Hidden WWI: Teenagers At War
Jess Connett explores the lesser-known stories from the teenagers of World War I (WWI), and how our lives would have been if we were born 100 years ago.
2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI – and you can’t escape the endless TV documentaries, costume dramas and Instagram posts of poppies at the Tower of London.
WWI was the first modern war, with killing on a massive scale. Practically a whole generation of young men had their lives cut brutally short, and the women who had waved their sweethearts off to war in 1914 became widows and spinsters in their teens.
Life for young people during the war was incredibly hard. Had we all, by some twist of fate, been born into a body in another age – 100 years ago – our lives would have been almost unimaginably different.
13 years old. Born 2001 / 1901
In 1914, you left school at 12 and were working full-time by 13. Selling newspapers was a typical first job: printed papers were the only way for everyday people to find out what was happening in the war, so demand was high. You stood on a cold street corner, rain soaking into your shoes, shouting the stories on the front page to the passers by until your voice went hoarse and someone finally stopped to give you some pennies and buy a paper. On the morning of 28th July, 1914, the papers missed the story that Europe was at war because they had already gone to print.
14 years old. Born 2000 / 1900
With the men gone to war, women and teenagers took up their jobs. Almost two million women made bombs, shells and bullets for the soldiers on the front line. The munitions factories that had stopped using child labour during the Victorian era were now forced to hire 14-year-olds. You worked crouched over a bench, doing repetitive, frustrating tasks with no safety equipment. After a few months in the factory, your skin turned a yellowish colour from the chemicals, and if you were really unlucky, you got blown sky-high when the factory exploded
15 years old. Born 1999 / 1899
If you had younger brothers and sisters, at 15 you took sole responsibility for them. With dad at war – or dead – and mum working in a factory, all of your siblings’ needs fell to you. To earn enough to feed them, you worked on a farm with the Land Girls – women growing the food that kept Britain alive. Within four days of Britain joining the war, fears arose that shops would sell out and the country would starve to death. As a farmer, you got up at 5am to milk the cows, and spent the day in the fields or tending the animals. My grandad turned 15 in 1918 and took a job on his local farm driving tractors.
16 years old. Born 1998 / 1898
The government propaganda made fighting for your country seem glorious and worthy. Rather than discouraging young people from joining up, newspapers reported young men who had died in battle as heroes – like sailor Jack Cornwell who died aged 16 whilst his boat was under attack from a German ship. Recruitment officers, being paid for each man they signed up, turned up at the local government offices to check over potential new recruits. There was no need to prove you were over 18 – being taller than 5″3 and generally healthy could be enough to get into the Army. Around 250,000 young men lied about their age and were shipped to the front.
17 years old. Born 1997 / 1897
As the demand for nurses grew, girls as young as 17, who had only completed very basic training, were required to deal with horrific war wounds and death on a daily basis. Working in a field hospital near the front line – perhaps an old church or factory, with hundreds of patients lying on the cold floor – you were under constant threat of attack from the enemy. It wasn’t much better in England – you’d deal with ambulances full of wounded survivors, who you needed to stitch back together, clean up and return to Belgium as soon as possible. A poem, written by nurse Eva Dobell, sums up the shattered human lives these nurses encountered:
Crippled for life at seventeen
His great eyes seem to question why:
With both legs smashed in it might have been
Better in that grim trench to die
Than drag maimed years out helplessly.
18 years old. Born 1996 / 1896
After conscription was introduced in January 1916, 18-year-olds were were required by law to join the army. If you were married, had health conditions or did a job like farming then you might have avoided being called up for a while – but as the supplies of eligible men dwindled as they left their limbs behind in France, the government became increasingly desperate. If you deserted the army, you were arrested and either given a spell in prison, some hard labour – or sentenced to death by firing squad. If you were a conscientious objector, who refused to fight on moral grounds, you were rarely granted exemption and would be forced to join the army or go to prison.
19 years old. Born 1995 / 1895
By the end of the war in 1918, over half of the foot soldiers in the British Army were under 19. Almost a million British men had died fighting over the four years of war, and another 2.2 million soldiers had been injured in battle but survived. 200,000 more soldiers were officially declared ‘missing’, or ended up remaining in Prisoner of War camps after armistice was declared on 11th November, 1918. As a young survivor of the war, it was almost inevitable to have lost a parent, sibling, fiancé or best friend. For the soldiers who returned, post-traumatic experiences like shellshock and terrible nightmares would have plagued them for life. The end of the war certainly didn’t mean going back to an easy life.
How do you feel about WWI? Do you have any relatives who fought abroad, or contributed to the efforts of the Home Front? Share your stories with @rifemag