Protests over under-age recruitment have their echoes today.
My great-grandfather was one of the first world war’s ‘boy soldiers’ – up to 250,000 underage recruits accepted into the army’s ranks having lied about their age.
There’s no evidence he wanted ‘out’ – unusually, the small home he shared with my great-grandmother in Southend stood out on a road of ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’-type names for being labelled ‘Ypres’. (We all, I suppose, process post-traumatic stress in our own way.)
But plenty had families who did want them out, and the Great War being the first time in the modern age when a largely ‘civilian’ army had been raised, the tension between the legal or moral expectations of civil society on the one hand, and the agenda of generals and the ministry of war on the other, chaffed as never before.
The issue became one of public concern in May 1915 at the Battle of Loos – the first big test for Kitchener’s volunteer army, when 50,000 British casualties included 3,600 under the age of 18.
Then in 1916, 500 ‘boy soldiers’ were killed on the first day of the Somme.
The families didn’t win, but for a while the conflict which played out in parliament and the press prefigured today’s standoffs between those who serve, and the response of the military authorities and government, over their welfare and their rights.
The ‘boy soldiers’ and their families had one key champion in parliament – the Liberal MP for Mansfield, Sir Arthur Markham. Tenacious, and increasingly frustrated by government stonewalling on the issue, he told the commons: ‘There has been fraud, deceit and lying practiced by the War Office.’ He contended that a blind eye was knowingly turned to the age of recruits.
Under-secretary of state for war Harold Tennant, clearly an original thinker, countered that the war office had been the victim of deceit as it had been the boys who had lied about their age.
Markham was inundated with correspondence from the families of boy soldiers – many of whom, having enlisted under false names, were impossible to trace. He focused his efforts most closely on those aged 14-16.
Tennant did eventually issue a directive to senior army officers, stating that ‘boy soldiers’ should be returned home. But officers in France and Belgium were not keen to carry it out, and the war office was not keen to enforce the directive.
Markham died in August 1916, and fresh recruitment of ‘boy soldiers’ largely ceased with general conscription, when proof of identity was required.
But something of the character of the ‘boy soldiers’ conflict can be seen today in the gap that exists between the expectations of care from soldiers and their families, and the way the Ministry of Defence and the army responds to those expectations.
The gap was evident this week, a century on, in the anger felt by injured British servicemen who have seen delays in compensation claims increase from 82 days to 219 (reduced MoD staffing levels are apparently to blame).
An even closer comparison might be seen in the dispute between soldiers’ families that went to the Supreme Court in 2013, to argue that British soldiers should be protected by the human rights act, and therefore were owed ‘reasonable steps’ to protect their lives. The MoD argued not, but lost.
As the Gazette reported, one response from a thinktank close to government, Policy Exchange, was to place legal redress for uniform casualties of conflict in the box marked ‘claimant culture’ (‘Fog of War’, October 2013).
My great-grandfather left a fairly detailed tape recording, found after his death, intended for his family, relating his experiences at the Fifth Battle of Ypres. At the end of it he said: ‘There is quite a lot I have left out… because I think it was too gruesome to record and the language used is not for my family.’
He died the year I was born, and I don’t know what he would have made of our own controversies. (Though from the general tenor of his sanitised account, I suspect he would not have thought to dismiss military compensation claims today as something analogous to slips-and-trips cases.)
The legal and political landscape of today is not a carbon copy of 1914-18 – how could it be? – and we should always exercise caution in deciding that such comparisons will be exact.
But the tone of today’s exchanges, and the confidence with which those who served, or their families, are able to confront authority, can be traced back to the protest raised around the enlisting of ‘boy soldiers’ into a volunteer army.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor