Among many First World War-related items in the latest edition of BBC History magazine was a snippet about Sidney Lewis. The name will be unfamiliar to many of those reading this blog. Sidney Lewis has recently been confirmed as the war's youngest authenticated combatant, having joined up in August 1915 at the age of twelve, fooling officialdom into believing him some years older.
Lewis was one of the lucky ones. Having run away from his home in Tooting, he spent several months in training before seeing active service with the 106th Machine Gun Company. A year after joining up, his location became known to his mother, who duly sent off a copy of his birth certificate to the War Office, and received a response stating that "the lad will be discharged with all possible speed" (perhaps a rather unfortunate way of putting it).
The story inevitably put me in mind of Dannie Abse's memorable poem "Cousin Sidney", even though the setting for the latter is the Second World War. Unlike his namesake, Sidney Lewis survived his war experiences and was awarded a Victory Medal in 1920, by which time the teenager had attained the rank of Lance Sergeant (having re-enlisted in 1918). When, in later years, he told his son Colin that he had fought on the Somme, Colin simply did not believe him; this must have been rather galling after the lengths he had gone to in order to enlist.
This may be rather a controversial statement, but it strikes me that war relies for its continuation on the fearlessness and inexperience of very young men. When I asked my late uncle about his feelings on hearing of the declaration of war in 1939, a few weeks after he had joined the embryonic Fleet Air Arm at the age of fifteen, he said "we felt exhilarated, we weren't scared at all". He was even luckier than Sidney Lewis, since he spent most of the war repairing aeroplanes in India, but he was not to know this at the time; if he had been able to foresee the form his military experience would take, the fifteen-year-old in him might have been disappointed.
In more recent years we have witnessed the horrific sight of children in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and other African countries being armed with rifles and trained to go into battle, and the use of conscripted children by the Khmer Rouge in the Far East is legendary. These children are forced into fighting; they may feel fear but it makes no difference to those who would use them for their own ends. This is, of course, different from the military use of children by most of the countries who participated in the Second World War. Jewish children participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, Yugoslav children formed a "Partisan Artillery", and in the UK the minimum age for Home Guard participation was lowered to sixteen in 1942. The Germans formed an entire SS Panzer Tank Division from teenage members of the Hitler Youth.
Today we have a more tender view of young people. We believe in nurturing and protecting them. Yet the minimum age for joining the British army is still sixteen; Christian and pacifist groups have recently been campaigning to have it raised to eighteen, so far without success. Among their number are ex-soldiers, one of whom commented: "You're still a child. At eighteen, you're going through massive life changes."
War can, as Siegfried Sassoon saw, make one grow up very quickly.