Last of the boy soldiers? Bid to end centuries of tradition by banning the Army from recruiting under-18s


Mail on Sunday

Sir Nick Harvey describes policy is ‘increasingly anachronistic’; Believes 16 and 17-year-olds more likely to die or be seriously wounded; Also claims millions of pounds is wasted due to high drop-out rates

  • Sir Nick Harvey describes policy is ‘increasingly anachronistic’
  • Believes 16 and 17-year-olds more likely to die or be seriously wounded
  • Also claims millions of pounds is wasted due to high drop-out rates

A former Defence Minister has called for the British Army to stop recruiting ‘boy soldiers’ – a move that would bring an end to centuries of military tradition.

Sir Nick Harvey says letting 16 and 17-year-olds join the Forces is outdated. He claims they are more likely to die or be seriously wounded, and that millions of pounds are wasted due to high drop-out rates.

The issue will be discussed in the Commons on Tuesday and could eventually lead to a ban on enlistment of those  under 18. According to military watchdog Forces Watch, of the 22,000 recruits who join up each year, 4,700 are boys and girls under 18 and 80 per cent choose the Army over the RAF or Navy.

Lib Dem MP Sir Nick, who was the Armed Forces Minister until last September, described the current recruitment policy as ‘increasingly anachronistic’. He added: ‘If it was stopped, these youngsters would have to look at some other work-based training that might make joining the Army a conscious decision rather than just drifting into it.

‘Those who join the Army aged 16 are more likely to die or be severely wounded in action because they tend to join the infantry, which has much higher death rates than the rest of the Forces.’

The recruitment of boys began in the 18th Century when drummers aged ten were sent to the front line. The age for joining up was raised before the First World War, but by the end of the conflict it was estimated that thousands of youths – some only 15 – had been killed or wounded in action.

Following an outcry over the deployment of 17-year-olds to the Gulf War in 1991, and to Kosovo in 1999, the Army amended its rules to ensure that no one under 18 could be sent on operations where there was a possibility of hostilities. However, at least 20 soldiers aged 17 are known to have served in Afghanistan and Iraq due to errors by the Ministry of Defence.

David Gee, of Forces Watch, which is leading demands for a ban on boy soldiers, said: ‘The use of children and adolescents in warfare has a long history but the policy deserves to be evaluated ethically and with regard to the modern standards of care of young people.

‘The critical question is whether it can be reasonable to assume that minors are generally able to make informed and responsible choices on a matter with such far-reaching consequences.’

But the mother of 18-year-old William Aldridge – the youngest British soldier to die in Afghanistan – said the current policy should continue. Lucy Aldridge said: ‘When William was 16, I reluctantly gave my consent for him to join the Army. Stopping him would have been pointless – he would have signed up at 18 anyway and he wouldn’t have had all that extra training.’

The Ministry of Defence said: ‘No one under the age of 18 may volunteer to join our Armed Forces without the formal written consent of a parent or guardian. There are currently no plans to revisit the recruitment policy.’

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