Too young to die: The children who lied to fight in WWI

WWI boy waiting for soldier father

The First World War was a time of great emotional and physical sacrifice, as millions of people from around the world fought and died for their countries.


Among them were young boys, all who lied about their age to join the military and serve their country. Despite the danger and hardships they would face, these boys were determined to do their part in the war effort.


In this article, we'll explore the stories of these young soldiers and the reasons behind their decision to enlist. From Sidney Lewis to Jack Cornwell, we'll discover the courage and sacrifices made by these young boys during one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

Why did children want to fight in WWI?

The reasons why young boys lied about their age to join the military during World War One are surprisingly simplistic.


For some, it was a deeply felt sense of duty and patriotism that motivated them.


They saw the war as an opportunity to prove their courage and loyalty to their country, even though they were only children.


For others though, they may have been influenced by peer pressure or a desire to escape difficult circumstances.


This peer pressure most often came from their friends, who also lied to enlist. Unfortunately, on some occasions, the children's families themselves were the motivating force.

Still others were motivated by a desire for a glorious adventure. Many children's stories, particularly those aimed at young men, emphasized the exotic notion of travelling overseas and overcome enormous odds.


In this way, the war was seen as the 'greatest adventure' of the age. A romanticised idea that they would be hailed as heroes after the war drove many to sign up.

Additionally, there were practical, economic factors that encouraged more to enlist.


The war created many new jobs in the military and related industries, which provided an opportunity for people to earn a steady income.


Often, people could earn more in the army than they could in day-to-day jobs. This was true for children, even though child labor had been outlawed in the previous century.


As a result, children from poorer families saw the war as a way to escape poverty or unemployment at home.


Finally, there was a strong propaganda campaign that encouraged people to enlist.


As war propaganda relied upon simple messaging, it quickly appealed to children.


It portrayed the war as a just and noble cause, and those who fought in it as heroes.


It is probably no surprise then, that teenage boys were willing to buy into it.

How did the children trick the recruiters?

To many modern observers, it seems unbelievable that children could successfully pass the recruitment test.


We tend to think that it would be blindingly obvious that these underage recruits would look too young and be immediately rejected.


However, in many cases, the boys who lied about their age were easily able to pass themselves off as older than they really were.


This is because that some of them had already started working and looked older than their actual age.


In some cases, the boys themselves forged documents to make themselves appear older.


Families even helped them to do this sometimes.


Sadly, the recruiters themselves may have also been part of the problem. They were frequently eager to fill their recruitment quotas, as they were pressured to do so by their superiors.


So, they often turned a blind eye to the age of the recruits.

Some famous examples

One of the most famous examples of a young boy who lied about his age to enlist in World War One is Sidney Lewis.


Sidney was just 12 years old when he joined the British Army in 1915. He had been working as a messenger boy and was eager to do his part in the war effort.


Sidney was eventually discovered by his commanding officer and sent home.


However, he later re-enlisted under a false name and served in the war until he was discovered again and sent home for good.

Another young boy who lied about his age to join the war effort was Jack Cornwell, who was just 16 years old when he joined the Royal Navy in 1915.


Jack served on the HMS Chester during the Battle of Jutland and was severely wounded.


He died two days later and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery in the British Armed Forces.

Horace Iles was another young man who lied about his age. As part of Lord Kitchener's' enlistment drive, he signed up to fight with Leeds Pals during World War One.


At the time, he was only 14 years old.


He remained undiscovered through his training and deployment. Sadly, he died on the first day of the Battle of Somme.

Finally, James Charles Martin, also known as Jim Martin, was 14 years old when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).


He served at Gallipoli in early September 1915. He is thought to be the youngest Australian known to have served and died in the war.


Unfortunately, he died as a result of sickness during the Gallipoli campaign when he was only 14 years and nine months old.

Tragic legacy

Despite their young age, many of these boys served with distinction in the war.


They were often used for simple tasks such as delivering messages or working as stretcher bearers.


However, many of them also saw combat and were exposed to the horrors of war.


Just like the adults around them. many were killed or wounded. Others returned home with the physical and emotional scars that typified the post-war era.