He Was Only 15

With the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War coming up this Sunday, I thought I would revisit some older posts related to that conflict. This one was published on November 12, 2014.

When we visited the Commonwealth Military Cemetery at Essex Farm, near Ypres, Belgium, our guide pointed out the grave of V.J. Strudwick, who was killed in action January 14, 1916 at age 15. The official age to enlist was 18, for overseas service 19.

Recruiters though generally didn’t ask probing questions, and identification documents were not all that common in those days before drivers licences, when people may not have ever even seen a car. Joe Strudwick was in all probability adult sized and willing to enlist; he said he was 19 and they either believed him or looked the other way.

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The grave of V.J. Strudwick at Essex Farm.

It was a young man’s war, as they generally are. With age comes maturity; older men are more likely to question the validity of war, more likely to have family responsibilities and less likely to unquestioningly volunteer for combat. Young men romanticize war, older men know better.

Joe Strudwick was not the lone child soldier of the Great War of course. My wife’s father, who was born in 1903, signed up with the British Army in 1917. He was already 6’1” and by that point in the conflict, with millions already dead, new volunteers were much appreciated. However, his age was discovered before he reached the battlefield and he was de-mobilized. At least that is the story he told, with no paperwork to back it up, or at least none that I ever saw, I have no reason to disbelieve him.

It is estimated that perhaps as many as 250,000 child soldiers, those not old enough to officially enlist, saw combat during the First World War. Probably more than that are serving today in conflicts around the world. The nature of war has changed in the last century, becoming less formal and more open to participation by children.

The United Nations has strict rules on military service for those under 18 that all member states are expected to follow. In our less than ideal world, children become combatants in militias and brigades that are not part of any official military organization – which compounds the problem. Most parents try to protect their children, to allow them to have a happy childhood. That doesn’t always happen, as I am sure you are aware from having seen pictures of pre-teens carrying AK-47s.

I get the impression that in some ways we romanticize the child soldiers of the First World War, while being appalled at those who take up arms today. Does that have something to do with us making value judgments about the rightness of the cause? Or the difference between the organized conflict of a century ago when compared to the largely guerrilla-type battles that child soldiers fight in today?

We do not know what Joe Strudwick would have grown up to be if he had been caught before being sent to the front and sent home instead of being sent to his death. The tragedy of wasted lives in war seems to be so much greater when children are involved.

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