It’s great to come back from a holiday and find that an as-yet-to-be-identified friend has posted a book through your letterbox. Following recent conversations, I think I know who it was, because it continued a theme from the First World War in a book of poetry (also reviewed here) about the pals battalions from Hull.
Richard Van Emden’s painstakingly researched Boy soldiers of the Great War delves into the murky waters of underage boys being sent out to the front, some as young as 13/14 years, when the government’s clearly stated policy put the minimum age at nineteen. Why did so many thousands slip through the net? The answer to that seems to be that they simply lied about their ages during the selection procedures, and the army was so desperate to have recruits, they seldom questioned the veracity of their answers. Besides, recruiting sergeants stood to earn handsome bonuses for the number of recruits they signed up. Reason enough to turn a blind eye.
But why did the boys lie about their ages? It would seem that the arousal of patriotic fervour by Kitchener and the recruiting department, and the dull unrewarding lives these boys led in civvie street, created the perfect setting for them to step forward and embark on what seemed to be an exciting adventure at the time. After all the war, everyone was assured, would be over by Christmas of 1914……….
The war cemeteries of the Somme have a liberal sprinkling of graves of underage boys who lost their lives on the battlefield, and the awe-inspiring monument at Thiepval has a veritable litany of young boys whose bodies were never found.