Ninety years ago, Britain's teenage boys volunteered en masse to fight for their King and country. Such was their will to fight that a number of enthusiastic boys joined-up below the legal age to enlist. Now, new research reveals that these boy soldiers were not just a passionate handful but a significant proportion of Britain's army. Additionally, the government has been found to have deliberately turned a blind eye to their enlistment.
At the outbreak of war, the minimum age for volunteers was 18, and soldiers had to be 19 before they could serve overseas. However, new research in the War Graves Commission records has shown that among the ranks of the British army were as many as 250,000 underage boys, some as young as 14, who had lied about their age in order to enlist. Desperate for manpower, the government ignored such irregularities, tacitly colluding in the decision to allow children to go to war. Using interviews recorded with a number of the longest-surviving boy soldiers, this moving documentary examines why so many were allowed to join up and fight, and what happened to just a handful of them. It also charts the struggle of one man, Liberal MP Arthur Markham, to persuade the war office to tackle this issue, and to secure thereturn of tens of thousands of boys from the savage battlefields of Europe.
The nature and scale of 20th-Century warfare took Britain by surprise. Casualties were quick to mount up, and by late 1914, Lord Kitchener was spearheading his famous recruitment campaign, as a result of which 750,000 men joined up in just two months. However, in their haste to strengthen the army, the authorities turned a blind eye to underage recruits who claimed to be 18. Dick Trafford, a miner from Lancashire, was just 15 when he joined up. "I got home and I told my parents - my mother played hell, " he remembers. Tommy Gay, then 16, was among the first to answer the call. "When I got home, I got the biggest pasting and good hiding that I've ever had in my life." In their naivety, many of the boys envisaged a few months away fighting, followed by victory and a hero's welcome back home. The reality proved quite different. Smiler Marshall recounts how he was only 17 when he saw his friend, also under age, killed in action in France.
The reality of war was also unexpectedly harsh for Abraham Bevistein, who lied about his name, age and nationality in order to fight for Britain. After being injured, treated and then returned to the front, his resolve cracked under bombardment, and he fled to a farmhouse ten miles from the front line. He was found and court martialled for desertion by the British army, and subsequently executed. He was 17 years old. Horace Iles was another boy soldier not to make it home. As his sister wrote to him begging him to admit he was only 16 and return home, he was preparing for the Somme offensive. Historian Richard van Emden takes up the story: "You can only imagine the horror and the terror that would've gripped Horace Iles. What he would've seen was carnage, there's no doubt about that." He never made it back from the assault, and the letter was returned home to his sister, stamped 'Killed in Action'. Back home, authorities continued to ignore the issue of underage soldiers. There was only one significant voice of dissent. Arthur Markham, the Liberal MP for Mansfield, campaigned vocally and energetically against the fraudulent enlistment, fighting to abolish the practice and constantly quizzing the authorities in parliament.
At each turn, he was stonewalled by the War Office. Finally, in 1916, conscription was introduced, and with it tighter controls on the age of conscripts. But in spite of the efforts of Markham to secure the return of those underage soldiers already fighting in Europe, tens of thousands of boy soldiers already serving remained in action on the continent. In August 1916, Markham died of a heart attack aged just 50, and those boys serving in the army lost their one significant voice. Some, such as Tommy Gay, Smiler Marshall and Dick Trafford, made it home safely. Others, like Horace Iles and Abraham Bevistein, died at the front, despite being technically too young to fight for their country. Of the 250,000 under age boys thought to have enlisted in the war, 120,000 were killed or wounded. But it is possible that many more died unrecognised.
Tragically, the true number of boy soldiers who gave their lives may never be known.
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