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Boy Soldiers of the Great War

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Boy Soldiers of the Great War. Their Own Stories for the First Time. By Richard Van Emden. (Headline Book Publishing: 2005. Pg. 352.) ISBN: 0755313038.

Reviewed by Herbert White - January 16, 2006

In Boy Soldiers of the Great War, Richard Van Emden sheds light on an oft overlooked aspect of the Great War a.k.a., World War I. Namely, that many of the men who took up arms in the trenches of Europe were in reality mere boys. In this gripping book, van Emden focuses on the British youths and those from the British Dominions, some as young as thirteen, who heeded the call to war and signed on for active service. He also touches slightly upon the service tendered by underage girls who served as nurses, medical aids, and in other auxiliary roles on, and near, the front lines. Swayed by patriotism, propaganda, or simply from boredom, these boys, like their older counterparts, rushed to sign up, and were not only willing, but eager, to serve on the front lines.

Told in a flowing narrative prose that is interspersed with excerpts from diaries, letters, personal testimonies, and other documents, this book provides an eye opening glimpse into the lives of these boys. It also explores the factors that motivated them to join the military, how they managed to join up, what their training and daily military lives were like, how they were affected by the war, and how the public idolized these young heroes. Van Emden also looks had what happened to the survivors, after the war, when they sought to reintegrate into civilian life after having lost a goodly portion of their childhood.

As this book points out, a surprising number of these boys, who were forced to literally grow up overnight, served valiantly and with distinction. Not a few went on to become army officers. Others suffered crippling physical or mental injuries during the war and were discharged and sent home. As well, many of these boy soldiers also gave their lives during the course of the war. Van Emden estimates with upwards of 100,000 of these underage boys were killed or wounded while on active duty overseas.

Despite their age, many of the boys whose lives are chronicled in Boy Soldiers of the Great War, saw action in some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. Others were 'held back', serving in Britain or in one of the colonies until they were old enough to be sent to the front lines. (Technically, you had to be at least nineteen to be sent on overseas duty, and during the last year of the war the age was lowered to eighteen and a half. However, many of these boy soldiers lied about their age, and often their very names, in order to enlist, and were sent to the front when still well below the technical age of service. In addition, many boys, either known to be, or obviously underage, were sent to front despite these regulations, especially if they were members of the Territorials, rather than the regular army.)

Boy Soldiers of the Great War is a fascinating book to read, and a great addition to the body of work on the First World War and it fills in some of the unanswered questions about the underage boys who saw service with the British forces. This book helps to explain not only why they joined up, but also why they were allowed to, and what became of them after the war. This book provides a snapshot of the social, cultural, and economic forces that propelled these youths to join up. It also examines the misconceptions that the nation, as a whole, had about the course and nature that the Great War was to take and which saw the widespread use of such massively destructive weapons as poisoned gas, flamethrowers, tanks, and machine guns. This book is well researched and historically accurate, although it does lack footnotes, and a bibliography. As it was written for a general, rather than an academic audience, these oversights are understandable. Van Emden's account is riveting and it will enthrall both those interested in military or British history, as well as anyone intrigued by stories of valor. All in all, this is an unforgettable read.

Related Reviews:

All Quiet on the Home Front, by Richard Van Emden and Steve Humphries.
An Oral History of Life in Britain During the First World War

Last Post: The Final Word from Our First World War Soldiers, by Max Arthur
This book contains the results of the author's interviews with the twenty-one remaining British veterans of the First World War who range in age from 104-109.

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