It is estimated that 250,000 underage soldiers fought in World War One. Army recruitment rules were quite clear – a man had to be 18 to sign up and 19 before he could be deployed overseas. But both the pressures on Army recruitment personnel and the patriotic fervor, particularly at the outbreak of the war in 1914, meant that many under-age boys joined the forces. As proof of age was not required, many boys, clearly inspired by the recruitment posters – “Your country needs you” – and sometimes by their friends, flocked to the recruitment meetings and recruitment centres. If they were strong, and met the height requirement (5’ 3”), it was very likely that they would not be further questioned as to their actual age.
Henry Downes Beddowes, born in 1899, was clearly one such recruit. He is recorded in the Kington Times of October 1914 as having volunteered and joined the Reserve Battalion of the Herefordshire Regiment. He was 15 years old. His father, William, must have been a well-known local figure, as he was noted in the 1911 census as being a tax collector, living at 26 Church Street. Henry at that time was a pupil at Lady Hawkins’ School. Aged 16 in 1915, he is discharged from the 1st Battalion of the Herefordshire Regiment as “unfit”. He is described on his service records as being of dark complexion, 5’ 9” tall with brown hair and scars on his left knee and elbow. He was noted as a student on enlistment. His record describes him as sober, industrious, and trustworthy – “an excellent soldier”. He is discharged to the Territorials after 305 days service.
Despite the fact that his enlistment is recorded in the Kington Times and that his age must have been known locally, he clearly becomes an enlisted man. He remains in the UK during those 305 days of service.
1 in 5 under-age soldiers were supposedly discharged within one month of enlistment. But if they were large for their age, and continued to protest that they were old enough to be in service, they remained within the forces. However, concern about under-age recruits led to a campaign – which brought a response from the Under-Secretary of State for War, Harold Tennant:
“In this country no boys under the prescribed age as laid down by regulations have been enlisted with the knowledge of the War Office. Boys under that age are not wanted either with or without the consent of their parents.”
This however was patently untrue, but the operative words in the statement are clearly “with the knowledge of the War Office”.
In 1916 the War Office allowed appeals from parents for under-age recruits serving abroad to be brought home – those over 18 but under 19 could remain in the service but would serve in the UK until they reached their 19th birthday, when they would again be eligible for overseas service. Whilst many were repatriated, it is understood that some did not wish to leave their comrades and continued in the front-line.
After the Somme offensive, when it is thought that some 500 underage soldiers lost their lives, birth certificates were required at enlistment.
Child Soldiers Today
None of the underage soldiers serving in the First World War were as young as many of the child soldiers enlisted or kidnapped to serve in armies today. It is estimated by the charity War Child that there are some 250,000 child soldiers in the world in 2014, of whom some 40% are girls. Civil wars in Africa have involved very young children being trained in warfare, and the rehabilitation of these children is very challenging. In June 2013 the United Nations set a goal to have no child soldiers anywhere in the world by 2016. There are eight Government armies listed for the recruitment and use of children and six of them have already committed to making their armies child-free. In 2012, South Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo signed action plans with the United Nations. The previous year, Afghanistan and Chad made similar commitments. Discussions initiated with the Governments of Yemen and Sudan are expected to lead to action plans in the near future.