Monday, 18 November 2013

The boy soldiers who served at the Front

Photo of a  young German soldier
(Copyright: John Sherwood)
IT'S WELL known that many recruiting officers during the First World War were happy to turn a blind eye to volunteers who were under-age. 'Why don't you go for a walk round the block and come back a couple of years older, sonny?' they would say.

The legal age at which British men could enlist was 18, and they could serve abroad once they were 19. However, large numbers slipped under the net. My own great-uncle enlisted in Bristol at the age of 17, was serving in France with the Somerset Light Infantry at 18, and shortly after his 19th birthday was killed in the Battle of the Somme. His body was never found.

It was no different on the other side - if anything the German soldiers often seemed even younger. Take a look at the photograph above that was picked up on No Man's Land by Yorkshire artilleryman Arthur Youell and kept as a souvenir of war. The German lad pictured looks as if he should still be at school and is reminiscent of the opening scenes of All Quiet on the Western Front, in which a fiercely patriotic German school teacher urges his class of boys to join the army and fight for the fatherland, which they do.

At 22, Corporal Youell was rather older when he enlisted and happily he survived the war. His family kept the letters, photos and other memorabilia he sent home from the Front and the collection has recently been lent to me by Youell's nephew. It has proved absolutely fascinating.

Tractor pulling a siege Howitzer
One of the most interesting items is Youell's field notebook in which he recorded, among other things, details of targets and ranges he used while serving with the 126th Siege Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery.

Siege units were equipped with enormous 15-ton howitzers which were used to bombard the enemy with high-explosive shells in high-trajectory, plunging fire, and were so heavy they needed caterpillar-tracked vehicles to move them. Youell wrote: 'We get into queer places with our old gun especially when we are moving, we have been stuck many a time...they take some moving on bad ground.'

While serving in France between 1916 and 1918, Youell wrote regularly to his mother and letters like this one in June 1917 reveal that there was rarely much time for rest:

'I have been in some rough places but I've managed to get out alright so far, so we must pray for God to keep me out of harm's way in the future. I saw nearly all the fighting on the Somme offensives, then the battle of Arras when we took "Vimy Ridge" [in April 1917]. You will see from the papers at home that we are givng the Germans a shock in another place.'

This was at Hill 60, a strategically important area of high ground which the Allies blew up using underground mines at the beginning of the Battle of Messines in June 1917. 'I shall never forget the night Hill 60 was blown up,' wrote Youell. 'I had gone to bed, the ground rocked and trembled. I though I was in a cradle then our artillery opened with a roar. It must have been awfull [sic] in the German lines they would be a mass of bursting shell.'

You can read more of Corporal Youell's experiences in my book 'Letters From The Trenches' which is due out at the end of 2014.


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