Britain’s Boy Soldiers


Ninety years agoBritain’s teenage boys volunteered en masse to fight for their King and country. Such was their will to fight that a number of enthusiastic boys joined up below the legal age to enlist. Now, new research reveals that these boy soldiers were not just a passionate handful but a significant proportion of Britain’s army. Additionally, the government has been found to have deliberately turned a blind eye to their enlistment. At the outbreak of war, the minimum age for volunteers was 18, and soldiers had to be 19 before they could serve overseas. However, new research in the War Graves Commission records has shown that among the ranks of the British army were as many as 250,000 underage boys, some as young as 14, who had lied about their age in order to enlist. Desperate for manpower, the government ignored such irregularities, tacitly colluding in the decision to allow children to go to war. In their naivety, many of the boys envisaged a few months away fighting, followed by victory and a hero’s welcome back home. Using interviews recorded with a number of the longest surviving boy soldiers, this moving documentary examines why so many were allowed to join up and fight, and what happened to just a handful of them. It also charts the struggle of one man, Liberal MP Arthur Markham, to persuade the war office to tackle this issue, and to secure the return of tens of thousands of boys from the savage battlefields of Europe.