By Richard Van Emden
Pen & Sword, 2021
The issue of boy soldiers serving and fighting in the Great War is an emotive one. Partly because of how we view them through the lens of today’s societal norms – that those aged 14 or 15 are still children, incapable of making decisions or being out in the big wide world – and partly through how they have been commemorated and venerated, often by school tours looking to capture the interest of their pupils (think Valentine Strudwick at Essex Farm).
Richard Van Emden’s work was first published in 2005 and remains the definitive study of this topic. It has also captured the ‘popular’ mass market, something not many Great War authors can claim to have done.
So why the new edition? By Van Emden’s own admissions some of the methods he utilized to calculate the number of boy soldiers in the previous versions were somewhat crude. Seemingly utilizing some of the time and space that Covid gave us, he has refined his model to produce a much more robust calculation. And the figures are staggering, providing an in-depth assessment of the potential number of underage boys who served overseas.
Chapters cover a variety of subjects, including the boys’ motivations for enlisting. A large chunk of the book covers the efforts of parents and those who in positions of power (e.g. MPs) to secure the return of the boys back to ‘Blighty’ and stop the practice of signing up those who were blatantly too young to serve. Whilst some boys went to great lengths to enlist and continue to serve, others found that they could not cope on the frontline. Van Emden shows how the machinations of the War Office either purposefully or inadvertently took time for the wheels to be set in motion to allow boys to be taken away from the fighting (particularly when the army was short of manpower), in some cases too late for the individual in question.
Touted as the ‘final’ version of the book, this volume includes new photos as well as useful lists of the youngest soldiers to serve (officer and other ranks) and youngest recipients of gallantry awards. Whilst the final figure of boy soldiers will never be known, Richard Van Emden’s comprehensive calculations provide us with the most accurate assessment.
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