is a case of 'individual' soldiers. All the evidence points to a failing that is widespread, systematic and systemic.

'We didn't know their ages' ... . Well, why didn't they ask them? In any normal decently functioning judicial process age is the second question the accused is asked. The fact that age was not established is another of SAD's arguments that these soldiers were the victims of an inadequate process, that the convictions were procedurally flawed.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest Pete Wood

Hedley, et al, I really HATE to take issue with you. But I have never heard of any soldier, on ANY charge, even today, being asked his age.

As I have said, I was a boy soldier. My squad was entirely made up of 15 and 16 years olds. Some like me did not NEED to shave, and some lads had a moustache. It didn't matter, we were all forced to shave - and go through the motions. My drill Sgt used to joke that I needed a rubber razor blade. I looked 14 when I was 16 - my best friend looked 25.

As far as I am aware, even as a junior entrant, I was subject to the same rules and regulations as a soldier who was aged 18+.

I understand your moral outrage against these punishments. I am not entirely comfortable with them, either. But I am concerned that you are trying to compare a civilian judicial system with that of a military system. I don't know if this is still applicable as it is 12 years since I left the army, but the wife of a soldier (in my day) was also subject to military law (when living abroad).

It's a different world, in uniform. No one sits a soldier down and says, "Here, this is the red book with all the army's rules and regulations," in the same way that no civilian is told this is the Reader's Digest book of law.

Not knowing the law is not a defence in a civilian court, and it is often the case that a civilian defends himself in a court of law....

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have taken a great interest in this discussion and I saw the programme.

I note there is a background to this on the website entitled 'Boy Soldiers and Arthur Markhm ' at least that is how I got it via Google !

I have looked through most of the comments and as yet have not found one that

mentioned Arthur Markham directly, but I need to go through again to check !

The emphasis of the programme to a certain extent outlined Markham's efforts to expose the 'situation' in Parliament, without success. As he died at aged fifty,

nothing further was done at that point.

Hopefully, as the programme concluded, something will be done to honour him and his pursuit of Justice.

As there are various opinions about the enlistment of Boy soldiers and the discussion varies widely, it would be interesting to refer to this element !

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest Smiley Mk III
I noticed that David Lister's introductory credit-line referred to him as "Biographer of Abraham Beverstein." Does anyone know if he's published the results of his research anywhere?

Tom

My last posting seems to have vanished into the ether. Operator error, no doubt.

I am DL, Aby's biographer. Not wishing to infringe Forum Rules in respect of commercial interests, I will just say the book has been accepted for publication by a publisher that will be known to many contributors to this forum. It is due out Feb 2005 - or a little earlier.

The objective was to cover as musc of Aby's life as possible - not just his final fate.

Regards,

DL

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest Pete Wood

Welcome to the forum, David. I'd like to know who is publishing it...?? That way I can order a copy - so you won't be breaking any rules cos I've asked the question :D

I wish you every success with the book.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest Smiley Mk III
I'd like to know who is publishing it...?? That way I can order a copy - so you won't be breaking any rules cos I've asked the question :D

Many thanks indeed!

'Pen & Sword Books Ltd' are the publishers. The whole project, which began with me helping my (then) 13-year-old son with his homework - an essay on FM Haig - has been an amazing experience. I look forward to bringing Aby's story to a wider audience.

David

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...

I found this in the Times archive....it is certainly not much of an incentive for an underage soldier to step forward to be discharged if he faced legal action at home.

Andy

post-8-1089061779.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Andy

This is a fascinating article that you have found. Is there a date for it?

It is August, 1915.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Just came across this while searching on CWGC site for someone else!

Does anyone have any info on 2750 John Young Watt - Drummer - 2nd Black Watch.

He is buried in Amara war cemetary Iraq, date of death 10/7/1916 - age 15!

David

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 months later...
Just a reminder that on Monday 14 June, Channel 4 is putting on a documentary at 9pm entitled "Secret History : Britain`s Boy Soldiers" about WW1. It examines "why so many youths were allowed to enlist and follows the stories of a handful". Phil B

It looks as if a couple of repeats of this prog are to be aired on the "History Channel" this week.

I didn't have a pen handy, so wouldn't swear to this, but I think they said the first showing would be at 9 pm on Thursday.

The second showing will be Sunday at 6 pm.

The "History Channel" will be devoting the whole of next Sunday to a "Rememberance Sunday" series of progs, only one of which I know the details of - see above.

Does anyone else know what else is to be included?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...