Read Boy Soldiers of the Great War Online

Authors: Richard van Emden

Boy Soldiers of the Great War (3 page)

BOOK: Boy Soldiers of the Great War

Thousands of young boys joined the Scout movement when it was formed in 1907, benefiting from activities that encouraged cooperation as well as self-reliance, personal discipline and fun. The organization professed not to encourage militarism and to an extent this was true. The elementary drill that the boys practised was said to be similar in character and purpose to that undertaken by children in a school playground so that they could move in numbers without misunderstanding or delay. The long list of badges, of which there were about a hundred, was held up as another example, for few could be associated with military training. Yet the essence of Scout training was self-government, self-discipline, loyalty and good citizenship, and all these had military applications. Boys were taught to march, wave banners, and win medals. They were taught camping, signalling, tracking; they learnt first aid, Morse code and semaphore. In camp, they frequently slept in bell tents and deployed sentries; they built fires and cooked, and in the evening they sang songs:

Scouts will be Scouts
Scouts can be heroes too
By striving to aid
A man or a maid
And seeing the scout law through.

The Scouts’ motto ‘Be Prepared’ was very pertinent, as war with Germany had long been expected. Since the 1880s, Germany’s industrial rise had been meteoric. As a nation, it had been founded in 1870 and led since 1888 by Kaiser Wilhelm II, a grandson of Queen Victoria. The Kaiser, envious of Britain’s Empire, had been an enthusiast for rapid industrial and military
expansion, soon leading his country into a naval arms race with Britain that only helped foster mutual suspicion. Britain was well aware of the threat of an increasingly strong German nation, and the expectation that war might one day break out between the two slowly seeped into the public consciousness through books and newspapers.

Britain relied on the Navy to impose her will and defend the home country. The conflict in South Africa had thrown into sharp relief the difficulties of fighting a war ranging over thousands of miles, and it had been fought at a time when Britain’s preeminence was just beginning to ebb. Security through alliances would have to be the way forward: Britain entered into agreements, first with Japan in 1902 and most notably with France in 1904. These ententes were significant because they were, in effect, an acknowledgement that in a changing world Britain would have to cooperate with other nations if she were to maintain her Empire intact.

No country wants to join an unnecessary war, but understandings with other nations such as France ensured that if a major conflagration broke out, Britain would probably side with her nearest neighbour. This likelihood was increased when Britain concluded an Anglo-Russian convention in 1907, as France and Russia were already in alliance. Through these agreements, the Empire was safeguarded but Britain had been drawn into European affairs to an extent that would have seemed impossible a generation before. The only country in Europe with whom Britain might come to blows was Germany, and in this case no pact of any sort had been attempted. If Germany became an aggressor in a European war, the chances of Britain siding with France and/or Russia were high. When Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, Britain had reason to go to war, not first and foremost because she treasured that country’s neutrality, but because it was in her national interest to side with France and Russia with whom she had concluded pacts and who were already at war with Germany.

The imminence of the conflict in no way hindered the recruitment of youngsters who, if anything, could now see the possibility of military glory won fighting for their country. If the Scouts or other boys’ organizations did not deliberately act as a fertile recruiting ground for the army, their culture of ‘good citizenship’ certainly encouraged such ideas, and prepared their members for active work when war did break out.

For boys interested in a more direct route to an army career, there was Boy Service, catering for those who wished to join up in their early teenage years. They signed on from school as young as thirteen, or, if they were the sons of serving soldiers, from the age of twelve. Over 2,500 such boys were in fact serving at home or in the colonies by 1914. They were predominantly trained as drummer boys, and were also taught trades such as tailoring. They were paid a shilling a week until the age of eighteen, when they became soldiers proper. Still far from being the finished article, they required many months of further preparation before they were full participants in the regiment.

Britain’s Regular Army was small by European standards. Reliance, perhaps over-reliance, on the Royal Navy to defend the nation’s sovereignty had allowed the army to remain purely professional, with, in all, about 250,000 men, half of whom were stationed overseas, and a reserve of a further 225,000 former soldiers who had returned to civilian life but were available to be called up at short notice. Nevertheless, it provided an everpresent backdrop to daily life in large swathes of the country. In ‘army’ towns such as Winchester and Richmond in Yorkshire, there was a high concentration of military personnel frequently witnessed on manoeuvres. Country boys who were keen on the army were offered opportunities to watch the soldiers at summer camp, to walk alongside as the men tramped country lanes or help look after horses in the transport lines. One boy from Hartlepool recalled:

These bronzed infantry soldiers marched through the village with packs and rifles on long route marches. They went down into the Dene and up the other side of the valley to Nesbit Hall and disappeared into the distance, while we awaited their return. When they came back, their shirts were open at the neck and they looked really exhausted and we offered to carry their rifles. Then, if we were allowed to do so, we made our way up to the camp where the soldiers were making full use of the Ship Inn and there was a lot of singing going on. It looked very romantic with the field kitchens going, preparing the meals, and the smell of the food, the smell of the horses in the lines, the jingle of the harnesses and the bits. It made a fourteen-year-old boy long to be a soldier.

There were always boys who were destined to join up, like Benjamin Clouting, the son of a groom working on a large estate in Sussex, who volunteered in 1913 at the age of fifteen:

As a child I brandished a wooden sword, with red ink splattered along the edges, and strutted around the estate like a regular recruit. I daydreamed about the heroic actions of former campaigns, and avidly read highly charged stories of action in South Africa.

Like many children, Ben had close family links to the army. He had two uncles, one of whom served in the 11th Hussars and taught his young nephew how to ride ‘military style’ while the other, Uncle Toby, served in the Scots Guards.

He was a great character and a sergeant major. Even though he had been too young to fight in South Africa and later somehow avoided the First World War, he nevertheless nurtured my interest in the army.

When it came to war and death, the experience of childhood in the early twentieth century was very different from that experienced
a hundred years later in one way in particular: today’s children are graphically exposed to images of war but protected from the effects of death; Edwardian children were all too well aware of death but largely naive about the effects of war.

The Victorian ‘culture of death’ was well developed and continued up to the First World War, with children being encouraged to take an active part in death rituals such as wearing black and kissing the hand of the departed. The sight of a body was not unusual, the dead often resting in an open coffin at home before the funeral. Illness was rife and contagious diseases hard to control when so many families lived in cramped, back-to-back houses, in frequently insanitary conditions. With infant mortality high – 20 per cent of children failed to reach their fifth birthday – it was common to lose a sibling, especially in large families. Overall life expectancy was around fifty for men and slightly higher, fiftyfive, for women, and so the loss of a parent or other near relation in childhood was also unremarkable. George White had lost his father by the age of five, but that was far from his only contact with death. During his childhood, George lost a cousin, Ernie, killed playing on a railway line, and a school friend named Sutton, who was drowned in a creek, while a Scoutmaster was accidentally killed during camp. In addition:

A pal of mine, Theobald, lost his mother, who died from consumption, and a neighbour in our road, named Stevens, was killed in an explosion in one of the powder mills.

Death was commonplace but the effects of war less so. Britain’s colonial conflicts had been described but not seen, drawn but hardly photographed. The medium of film, still in its infancy, was capable of taking anodyne images of soldiers fording a stream, or baggage trains crossing the South African veldt, but nothing of the actuality of fighting. A combination of unwieldy cameras and the restrictions of public taste ensured that explicit
war cinematography would wait another generation. Instead, war artists drew the conflict, presenting stirring scenes of battle that were never ignoble. The effect was to create a generation of war romantics. Thomas Hope, who was to serve in France aged just sixteen, wrote of this effect:

War, glorious war, with its bands and marching feet, its uniforms and air of recklessness, its heroes and glittering decorations, the war of our history books … From the cradle up we have been fed on battles and heroic deeds, nurtured on bloody episodes in our country’s history; war was always glorious, something manly, never sordid, uncivilized, foolish or base.

When the war broke out, ‘the height of my ambition’, he wrote, ‘was to fight for King and Country’.

Stuart Cloete was just as intoxicated. He was not much more than three years old when he saw a black and white drawing in his father’s copy of the
Daily Telegraph
. It was the time of the Boer War, and the image, as Stuart recalled, was:

of a boy trumpeter with a bandaged head, galloping madly through bursting shells for reinforcements. My father coloured the picture for me. The horse brown, the boy in khaki with a red blob of blood on the white bandage round his head. The picture was hung in my nursery.

Stuart was raised on the stories of ancestors who had served, including his great-great-uncle who, at the age of fifteen, had fought at the Battle of Waterloo. As a child, he played with hundreds of lead soldiers and guns and forts, and read books with titles such as
Boy Heroes
Heroes and Hero Worship
as well as magazines such as the
Boy’s Own Paper

Without knowing it, I was being formed, compressed as it were into a semi-hereditary mould. It resembled in a way the old
apprenticeship to a trade which was often carried on from father to son. Perhaps being a soldier and a gentleman was in those days a kind of trade.

George White also had designs on the army although, with hindsight, August 1900 was an unfortunate date of birth for a boy with warlike ambitions. In theory at least, George’s participation in the Great War should have been utterly frustrated, the boy consigned to dreaming of military heroics and unable to realize his dreams. Only in August 1918 would he have become eligible for compulsory service. Called up, he would have undergone at least fourteen weeks’ basic training, the end of which would have coincided with the signing of the Armistice. At best, George would have been dispatched to the Army of Occupation in Germany, the war over, no medals won. In practice, George, like tens of thousands of other young boys, would be driven by a deep-seated patriotism and a desire for adventure. In his case, this inclination was intensified after his father died and his mother took in a lodger, a former cavalryman, whom she later married.

It was nice to have a man living with us, especially one like Mr Burton, who we could look up to like a hero, especially as he was so good to us. We thought him our hero because he had served as a regular with the 9th Lancers and, in the Boer War, was wounded and still had a bullet in the leg. We boys were fascinated with his medal which was displayed in a glass case with a few accessories such as regimental cap badges and buttons.

Mr Burton’s connections with his old regiment gave George access to cavalrymen and he was taken frequently to see them.

In the afternoon we watched some of the troops practising combat in the form of sword vs lance while on horseback. I had never seen anything like it before, but later I was to see something really
spectacular. That was watching the Lancers rehearsing the musical ride which they were evidently to perform publicly later. Being able to watch the men on their horses and listening to the band was really thrilling. I had always thought I wanted to be a soldier when I grew up but after that wonderful day, realized it would have to be the cavalry for me.

The army may have had a romantic attraction for the young, but the wider public view of the forces was not positive. The army’s stature had suffered during the Boer War after repeated debacles. It had learnt hard lessons, but, despite reforms, the public image of the services remained poor. The reaction of one mother to her eighteen-year-old son’s enlistment was typical of many. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘you little fool, don’t you understand there’s only thieves and vagabonds join the army, you go back and tell them that you’ve changed your mind.’ Her natural concern for his safety had merged with her long-standing derogatory view of the military.

Nevertheless the army was for some a refuge from ordinary life, and so it attracted recruits running away from personal problems, domestic disputes or small-time acts of criminality. The army also drew in those who lived on society’s margins, men who had no family and few friends. Ben Clouting recalled:

15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Chanchadas by Marie Darrieussecq
Aunt Dimity's Death by Nancy Atherton
End Game by David Hagberg
Carnival by J. Robert Janes
City of Demons by Kevin Harkness
A Beautiful Bowl of Soup by Paulette Mitchell
Abiding Peace by Susan Page Davis
Within the Candle's Glow by Karen Campbell Prough
Weight Till Christmas by Ruth Saberton