Saturday, December 17, 2005

Childhood under fire

The horror of the First World War was all too real for the boys who lied about their age to fight on the front line. But life also changed for the young people at home, many of whom experienced the constant fear of loss and the reality of bombing raids and shortages. They shared the general concern about spies and witnessed the grim news from the battlefront, reported with the new moving pictures in cinemas. The public mood altered forever, and this was reflected in the literature and arts for children and young people during and after the war.
Child soldiers
John Condon was not yet 14 years old when he was killed on the battlefield in Flanders, Belgium, to become one of the youngest casualties of the First World War.
His story is typical of the route many children and young people took to the battlefront. From Waterford City in southern Ireland (then still part of the UK, having been delayed by the First World War), Condon fooled a British Army recruiting officer into believing he was 18 years old. The young recruit was soon training at the army barracks in Clonmel and was then sent to fight.
His family discovered he was serving in Belgium only when the British Army contacted them in the spring of 1915 to say he was missing in action. It was another 10 years before a farmer found Condon's body, and the young boy's remains were buried in Poelcapple cemetery near Ypres.
Condon's story was reported in the Waterford News & Star, but even though he was among the youngest victims of the carnage, the story of this child soldier is by no means unique. In Britain, tens of thousands of teenage boys under the minimum joining-up age of 18 (or 19 for service overseas) enlisted. School life was deeply affected:
'Most of the sixth form was wiped out, year after year. ... They were called up and 80 per cent of them would be killed. I know when I was in the sixth form, I think only about 10 per cent or so of the previous year were still alive, and we thought that was life.' (Quoted in George Robb's published by Palgrave)
This under-age enlisting was encouraged by recruiting sergeants, who were tempted to be careless about checking the truth, thanks to the bonus they received for each person who joined up. Often, teenagers would unwittingly reveal their true age, only to be told by the recruiting sergeant to run round the block to help themselves 'remember' that they were older.
The British were not alone in using child soldiers. All armies in the Great War did the same and many young people were only too keen to go to fight. Many of these young people received little training before being sent into battle.
Young people were also put to work for the war effort in other ways, for example growing extra food on allotments or in their gardens, and collecting cooking fat and scrap metal for the arms factories to use to make explosives and weapons.
During the war, an estimated 250,000 teenage boys who were younger than the legal minimum age for soldiers enlisted in the British Army. Around half of these were killed or wounded, some winning medals for their bravery. In addition, after the war, the government estimated that more than half a million children had ended their school careers early as a result of pressure from the conflict.


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