In our series The Great War – Through a London Child’s Eye, we’re following “The Private Diary of Edward Hampton” to learn about life as a child in London at the outbreak of the First World War.
Despite strict age limits for joining the forces – enlistment and later conscription -many under-age children managed to convince recruiting sergeants that they were ready to do their duty in 1914.
It’s thought that 250,000 ‘boy soldiers’ were recruited and fought in World War One.
And by the time the War ended, thousands had sadly been killed or wounded.
Recruitment rules were simple.
To enlist and fight abroad, you had to be at least 19.
If you were 18, you could enlist but you had to remain in the UK until you were 19 before being posted abroad. No one could join the army under the age of 18.
However, some ‘boy soldiers’ were so desperate to join and “be one of the lads” that they not only lied about their age but also their name.
By signing on with a false name, their parents could not track them down and encourage a commanding officer to return their underage son.
The Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme was a particularly deadly period of fighting for Allied troops in the First World War.
On the first day of the Battle in 1916, 500 ‘boy soldiers’ were killed and 2000 wounded. By the time battle ended, 18,000 ‘boy soldiers’ had been killed or wounded.
The youngest ‘boy soldier’ was a boy called Sidney Lewis. Sidney was only 11 when he was sent to the Somme.
Another boy, George Maher was 13.
He had told a recruiting officer that he was 18 to join the 2nd King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment in 1917. But his true age was revealed when he broke down in tears under shellfire and was hauled before an unsympathetic officer.
“I was locked up on a train under guard, one of five under-age boys caught serving on the front being sent back to England,” he said.
“The youngest was 12 years old – a little nuggety bloke he was, too. We joked that the other soldiers would have had to have lifted him up to see over the trenches.”
George Maher later died aged 96.
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The Great War – Through a London Child’s Eye is supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.