In 1914 the official age for joining the army was 18, though boys as young as 12 were sent to war. Today the UK is the only country in the EU that recruits boys aged 16, writes Glen Poole.
Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. It was an horrific conflict that saw a quarter of million British boys and young men aged under 19 fight for King and country. According to the BBC’s coverage of the centenary, half of these boy soldiers were wounded, killed or taken prisoner.
The youngest of these boys is thought to have been Sidney Lewis who signed up to fight at just 12 years old and saw service in the Somme.
The official age for signing up in 1914 was 18 years old, but as most people didn’t have birth certificates, boys who were bold enough to lie about their age and fit enough to pass the medical, marched off to war as the country turned a collective blind eye.
Everyone knew underage lads were signing up
“The whole of society seemed to be complicit in sending these boys abroad to fight," says the BBC website. “Parents, headmasters, even MPs helped get underage lads into the army. There was collusion on all sides to get these boys and young men into the armed forces.”
Around 20% of these boy soldiers were discharged from the army within a month and in 1916 the War Office agreed that if parents could prove their sons were underage, they could ask for them back. This was how Sidney Lewis’s wartime service thanks to a letter from his mother asking for him to be sent home.
Boy soldiers still being recruited
Sadly, boy soldiers are not a thing of the past. According to Emma Wigley of Christian Aid, there are an estimated 300,000 children currently involved in armed forces or militias around the world. “Children between the ages of 10 and 14 years old, in particular boys, are most vulnerable to abduction and recruitment and are deemed to be strong enough to carry weapons,” she says. “Children are considered to be particularly malleable, both physically and mentally, and easier to manage and control.”
To this day, the British Army still considers applications from boys aged 16 and 17 as long as they have formal written consent from their parent or guardian. The UK is the only country in the EU to recruit 16 year olds and enlists more than two thousand minors a year.
Young men in the military are three times more likely to have alcohol problems than their civilian peers and 82% more likely to commit suicide. The techniques used to recruit teenager boys including using online video games to test their fighting skills without them ever stepping foot inside a recruitment office.
Teenage boys killed in Afghanistan
Teenage boys who are recruited into the British army face death, injury and a trauma. A total of 35 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan were under the age of 20 and the group Forces Watch claims that: “recruiting 16-year-olds into the infantry puts the most vulnerable group into the roles most exposed to trauma in war.”
Groups like Forces Watch, Veterans for Peace and No Glory In War campaign on issues like the recruitment of teenagers into the army. Today, the No Glory in War campaign will hold an event in Parliament Square to commemorate the 15 million killed in the “war to end all wars”, including nearly one million British soldiers, many of them teenage boys. Their aim is to send a message that the best way be commemorate their deaths is to create a world in which there is no more war.
What do you think? Is war a gender issue for men? Should the UK recruit 16 year old boys? What is the best way to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I?
---Photo Credit: flickr/The Hills Are Alive
Article by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men
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