It is known that about 250,000 boys served on the front line during World War I, whilst being under the age of 19. This was the official age at which overseas service was permitted. This BBC guide gives a useful introduction to some of the reasons for a conspiracy of silence around the enlistment of boys, which was especially prevalent before the introduction of conscription in 1916.
The youngest authenticated combatant of the First World War is Sidney Lewis, from Tooting, South London, who was able to join up at the age of 12 years and 5 months, and saw active service on the Somme for six weeks. A letter to the War Office from his mother demanding his return resulted in his being withdrawn from the front line, discharged from the Army, and sent home.
William Edward Shilvock Wright
In an article in the Birmingham Post 22nd November 1918 reporting the death of his eldest brother, Second Lieutenant John Shilvock Wright, it is mentioned that W. E. S. Wright served at Loos and on the Somme at the age of 15, returning home after being gassed, and then rejoining on attaining military age. He was training for a commission at the time of his brother’s death.
His military service record at The National Archives (ref:WO/339/13809) indicates that he served with the British Expeditionary Force in France from December 1915 until Aug 1916. He was discharged in September 1916 as being underage (“mis-statement on enlistment”). He was accepted for Officer training from 12th August 1918 and was appointed temporary Second Lieut. Royal Field Artillery 3rd April 1919 (Gazetted 15th April 1919). The file includes a letter asking for his prompt release on compassionate grounds as his brother was killed in action on 7th November 1918, and his widowed mother needed him home to run the family business in Dale End, Birmingham. His father, John Shilvock Wright, a sanitary engineer, had died on 14th January 1911.
William (“Billy”) Wright went on to become a Solihull councillor and alderman. In 1937, he paid for a window on the north wall of north aisle of St Alphege Church, Solihull, in memory of his brother.
In 1954, he gave as his personal gift to the new municipal borough of Solihull the gates that still stand in Malvern Park.
He was also Mayor of Solihull during 1957/8. He died in 1975 and is buried in the family grave at St Alphege Church.
Another local ‘boy soldier’ known to have enlisted is Norman Leslie Smith, whose brother John Charles Smith is commemorated at Temple Balsall. Less than a month after the death in December 1914 of his brother John, Norman joined the Royal Field Artillery, giving a false age of 19. In fact, he was about 15 (he was baptised in August 1899). His being underage was soon discovered, and he was discharged from the Army in May 1915.
If you know of any other people from places now within the borough who gave false ages in order to enlist in the armed forces during the First World War, please let us know.
Heritage & Local Studies Librarian
tel.: 0121 704 6934