The British Army only had 750,000 men in August 1914. The war minister, Field-Marshall Lord Kitchener, decided Britain would need another 500,000 men to help defeat Germany. A combination of well-designed posters and passionate recruitment speeches encouraged thousands of men men to join the armed forces.
By the end of August over 300,000 men had answered the call at army recruitment centres. Many of those who had signed up were younger than the official minimum age of nineteen. The recruitment campaign was meant to encourage adults to sign up for the armed forces. Unfortunately, some younger citizens saw the posters and thought that it would be fun to be in the army. Others saw the army as an opportunity to travel or to get away from strict parents.
George Coppard has admitted: "Although I seldom saw a newspaper, I knew about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo. News placards screamed out at every street corner, and military bands blared out their martial music in the main streets of Croydon. This was too much for me to resist, and as if drawn by a magnate, I knew I had to enlist straight away."
James Lovegrove was only sixteen but he came under pressure from members of the Order of the White Feather to join the armed forces: "On my way to work one morning a group of women surrounded me. They started shouting and yelling at me, calling me all sorts of names for not being a soldier! Do you know what they did? They struck a white feather in my coat, meaning I was a coward. Oh, I did feel dreadful, so ashamed." Although he was under-age he decided to join the British Army.
Hundreds of boys falsified birth dates to meet the minimum age requirements. Desperate for soldiers, recruiting officers did not always check the boy's details very carefully. A sixteen year-old later told of how he was able to join the army: "The recruiting sergeant asked me my age and when I told him he said, 'You had better go out, come in again, and tell me different.' I came back, told him I was nineteen and I was in." Private E. Lugg was able to join the 13th Royal Sussex Regiment at the age of thirteen.
However, he was not the youngest soldier in the British Army, Private Lewis served at the Somme when he was only twelve. George Maher, who was only 13 at the time, claims that Lewis was too short to see over the edge of the trench."The youngest was 12 years old. A little nuggety bloke he was, too. We joked that the other soldiers would have had to have lifted him up to see over the trenches." Maher was eventually arrested: "I was locked up on a train under guard, one of five under-age boys caught serving on the front being sent back to England."
John Cornwell was only sixteen when he won the Victoria Cross for bravery. Cornwall was on board the Chesterwhen it was attacked by four German light cruisers. Within a few minutes the Chester received seventeen hits. Thirty of her crew were killed in the bombardment and another forty-six were seriously wounded. Cornwall remained at his post on one of the ship's guns until the attack was over, but later died of his wounds.
It is claimed that the youngest boy to be killed during the First World War is John Condon of Waterford, who was a member of the Royal Irish Regiment when he was killed aged 14 on the Western Front. Some sources claim that Condon was actually aged 18. However, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, after seeing the relevant documents, still believe that he was 14. In fact, the Waterford News & Star has argued that he was only 13: "The youngest casualty of the First World War had not yet reached his 14th birthday when he was killed on the fields of Flanders in Southern Belgium... John Condon's family only discovered he was in Belgium when they were contacted by the British Army after he went missing in action on the 24th of May 1915."
Victor Silvester, a fourteen year old schoolboy, ran away from Ardingly College in 1914 to join the army. The recruiting officer accepted Victor's claim that he was nineteen and soon after his fifteenth birthday he was fighting on the Western Front. Victor's parents suspected he had joined the army and informed the authorities but it was not until he was wounded in 1917 that he was discovered and brought home.
On the battlefield, however, young soldiers were finding out that it was not as enjoyable as they had thought it would be. Silvester was ordered to be a member of a firing squad that executed five British soldiers for desertion. People who were late in signing up for the army began to hear about the horrors of trench war. Consequently the number of boy soldiers declined and so it was left to adults to face the terror of the battlefield.