Recruitment of ‘boy soldiers’ a contentious issue during war

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AS with many aspects of the First World War, myths envelop the truth and are portrayed as evidence of a cruel and uncaring military establishment intent only on feeding men into the ‘mincing machine’ that was the Western Front.

The case of the ‘boy soldiers’ – recruits in many cases allegedly ‘barely able to see over the waistband of their military issue trousers’ – is one of the most contentious.

Schooling was compulsory only to age 14 and could be ended at age 12 on achieving a minimum level of academic attainment in basic subjects.

School holidays were built around the harvest and children were active in the workforce long before they might leave school today.

Taking employment in dangerous jobs such a mining, as they did at an early age, it would not at that time seem to some observers to be unreasonable for young boys to be serving their ‘King and Country’ at the age of 16 or 17.

The youngest military casualty at the front was believed to be an Irish lad of merely 14 years – Private John Condon.

At the start of the war, all enlistment was voluntary

The huge influx into the ‘Kitchener New Armies’ placed a severe strain on the recruiting system and in the wild enthusiasm of the early months of the war it is hardly surprising that significant numbers of under-age youths succeeded in getting into the army.

Little proof of age was demanded if the recruiting unit was satisfied the applicant was suitable.

Changes in the basis of recruitment from late 1915 meant that deliberate recruitment of under-age boys ought not to have occurred.

Once the supply of willing volunteers appeared to be faltering, Kitchener and the government were forced to take steps to ensure a steady supply of replacements for the severe losses being sustained in 1915.

After everyone aged 15 to 65 had been forced to register with local boards the army refused to recruit anyone into units other than front line infantry and conscription by reference to categories set by age and marital/dependants status, under the Registration Act, should have ensured under-age boys couldn’t enlist.

The rules were clear, no one under 19 was to serve on active service overseas.

They could serve in home depot units, be trained but be held back pending reaching their 19th birthday.

That many under-age were serving in France was not in doubt and the government ordered the army to ‘comb out’ those who ought not to be in danger or exposed to the brutal reality of death.

The army issued instructions to all units to ensure that recruits were of proper age for service and not to assume that youths of above average physique were necessarily of age to be enlisted pictured is a copy of the instruction to all territorial units – 1915.

The sad fact is many did serve willingly when they ought to have been safe at home.

The case of John Wilson on the Tynemouth Roll of Honour is probably not unusual.

A former Wellesley boy he had been in an ‘industrial’ school for delinquent youths before the war.

He was killed in action aged only 17 on February 28, 1917.

Did the system fail him by not preventing him from placing himself in danger?

No one knows the circumstances of how he evaded the rules.

A desire to serve and fight was generally applauded then, and without a mother to seek his release to save her son’s life the army may have been an appealing option for many abandoned by their parents in a variety of circumstances.

For many, the army was a roof over your head and three meals a day.

Unfortunately, at that age most young men regarded themselves as invincible.

THIS week’s casualty list gives details of men from the borough who were killed or died in February 1917.

Armstrong, George, age 39, Private, Labour Corps, KIA, 12th, 1 Back Simpson Street, son of Peter and Anne.

Morrison, Robert, age 24, AB, RNVR, RND, KIA, 15th East Street, Milburn Place, son of Robert Septimus and Hannah.

Pearson, Robert Saburn, Sapper, 155th Field Company, RE, died suddenly on active service, 7th, 58 Huddleston Street.

Robertson, Gordon age 21 AB, RNVR, Hawke Battalion, RND, KIA, 4th, Mason’s Arms, Bedford Street, son of James and Elizabeth.

Sands, Edward Albert, age 19, Private, 5th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, DOW, 10th, 35 Addison Street, son of Mrs E A Johnssen (formerly Sands) and the late J J Sands.

Temple, George R, died on active service, 24th. Details needed.

Toy, Edwin, Private 16th Battalion NF, KIA 13th, 18 Albion Road, son of Mrs Isabella Tweedy, stepson of William Tweedy.

Treadwell, George R, age 28, Major, 6th Battalion East Lancs Regiment, KIA, 5th, Argyle Street, son of Reuben Herbert and Susannah Ann, commemorated at Basra memorial.

Wilkinson, Robert, age 22, Corporal, Royal Marine Light Infantry, RND, KIA, 19th, 24 Northumberland Docks, son of Robert and Elizabeth, his brother John William killed at Beaumont Hamel, November 13, 1916.

Wilson, John R, age 17, Private, 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 28th, son of Mrs Elizabeth Meek, of South Shields, a former Wellesley boy.

Key:

KIA – killed in action

DOW – died of wounds

LAS – lost at sea

NF – Northumberland Fusiliers

DLI – Durham Light Infantry

RND – Royal Naval Division

RNR – Royal Naval Reserve

RFA – Royal Field Artillery

n Anyone with information on this week’s list or who wants to find out more about the project, should visit www.tynemouthworldwarone.org, e-mail contact@tynemouthworldwarone.org or write to Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project, c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.