Among the 600,000 victims were underage soldiers who enlisted because of patriotism, escapism, a desire for adventure, or social pressure.
As many as 250,000 boys under the age of 18 served in the British Army during World War One. Their motives varied and often overlapped: many were gripped by patriotic fervour; others sought escape from grim conditions at home or went in search of adventure. Technically, boys had to be 19 to fight but the law did not prevent 14-year-olds and upwards from joining in droves. They responded to the Army’s desperate need for troops and recruiting sergeants were often less than scrupulous. At the start of the 20th Century, many people didn’t have birth certificates, so it was easy to lie about how old you were. The minimum height requirement was 5 foot 3 inches (1.60m), with a minimum chest size of 34 inches (86 cm). If you met those criteria, you were likely to be recruited.
Patrick Condon was only 13 when he took his brother’s name (John) to enlist in the Royal Irish Regiment. A year later, he found himself stuck in the trenches near Ypres during the famous Second Battle which saw the first use of chemical weapons, exactly 100 years ago. He died during that battle, in May 1915. He is buried in Poelcapelle British Cemetery. Although there has been some debate in recent years on Condon’s age, name, and burial, his story stands as an example of the many thousands of boy soldiers who served during the Great War.
Private Arthur Montague Alchin (2027, 35th Battalion) was a mail driver from Gunning, NSW. Arthur was lying on a stretcher after being wounded during the battle of Passchendaele on 12 October 1917 when a shell exploded nearby, killing him and several other wounded soldiers. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate. His mother later wrote that he was 17 years 11 months old at the time of his death. Arthur’s uncle, Private Frank Henry Borman, was killed at Polygon Wood. During the First World War, the Australian Army’s enlistment age was 21 years, or 18 years with the permission of a parent or guardian. Although boys aged 14–17 could enlist as buglers, trumpeters, and musicians, many gave false ages in order to join up as soldiers.
Military life in Germany started at 17 years of age with membership of the Landsturm. In the autumn of the year of their 20th birthday, young men joined the real service. It was reported that, during the First Battle of Ypres, a great many German students died. Most of the dead, however, belonged to different population groups and ages: only 500 to 600 students actually died during the First Battle. However, the German military cemetery in Langemark was often called the Studentenfriedhof. The students’ deaths were widely used in German propaganda as an example of the heroism and altruism of German youth. “The myth of Langemarck” was born. It was kept alive during the Second World War too: Hitler visited the cemetery on 2 June 1940.
Erich RÖTTGEN was born in 1898 in Solingen-Ohligs (in the Rhineland). He was a gifted violinist.
In November 1916, at the age of 18, he and his age group began their military service. He became a rifleman (Musketier) in the newly formed Infantry Regiment No. 457. After a brief period of training in Cologne, he served at the front in the 236th Infantry Division, which took part in the Third Battle of Ypres in West Flanders in September 1917. Röttgen died on 22 September 1917 in a counteroffensive near Zonnebeke. He was buried there, probably at Polygon Wood, where there had been a German cemetery since 1915. The last letter sent by his parents was returned with the message, “Auf dem Feld der Ehre gefallen” (“Fallen on the field of honour”). Röttgen’s remains were moved to the regrouped cemetery in Langemark. His grave can be found in the extension (or part B), in grave no. 11308.