Youngest British soldiers in World War I

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Sidney Lewis, aged 13, waiting to be discharged after being returned from France

The youngest authenticated British soldier in World War I was the twelve-year-old Sidney Lewis who fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Lewis's claim was not authenticated until 2013. In World War I, a number of young boys joined up to serve as soldiers before they were eighteen, the legal age to serve in the army. It was previously reported that the youngest British soldier was an unnamed boy, also twelve, sent home from France in 1917 with other underage boys from various regiments.

George Maher[edit]

George Maher (20 May 1903 – c.1999[1]) was only thirteen when he lied to a recruiting officer by claiming he was eighteen and was allowed to join up with the 2nd Battalion King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. Maher was sent to the front lines and his actual age was not found out until he began crying during heavy shelling and was taken before an officer of his regiment to reveal his young age. George said he was then locked in a train with a number of other young boys who had all lied to join up as well. Maher said "The youngest was twelve years old. A little nuggety bloke he was, too. We joked that the other soldiers would have had to have lifted him up to see over the trenches." Maher's story was first reported in Richard van Emden's 1998 book Veterans: the last survivors of the Great War[2] and later featured in Last Voices of World War 1, a 2009 television documentary. The boy Maher met was formerly reported as the youngest British soldier in World War I, but the claim has never been authenticated.[3]

Sidney Lewis[edit]

Sidney George Lewis (24 March 1903 – 1969[4]) enlisted in the East Surrey Regiment in August 1915 at the age of twelve. He fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, then aged thirteen, in the 106th Machine Gun Company of the Machine Gun Corps.[5][6] Lewis fought in the Battle of Delville Wood which saw some of the worst casualties on the Somme.[4] He was sent home after his mother sent his birth certificate to the War Office and demanded his return. Lewis was awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal. He re-enlisted in 1918 and served with the army of occupation in Austria. He joined the police in Kingston upon Thames after the war and served in bomb disposal in World War II. Later, he ran a pub in Frant, East Sussex. He died in 1969.[5][6][7]

Although World War I army recruiters often turned a blind eye to underage recruits, another factor may have been Lewis's mature appearance. He was a tall, heavily built boy, growing to 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) as an adult. The minimum height requirement of the British Army at the time was only 5 feet 3 inches (1.60 m).[8][9]

Lewis's claim has been authenticated by the Imperial War Museum after research by van Emden uncovered the evidence, including family papers and Lewis's birth certificate. The family papers have been donated to the museum by Lewis's surviving son. Lewis's story was also found to have been reported[10] in newspapers at the time.[5][6][7]

Many others[edit]

According to the BBC documentary Teenage Tommies (first broadcast 2014), the British Army recruited 250,000 boys under eighteen during World War I. This included Horace Iles who was shamed into joining up after being handed a white feather by a woman at the age of fourteen. He died at the Battle of the Somme at the age of sixteen. Also signing up as a private at age fourteen was Reginald St John Battersby. He was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant at the insistence of his father and headmaster who thought that his rank was beneath him. Battersby was wounded by machine gun fire while leading his men over the top at the Somme. Three months later he lost a leg to shellfire.[11]

See also[edit]

  • Momčilo Gavrić, in Serbian military from age eight; youngest soldier in World War I in any of the nations which fought in World War I.
  • John Condon, from Waterford, Ireland: incorrectly believed to have been the youngest Allied soldier killed (age 14), but later found to have been age 18 at his death.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Richard van Emden; Steve Humphries, Veterans: the last survivors of the Great War,Pen & Sword Military (Kindle version) ISBN 9781848845602.
  2. ^ Richard van Emden; Steve Humphries, Veterans: the last survivors of the Great War, Leo Cooper, 1998, ISBN 085052640X.
  3. ^ Julie Henry, "Boy, 12, was 'youngest British soldier in First World War'", Daily Telegraph, 31 October 2009.
  4. ^ a b Harriet Arkell, "Youngest soldier, 13, fought in the trenches at the Somme for six weeks before his mother showed the War Office his birth certificate", MailOnline, 11 November 2013, (includes photo and birth certificate) accessed and archived 24 November 2013.
  5. ^ a b c "Sidney officially youngest WW1 soldier at age of 12", Daily Mirror, 11 November 2013, page 6, retrieved from InfoTrac Custom Newspapers (subscription required), 20 November 2013.
  6. ^ a b c Ben Farmer, "Boy of 12 was Britain's youngest Great War soldier", Daily Telegraph, 10 November 2013, retrieved online and archived 20 November 2013.
  7. ^ a b Nicholas Hellen, "Boy, 12, was Britain's youngest soldier in First World War", Sunday Times, 10 November 2013, retrieved online and archived 20 November 2013.
  8. ^ Adrian Shaw, "World War 1: Youngest British soldier Sidney joined up aged 12", Mirror online edition, 10 November 2013, accessed and archived 24 November 2013.
  9. ^ Nigel Blundell, "My dad the hero aged 12: Mystery of Britain's youngest First World War soldier is solved", Mirror online edition, 18 November 2013, (includes photos, birth certificate, and facsimile of 1916 Daily Mirror pages) accessed and archived 24 November 2013.
  10. ^ "Joined at twelve", Daily Mirror, page 4, 18 September 1916.
  11. ^ Teenage Tommies, BBC Two, first broadcast 11 November 2014.

External links[edit]