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Lincolnshire Boy Soldiers during the Great War

Boy soldiers and sailors

By the end of August 1914 over 300,000 men had answered the call at army recruitment centres. A significant number of those who had enlisted were younger than the official minimum age for military service overseas, which was 18 (this was subsequently raised to 19 because of public concern). Some of the boys who joined up were undoubtedly motivated by thoughts of serving King and country, but many enlisted because their older friends or brothers had already joined, or because they wished to escape strict parents or poor living conditions.

Hundreds of boys gave false birth dates to meet the minimum age requirements and recruiting officers did not always check their details very carefully. Sometimes there was little need for subterfuge on the part of the would-be recruit: George Coppard, who enlisted in August 1914, admitted to the recruiting sergeant that he was only 16 and was told to “Clear off and come back tomorrow and see if you’re nineteen, eh?” On the following day George gave his age as 19 and was enlisted in the West Surrey Regiment: “The sergeant winked as he gave me the King’s shilling”.

James Lovegrove, who was only 16 when he signed up shortly after the outbreak of war, enlisted after an encounter with the Order of the White Feather: “On my way to work a group of women surrounded me. They called me all sorts of names for not being a soldier and stuck a white feather in my coat.” Lovegrove felt so ashamed that he decided to enlist: “I went to the recruiting office. The sergeant there couldn’t stop laughing at me, saying things like “Looking for your father, sonny?”, and “Come back next year when the war’s over!” Well, I must have looked so crestfallen that he said “Let’s check your measurements again”. You see, I was five foot six inches and only about eight and a half stone. This time he made me out to be about six feet tall and twelve stone - at least, that is what he wrote down. All lies of course - but I was in!”

The youngest soldier to have served with the British Army during the First World War is believed to have been Sidney Lewis, who enlisted in the East Surrey Regiment at the age of 12. He subsequently served with the Machine Gun Corps on the Somme, but was discharged from the army in August 1916 when his mother sent a letter to the War Office with an accompanying copy of his birth certificate.

Although the army’s boy soldiers have received a lot of publicity, it is often forgotten that hundreds of junior seamen and midshipmen in the Royal Navy, who were as young as 14, served on warships with official sanction. The racing driver Glen Kidston, who won the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1930, was a midshipman in the Royal Navy during the First World War and was only 15 when his ship was sunk by a German submarine. Anthony Eden’s younger brother, Nicholas, was killed at the Battle of Jutland at the age of 16 when the battlecruiser on which he was serving was sunk by German shellfire.

George Ernest Lancaster

George Ernest Lancaster

George Ernest Lancaster

Photograph of George Ernest Lancaster taken at the time of his enlistment in the army at the age of 16. He was severely wounded in the right leg, but survived the war and later worked for the Post Office in Gainsborough. He served with the Home Guard during World War Two and died in Gainsborough in 1971.
Document reference: MISC DON 1588/4/1.






Alfred Newbury

Alfred Newbury

Alfred Newbury

Alfred Newbury was born in a caravan on Monks Road, Lincoln, on 24th December 1897. His parents, Thomas and Annie, eventually settled at 11 Union Road. Alfred joined the 1st Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment at the age of 16 and served on the Western Front. On 16th June 1915 he was severely wounded at Hooge in Flanders and died at Calais four days later.






Herbert Thomas Elliott

Herbert Thomas Elliott

Herbert Thomas Elliott





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Last updated: 8 December 2014

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