World War I was a devastating time for Europe. Thousands of men were sent to fight in the trenches for their country and many never made it back home. With the number of men dying in the war, Countries such as Great Britain looked for other soldiers to assist in the war effort, mainly underage soldiers in their teens. Approximately 250,000 teenagers were sent to fight for Great Britain alone. By the end of the war in 1918, nearly half of the British foot soldiers were under the age of 19. Almost one million British men died during the war, another 2.2 million soldiers were injured, and nearly 200, 000 more were declared "missing" or remained in POW camps for a time after the war ended. It is believed that many of these people were teenagers. Those who made it made it home without injury also were affected by the war with many having "shellshock"(this is what symptoms of PTSD were called during the time).
Luckily, There was a portion of underage soldiers that were sent home instead of being sent to war. Also, recruitment of underage soldiers dropped significantly after 1915.
How and Why were underage soldiers recruited?
- Recruitment officers were paid 2 shillings and sixpence for each new recruit they got and they would often ignore any concerns about age
- Many people at the start of the 20th century didn't have birth certificates so it was easy to lie about how old they were
- The minimum height was 5 feet and 3 inches and the minimum chest size was 34 inches. If you met those criteria then you could be recruited
- Many young boys were scared of being called a coward and couldn't take the pressure from society so they joined the army
- Other boys who wanted to join the army wanted to join because of a bad home life, because they wanted adventure, or simply out of love for their country.
Aby Bevistein was born in Russian occupied Poland and migrated to London when he was three years old. In 1914 at the age of 16, Aby volunteered and changed his last name to "Harris"- an English last name. He volunteered for the service to prove his loyalty to England. After arriving France Aby realized how horrrible trench warfare was and wrote home saying "Dear mother, I've been in the trenches four times and come out safe. We're in the trenches six days and then get relieved for six days rest. Dear mother, I do not like the trenches. We're going in again this week." On December 29, 1915 Aby was caught in a German mine explosion. He was wounded and suffered "shock"(which is now known as PTSD). However, it only took Aby a few months to get back on the front and on February 12, 1916 the Germans again attacked his position, this time with grenades. Again suffering from shock, Aby wandered back and forth on the British lines and was arrested for desertion. He then wrote to his mother and said "Dear mother, I'm in the trenches and I was so ill that I went out, and they took me to the prison and I'm in a bit of trouble now." The following month a 17 year old Aby was executed. Life certainly was not easy for teens who fought during the great war.
Wilfred Owen wrote this describing the training of a British boy soldier
Let the boy try along this bayonet blade
How cold steel is and keen with hunger of blood
blue of all malice like a madman's flash
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh
Lend him to strike these blind blunt bullet heads
Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death