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Throughout history children have

ended up on the battlefield,

sometimes because they wanted to

be there, and sometimes because

they were coerced or forced to

take part in the fighting. In Western

society, at any rate, the position

since the First World War has

officially been that children should

never, ever be seen participating

in active service. However, at

different periods the rules have

been enforced with varying degrees

of stringency, and the history books

have shown that, invariably, when

the chips are really down, the policy

tends to revert to ‘anything goes’.

In the Great War, essentially every

participating nation’s armed forces

sported a healthy percentage

of ‘keen as mustard’ youngsters.

According to the WW1 Boy Soldiers site, when the war began

in 1914 Great Britain had 700,000

men ready to fight, compared to

Germany’s 3,700,000. Of course,

the country was lucky enough to

have an empire to call on for more

men, but all the same, Field Marshall

Lord Kitchener estimated that

another 500,000 home troops must

be raised at once to give Britain

any chance of challenging the Axis

forces. The need for able fighters was

so desperate that many recruiters

ignored the age limits, and instead

went by the far more flexible height

and chest regulations (over 5 foot

3 inches, and above 34 inches), or

even occasionally tipped the wink to

completely unsuitable candidates,

if they seemed passionate about

being given the chance to serve.

Many people couldn’t afford birth

certificates and didn’t have passports

at the start of the 20th century, so

it was not easy to prove someone’s

identity, and boys were able to lie not

just about their age, but sometimes

even about their name (to avoid

being traced and brought home

by anxious parents). Between 1914

and 1916, it has been estimated that

some 250,000 soldiers below the

stipulated 19 years of age signed up

to fight. From March 1916, the age

limit dropped to 18 for the rest of the

war, but never below.

Prior to 1916, young men rushed to

join the Armed Forces for a variety

of reasons. One was intense peer

pressure, as James Leslie Lovegrove

explains in a podcast held by the

Imperial War Museum.


first tried to enlist at age 16, in 1914,

after he had attended a concert

where patriotic songs were sung

and those in attendance were

encouraged to march straight to the

recruitment office. He was rejected

as being too young on this instance,

and left utterly heartbroken and

humiliated. It seems particularly

unfair, then, that just one year later

he was surrounded in the street and

mocked by women, who presented

him with the dreaded white feather,

meant to indicate cowardice in

men who weren’t fighting for their

country. Humiliated once again,

Lovegrove visited the recruitment

office a second time, and this time

was accepted. He went on to serve

with the Royal Field Artillery in

Britain and the Royal Irish Fusiliers

in Ireland, then with the Loyal North

Lancashire Regiment and South

Lancashire Regiment on the Western

Front from 1917, where he took part

in the Battle of Arras.

As well as pressure, patriotism and

a wish for adventure played a big

part in attracting boys to a life in

service. George Coppard, who joined

up aged 16 and later wrote the book

‘With a Machine Gun to Cambrai’,

said, “News placards screamed out

at every street corner, and military

bands blared their martial music in

the main streets of Croydon. This

was too much for me to resist, and

as if drawn by a magnet, I knew I

had to enlist straight away.” With

children tending to leave school

at age 14 at that time, there were

few opportunities for young people

to do exciting work or travel

overseas, so it’s no wonder that

the life of a soldier was attractive

to many. Coppard, who joined the

6th Battalion Royal West Surrey

Regiment, found himself in France

by June 1915, and saw action at the

Somme and in the Third Battle of

Arras and the Loos offensive, as well

as the Battle of Cambrai, of course.

He nearly died as the result of a

serious thigh wound.

Both of these boys were lucky

enough to survive, unlike John (Jack) Travers Cornwell, who joined the

navy aged 15 and was on board HMS

Chester during the Battle of Jutland

when German shells ripped a hole in

her side, wrecked her after control

and destroyed three of her 10 guns.

According to ‘Deeds that Thrill the Empire, Vol V’, in our Historic

Documents Archive, Jack was the

only person, other than an officer,

mentioned in despatches by Admiral

John (Jack) Cornwell who was

posthumously awarded the country’s

highest honour for valour under fire,

the Victoria Cross. He is the third

youngest recipient of the award ever,

and the youngest of the 20th century.


Boy soldiers at war

Sir John Jellicoe and Vice-Admiral Sir

David Beatty directly after the battle.

Beatty wrote, “A report from the

commanding officer of the Chester

gives a splendid instance of devotion

to duty. Boy (First Class) John

Travers Cornwell, of the Chester, was

mortally wounded early in the action.

He, nonetheless, remained standing

alone at a most exposed post, quietly

awaiting orders until the end of the

action, with the gun’s crew dead

and wounded all round him. His age

was under sixteen and a half years.

I regret that he has since died, but

I recommend his case for special

recognition in justice to his memory,

and as an acknowledgement of the

high example set by him.” Cornwell

was indeed posthumously awarded

the country’s highest honour for

valour under fire, the Victoria Cross.

He is the third youngest recipient of

the award ever, and the youngest of

the 20th century.

The British weren’t the only ones

using boy soldiers in battle at that

time. The Germans famously set

the ‘Kinderkorps’, specially created

new units of young, inexperienced

soldiers, two thirds of whom were

aged 17-19, against the British ‘Old

Contemptables’ in the First Battle

of Ypres. ‘The First World War: a

Miscellany’ states that one of the

units suffered 75% casualties during

this battle, so a large number of

youths certainly died in the war. In

fact, the official minimum age for

soldiers in the German army was

17, so these troops weren’t even

underage, and of course, the younger

boys were allowed to join up, the

Hitler Youth group

Illustration of John (Jack) Cornwell