The teenage Tom­mies

Chil­dren as young as 12 and 13 lied about their age to fight for Bri­tain in the First World War

BBC Earth (Asia) - - History -

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

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