Boy soldiers and sailors of WW1

 It is estimated that there were 250,000 boy soldiers – those under 18 – in the armed forces in the First World War. Recent research estimates that there were also more than 100,000 Navy volunteers were under the legal combat age.

Boy soldiers made up one in 10 of the total volunteers in the army. Boy sailors are less recognised but made up a larger proportion of the service, with nearly a third of all recruits joining before the age of 18. As early as August 1914, hundreds of Navy cadets were mobilised for the reserve fleet and many were killed at Gallipoli and elsewhere.

The youngest in the Army is thought to be Sidney Lewis who enlisted when he was just 12 and served in the battle of the Somme aged 13. Although Sidney's mother did not even know he had enlisted, many other parents allowed their children to sign up, partly conforted by the law which said that they would not be deployed overseas under 19.

However, this was clearly not happening; at the end of the Battle of the Somme, it is estimated that 18,000 boy soldiers had been killed or wounded. A blind eye was turned by many recruiters in order to enlist such numbers. Many boys volunteered with enthusiasm, lying about their age, in the context of prevailing militarism and patriotism and their own sense of invincibility and desire for adventure. For others, pressure from public recruitment drives and from within communities would have made many, even teenagers, feel they had no choice.

The number of boy soldiers recruited fell drastically after the Battle of the Somme when conscription for unmarried men aged 19 to 41 was brought in during 1916 to increase enlistment amongst the population.(unless they gained an exempted as a conscientious objector or by profession – e.g. clergy, or workers in armaments factories). In May 1916, the age for conscription was reduced to 18. The pressure to deploy early remained great and in March 1918, the age limit for overseas service was reduced to 18-and-a-half, making 30,000 trained soldiers immediately available.

Efforts were made to stop recruitment of boy soldiers and to get boys who had enlisted back home - by parents and political representatives. Many boy soldiers were returned as a result but it is thought that 120,000 were killed or injured.


Britain's Boy Soldiers, made for Channel 4's Secret History series, 2004

Boy Soldiers (World War 1) by Simple History, 2018

Recruitment tactics in WW1 | History - I Was There: The Great War Interviews, BBC Teach, 2016

Also see:

How did Britain let 250,000 underage soldiers fight in WW1?, BBC iWonder

10 Ways Children Took Part In The First World War, Imperial War Museum



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