The Lost Boys
The untold stories of the under-age soldiers
who fought in the First World War
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2019
Paperback 368pp RRP $45.00
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, April 2021
The cover shows a youth who enlisted as an eighteen-year-old when he was actually only sixteen years and four months old. He enlisted to be with his older brothers, but he survived less than one month after arriving in the Somme in 1917.
Paul Byrnes has selected a sample from the thousands of under-age Anzac enlistees who served in the First World War. Their stories have been told by campaigns in chronological order, and, where possible, their surviving relatives have been interviewed. Byrnes has not sought to condemn these young men or their parents but has looked at the reasons why they went and why their parents were prepared to let them go. Some fathers did enlist, went overseas, and exposed their under-age child. A considerable number were returned to Australia after detection.
The motives that drove these young men ranged from pure patriotism, a need to prove themselves ‘as men’ (remembering the term ‘teenager’ did not exist at the time and childhood ended after a twelfth birthday), a desire to serve with their father or brother(s), a need to financially provide for their family’s survival, escaping family shackles or simply seeking adventure. At the time there was a cadet scheme for young men between twelve and eighteen years of age, and some were eager to test themselves ‘under fire’. A provision was made for ‘boy buglers’ to be recruited, and fourteen-year-old legally enlisted in the Navy. Behind all this is the fact that no under-age person was ever forced to enlist. One eleven-year-old boy did smuggle himself as far as Egypt and one sixteen-year-old girl twice posed as a soldier but was detected before leaving Australia.
Most Australians at the time were not in possession of a Birth Certificate, and recruiting staff were also not able to check the authenticity of parents’ signatures. Some enlistees ‘blackmailed’ their parent(s) into signing their permission by threatening to enlist under another name – this would mean the family would never know their fate or be able to contact them. If refused enlistment at one recruiting office, better luck was often to be had at another (even interstate).
The fate of these young soldiers did not differ from their older counterparts. Whilst many were lost, others survived to return and make a life for themselves, some were severely wounded, and others were ‘shell-shocked’ (PTSD in today’s language) and struggled to have any real quality of life. There were numerous who distinguished themselves in battle – Australia’s first Victoria Cross (VC) was won in 1916 by a seventeen-year-old William Jackson who had served for a year in the 17th Battalion that acknowledged having sixteen boys ‘of average age 16’ taken on as buglers. His initial award was the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) that was controversially upgraded to VC so a nation could have a hero. Losing his right arm in the action, he was repatriated back to Australia where he could not handle the feting and being used as a recruiting motivator.
Families in the early 1900s were keen on studio portraits, and these grace this excellently presented text. Coupled with these are the backgrounds of the subjects which provide a revealing insight into family life at the time. Three simple maps follow the Contents, thus allowing the reader to easily locate where these young men served. A very worthwhile treatise on a largely unheralded aspect of World War I.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.