Remembering the Teenage Soldiers of the Great War

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As much as 250,000 young boys with ages under 18 enlisted in the British Army and fought in the front lines of the Great War. Presenter Fergal Keane explores the often grim lives and deaths of these teenage soldiers for a BBC News feature.

Nothing New

Teenage soldiers involved in wars wasn’t something new even during the First World War. Even the poet, Homer, recounted such stories from ancient battles. But these boys participating in war conjures sadness as it presents the loss of innocence, youth and possibility for a brighter future.

Nevertheless, when WWI broke out, nothing indicated that a long line of underage boys would be able to join in the British Army as teenage soldiers. But then, about 250,000 of them, some as young as 12 years old, heeded the call to fight for their country. Their reasons were varied. Some were seized by patriotic fervor, others wanted to escape the poor conditions they had at home while a number signed up in search of adventure.

No one suspected the doom they were about to experience in the front lines of war.

Why So Many?

How did a large number of these teenage soldiers get past the recruitment officers in the first place?

Technically, one had to be 19 years old to be able to join the British Army. However, there were no stipulations in the law that prevented 14-year-old boys from signing up. Besides, the officers responsible for recruitment were given about £6 (two shillings and a sixpence) for every new recruit for the British Army. With this incentive, anyone would gladly turn a blind eye.

Furthermore, most of the people at the beginning of the 20th century did not have birth certificates, so, lying about one’s real age was easier. The requirements to becoming a soldier were also simple. The minimum height specification was only 5 feet and 3 inches and the minimum chest size was 34 inches. If a person met these conditions, then, he was most likely to be recruited.

Besides, these teenage soldiers were fueled by the pressures of the society. They feared being branded as cowards by their friends if they stayed home and so, they signed up.

Sad Stories of WWI’s Teenage Soldiers

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Cyril Jose of Cornwall, a tin miner’s son, was only 15 years old when he signed up for the British Army during the First World War and became one of the war’s teenage soldiers.  The region had suffered from unemployment during those times and he, searching for adventure, viewed the Great War as a means to escape home. His excitement to be in the army was so palpable in a letter he sent to his sister Ivy during the time he spent in the training camp. In it, he bragged about his rifle and his bayonet.

Nevertheless, Cyril turned into a strong opponent of militarism after spending his time in the front lines in France during the Great War. Cyril Jose may be a WWI survivor but the bloodshed he witnessed there turned his views around.

Aby Bevistein came from an immigrant family. He was born in Poland, then occupied by the Russians, in 1898. His family, then, moved to London, England when he was three. Aby enlisted for the British Army in September 14 and became part of the country’s bevy of teenage soldiers much to the dismay of his family. He even changed his surname to “Harris”.

When he arrived in France, he found out the grim realities of living in the trenches of the Great War. In his letter to his mother during that time, he wrote that he spent time in them, came out safe but didn’t like going back. Aby suffered “shock”, or what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, twice — in 1915 when he got caught in a German mine explosion and in 1916 when the enemy attacked the position he was in with grenades. Suffering from the disorder, Aby wandered along the British lines until he was caught and arrested for desertion.

In March 1916, Aby became one of the 306 British soldiers executed for being deserters during the First World War.

Lieutenant St John Battersby was only 16 years old when he got wounded during the Battle of Somme. At that very young age, he was already responsible for a group of men, about 30 of them, and his decisions could either make or break them.

Three months after he sustained his wound, St John could have opted to stay home as the army at that time were removing soldiers who were below 19 years of age. But a sense of responsibility forced him to return. He lost a leg soon after his return and had asked for an administrative job. But the years he spent in the front lines of the war stayed with him until his death.

According to his son, Anthony, his father was shouting “‘the Bosch are coming. We’re going over the top now!” in the hour or two before his death. It was clear the memory of the Western Front did not leave him.