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

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1. Your country needs you

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the British Army had 700,000 available men. Germany’s wartime army was over 3.7 million. When a campaign for volunteers was launched, thousands answered the call to fight. Among them were 250,000 boys and young men under the age of 19, the legal limit for armed service overseas.

For many, their experience of the war was no different to that of the adults they served alongside. It's estimated that around half of those who fought on the front line were wounded, died or taken prisoner. Why did so many boys lie about their age, or give false names so they could leave home and fight in a catastrophic war? And why did the authorities recruiting suitable candidates to serve King and country allow them?

How did Britain let 250,000 underage soldiers fight in World War One?

2. Boys and young men answer the call

250,000 underage soldiers joined up, but many thousands more tried their luck and were turned away. Why were they so keen? Was it a tide of patriotism, or an escape from hard or dreary lives?

3. Conspiracy of silence

Official government policy was that you had to be 18 to sign up and 19 to fight overseas. In the early twentieth century most people didn’t have birth certificates, so it was easy to lie about your age.

Recruitment officers

It didn’t help that recruitment officers were paid two shillings and sixpence (about £6 in today’s money) for each new recruit, and would often turn a blind eye to any concern they had about age. At the same time, though, some officers thought the fresh air and good food of the army would do some of the more under-nourished boys a bit of good.

Medical examination

The recruitment process included medical checks, to make sure a potential recruit was fit enough to fight rather than if he was old enough. The minimum height requirement was five feet, three inches, with a minimum chest size of 34 inches, so a strapping 16 year-old was very likely to be let through.

The rule of thumb seemed to be if the volunteer wanted to fight for his country and was physically fit enough to do so, why stop him?

Teachers, parents and more

But it wasn’t just in recruitment offices. The whole of society seemed to be complicit in sending these boys abroad to fight. Parents, headmasters, even MPs helped get underage lads into the army.

There was collusion on all sides to get these boys and young men into the armed forces. Yet most people (including recruitment staff and parents) would have assumed the war would be over before any of them were ready to go overseas.

4. Britain’s underage soldiers in WW1

Britain's underage soldiers in WW1

The levels of the underage recruits in the graphic above are proportional to the estimated number of recruits for that year, based on a sample of 1,000 underage soldiers. Source: Boy Soldiers of The Great War, Richard van Emden.

5. Bring the boys home

In 1916, the War Office agreed that if parents could prove their sons were underage, they could ask for them back. But what happened when the order to send them home was made?

6. Could this happen today?

100 years on from World War One, there are many ways for young people - and their parents - to understand the real risks and dangers of being involved in a war. So could child soldiers end up fighting on the front line in the 21st century?

Ministry of Defence, UK:

The British Army considers applications from the age of 16. As part of our duty of care to our recruits no young person under the age of 18 years may join our Armed Forces without the formal written consent of their parent or guardian. Established procedures are in place to ensure that no-one under the age of 18 is deployed on operations.

Once you have been assessed against the basic eligibility criteria you will be interviewed by a Careers Adviser and be required to attend an Assessment Centre to complete a two-day assessment including a full medical.

The Ministry of Defence sponsors and supports four cadet forces (voluntary youth organisations). The Cadet Forces are supported by the Armed Forces however they are not officially part of them and neither cadets nor adult volunteers are subject to military call-up.

Emma Wigley, Press Officer, Christian Aid:

An estimated 300,000 children are currently involved in armed forces or militias around the world. Children between the ages of 10 and 14 years old, in particular boys, are most vulnerable to abduction and recruitment and are deemed to be strong enough to carry weapons. Children are considered to be particularly malleable, both physically and mentally, and easier to manage and control.

In the case of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which operated against the government in Northern Uganda between 1987 and 2006, abductees’ parents and family were routinely massacred in front of them – either by the militia or by the children themselves, who were threatened with their own lives if they didn’t obey orders.

On the battlefield children are often pushed to the frontline. Most would have no real understanding of the consequences, and therefore show little fear. At that age it’s almost like being part of a game. They are also used to confuse enemy soldiers reluctant to kill a child.