The teenage Tommies
Children as young as 12 and 13 lied about their age to fight for Britain in the First World War
During the First World War, British youth movements such as the Boy Scouts, the Sea Scouts and the Girl Guides militarised the youth of the nation and provided them with practical medical and survival skills. These children were quick to volunteer their services. One such child, nine-year-old Alfie Knight, pleaded with the then-secretary of state for war, Lord Kitchener, to let him join the army: “I want to go to the front. I can ride jolley quick on my bicycle, and would go as a despatch ridder. I wouldint let the Germans get it.” Kitchener replied to thank the lad, but noted that he was a little too young to fight.
Many young boys did, however, find their way into the army. Approximately 250,000 British soldiers were under the legal age limit of 19. The youngest recognised soldier was 12-year-old
Sidney Lewis, who fought in the battle of the Somme. Another young recruit, 13-year-old George Maher, lied about his age and was sent to the front line.
His true age was revealed after he was found crying during heavy shelling.
Punch magazine satirised this epidemic of willing youths with a cartoon. In it, an officer points to a young boy in a soldier’s uniform and booms: “Do you know where boys go who tell lies?” The applicant replies: “To the front, sir.”
A Brownie and Cub Scout – in a replica of his father’s military uniform – serving as messengers, 1916