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Boy Soldiers of the Great War (Hardback)

WWI British History Military

By Richard van Emden
Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 488
Illustrations: 60 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781399011631
Published: 19th October 2021

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After the outbreak of the Great War, boys as young as twelve were caught up in a national wave of patriotism and, in huge numbers, volunteered to serve their country. The press, recruiting offices and the Government all contributed to the enlistment of hundreds of thousands of under-age soldiers in both Britain and the Empire. On joining up, these lads falsified their ages, often aided by parents who believed their sons’ obvious youth would make overseas service unlikely.

These boys frequently enlisted together, training for a year or more in the same battalions before they were sent abroad. Others joined up but were soon sent to units already fighting overseas and short of men: these lads might undergo as little as eight weeks’ training.

Boys served in the bloodiest battles of the war, fighting at Ypres, the Somme and on Gallipoli. Many broke down under the strain and were returned home once parents supplied birth certificates proving their youth. Other lads fought on bravely and were even awarded medals for gallantry: Jack Pouchot won the Distinguished Conduct Medal aged just fifteen. Others became highly efficient officers, such as Acting Captain Philip Lister and Second Lieutenant Reginald Battersby, both of whom were commissioned at fifteen and fought in France.

In this, the final update of his ground-breaking book, Richard van Emden reveals new hitherto unknown stories and adds many more unseen images. He also proves that far more boys enlisted in the British Army under-age than originally estimated, providing compelling evidence that as many as 400,000 served.

Article: 'THE BOY SOLDIERS WHO WON WWI FOR BRITAIN: A staggering 400,000 underage lads served King and Country during the Great War, reveals one of Britain's leading historians today... and without them we would quite probable have lost.'

Daily Express

"Besides the statistics and numerous tales of youthful heroism, this book also contains fascinating accounts of how many lads were returned to their homes from France at the request of their parents."

Roads to the Great War, March 2022

This book looks like a corker just from the cover and the description. A fascinating book that looks at the lives, backgrounds and experiences of boys who had managed to get recruited for the British Army in various ways, many through lying, giving wrong information and some being allowed by officials looking the other way. As for the reasons for wanting to volunteer to go to war, some of the reasons might seem surprising, but the idealism of young people can often hide the reality of what might come. What was to come was often horrific as we know many men young and old died or suffered hellish consequences from what was an unimaginable war. The work, research and writing by the author Richard Van Emden is splendid and very well done. I of course would highly recommend this book to anyone new or old to the subject, certainly in the running for book of the year.

Read the full review here

The History Fella

"If you are interested in the ground war as well as the air war you will find this book as interesting as I did."

Paul Hare, Cross and Cockade

"This is a thorough work reflecting the magnitude of the task in order to bring this book to the reading public and should be on the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in the Great War".

Martin Willoughby, The Wessex Branch of the Western Front Association

Boy Soldiers of the Great War, written by Richard Emden, is a very interesting book about the First World War. When I first saw the title, I was immediately intrigued by the story behind it.

This non-fiction tells the story of the many young soldiers who fought in the First World War before the age of eighteen. Their stories make you stop reading and think how horrific this war was and marvel at the fact that it was allowed to happen that boys on such a young age could fight in this war. The book is characterised by the many details and photographs of the boys involved.

Definitely recommended for anyone who wants to know more about the First World War and especially about the soldiers who fought in it.

NetGalley, Mariléne VE

In summary: A book that impresses, especially at the end where many names and ages are mentioned. You then make a moment of silence for them and for yourself. A book that is a must for those interested in the great war. A book where you learn a lot about the First World War and their boysoldiers.

Read the full review here

The New Royalty World

As featured in

Who Do You Think You Are

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This factual account of the involvement on the front line of underage boys is a part of WWl that has, in the general sense, been overlooked until recently. The author has been extremely diligent in his research on this subject and the details of the individuals involved demonstrated that degree of patriotism instilled in that generation that sadly is less evident today. For young teenagers to actively volunteer for active service by lying about their age coupled with the recruiters who tended to be less than honest in accepting the untruth as they were driven by the lure of a recruitment bonus, allowed these young men to face the horrors of the Western Front, Gallipoli or the Middle East. The fact that a vey few were rescued from that fate by parents who had no idea where their sons had disappeared until they were overseas or discovered by concerned Commanding Officers, shows that the majority of the 400,000 underage soldiers performed magnificently. Some of these brave lads distinguished themselves in various ways, promoted to NCO and commissioned rank before they were 18 years old, others survived until the end of the War only to have been killed in that last few weeks.
A tale of bravery, foolhardy dreams and determination in young men that reminds us in the 21st Century that those values should never be forgotten or undervalued in our society today. A fascinating read that enhanced my knowledge of this pivotal period in world history and of that generation.

NetGalley, Sandra Miller

This isn’t a book for the faint-hearted, some of the letters written by these young men back to their families are heartbreaking, but I do feel that these stories need to be told. The statistics are changing constantly as information is released by the National Archive, and hoards of letters are found in cupboards. This should all be publicised more widely, to educate current generations about twentieth century history, living conditions and attitudes to working people. Sadly everyone who fought in that War has passed away now, but that generation, and in particular the 400,000 plus who served overseas before they were 19 years old, deserve our eternal gratitude.

I leave you with a rating of five mushroom heads and the words of 17-year-old Reginald Kiernan, who after six months in France wrote:

‘It’s the lying like those fellows we’ve passed –on your side with a fixed grin on your face, or on your back with your eyes turned up – and no one caring! And it’s the thought that you don’t die a hero. That would help. There are no heroes here. No one cares’.

5 stars

Read the full review here

ARRSE (Army Rumour Service)

My own wife's grandfather lied about his age and joined the Rifle Brigade at the age of fifteen. Such acts of courage were commonplace as these amazing young men took up the call to arms, believing they were old enough to serve their country. Richard van Emden, one of our very best WW1 authors, takes up their stories and puts them into perspective.

Books Monthly
 Richard Van Emden

About Richard van Emden

Richard van Emden interviewed 270 veterans of the Great War, has written extensively about the soldiers' lives, and has worked on many television documentaries, always concentrating on the human aspects of war, its challenge and its cost to the millions of men involved. Richard van Emden’s books have sold over 660,000 copies and have appeared in The Times’ bestseller chart on a number of occasions.


He has also worked on more than a dozen television programmes on the Great War, including the award-winning Roses of No Man’s Land, Britain’s Boy Soldiers, A Poem for Harry, War Horse: the Real Story, Teenage Tommies with Fergal Keane and most recently, Hidden Histories: WW1’s Forgotten Photographs. He lives in London.

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