Earlier this month an analysis of Royal Navy records revealed that more than 100,000 of the volunteers who enlisted to fight in WW1 were boys aged 14 to 17, too young to either fight or vote.
By any common moral standard – by which I mean precisely the same moral standard we use to judge the actions of gaolers who force-fed Suffragettes – you’d think we would say those boys were victims of brutal state-sanctioned exploitation and vicious gendered discrimination.
You would expect national outcry and soul searching into what callous insanity could have led both society and the government to divide a generation of children along gender lines and decide one half was worthy of protection and safety, while the other should be subjected to unimaginable brutality.
Except the story barely raised a ripple in the sea of voices that make up the mainstream conversation about gender, a conversation which focuses almost exclusively on the problems men cause, rather than those they face.
As an added irony, the news that one third of WW1’s Navy volunteers were in fact boys, appeared just two days before International Women’s Day, a day on which the only permissible narrative about men is one that describes their power and privilege.
There have been a handful of articles and documentaries addressing the issue of WW1’s boy soldiers to mark the centenary of the war, but I’ve yet to see a single account that frames the issue as one of gendered discrimination, let alone express outrage at that injustice.
Instead, they fall into a cosy narrative of sepia-tinted tragedy and heroism – it’s terribly sad that all these young lads lost their lives, to be sure, but that’s just how it was then, don’t you know. And anyway the main thing to remember, with misty eyes, is what heroes they were.
There are two things these articles always emphasise – that the boys were heroes and how enthusiastic they themselves had been to enlist. By the same token, there are two things that are always glossed over – the horror and terror of combat and the social pressure imposed on boys and young men to prove their manhood.
In other words, these reports employ pretty much exactly the same techniques that have always been used to disguise both the reality of war and the state coercion and social stigma that forces men to sign up for it.
But at the heart of this obfuscation and spin is the need to show these boys – boys who by today’s standards were too young to consent to sex, let alone make informed choices about going to war – ultimately made the decision to enlist of their own free will.
Rarely is there any mention of the psychological impact of the ever-present Kitchener’s finger, of the music hall propaganda songs, of the vicious shame of the White Feather, of the pride many parents took in being able to say their son was doing his bit, or of the girls giggling at the sight of young men in uniform.
I have a hunch why there is such reluctance to acknowledge the immense pressure these boys were under to sign up — it’s because that way both traditionalists and feminists get to hold on to their beliefs about men.
Traditionalists are able to maintain the idea that any right-thinking man and boy knows his duty as provider and protector, while feminists get to continue to perpetuate the myth that the history of gender politics can be reduced to one long saga of men’s agency and privilege.
Meanwhile, no-one is forced to confront the fact that virtually within living memory, Britain’s attitude to its boys was not so different to that of a Central African war lord.
One recent BBC documentary included a segment in which an actor read out extracts from a propaganda comic of the time, over a line-drawn image from the comic of a shell exploding in the middle of a make-shift football pitch.
“It would take a lot to put a British Tommy off his football. Here a German shell exploded right on the field of play. To show their contempt for the enemy’s fire, they continued their game.”
Incredibly, the segment was simply used as a colourful illustration of what one boy soldier asked for when he wrote home – a comic. Neither explicitly or implicitly did the programme question the messages or motives behind the comic, or how a diet of this kind of reading matter may have influenced boys to enlist.
(This, just to be clear, is the same BBC that regularly provides a platform for outrage over the harm caused to girls by half-naked women in Lads Mags.)
Another report in The Times, about the youngest soldier to have gone to the front – a 12-year-old boy who ended up fighting at the Battle of the Somme – emphasised how he and other underage boys managed to “trick” recruiting sergeants into believing that they were older than then they really were. Those poor recruiting sergeants, outwitted by children who were so determined to get to the front.
“What could have impelled a young boy to place himself in such danger?”, asks the article’s author, wide-eyed.
The real question is, why are we still so determined to pretend that when young men join the military, it has nothing whatsoever to do with what society expects of them.
By Dan Bell
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