THEY lied about their age to serve King and Country and many paid the ultimate price. A review of historical records has revealed that as many as one in three servicemen in the Royal Navy was underage during the First World War.
While the legal age for combat was 18, young men such as Leading Seaman Adam Halcrow, from Lerwick, concealed their true age in order to participate in the Great War. Halcrow was lost at sea when the SS Duchess of Cornwall was torpedoed in the English Channel on 11 April, 1917. He was just 17.
Ancestry, the family history website, is now offering access to the Royal Navy Registers of Seaman’s Services, which covers from 1900 to 1928 and details each sailor’s name, date of birth, birthplace, vessels served on, service number and other service details.
Among those listed is William Boyle from Glasgow who was killed in action, aged just 16, along with 1,018 other men when HMS Indefatigable was sunk during the Battle of Jutland in May 1916.
The records, also available at the National Archives in Kew, include more personal information such as remarks on appearance, conduct, promotions and reasons for discharge. They reveal that a large percentage of new entrants to the navy were boys aged 14 to 17, despite a legal combat age of 18. Numbering over 100,000, boy sailors rushed to enlist following the outbreak of war in 1914, many of them leaving home for the first time.
At the same time hundreds of thousands of underage boys enlisted in the army and were sent to fight in the trenches. Historians say that, as many people didn’t have birth certificates in the early 1900s, it was easier for boys to lie about their age, and military recruitment officers were paid for each new recruit, so would often ignore any concerns they had about age.
The service of the young soldiers is now recognised as one of the many tragedies of the First World War, given they made up one in ten of the total volunteers in the army. However, the boy sailors made up a larger proportion of the senior service, with nearly a third of all recruits joining before the age of 18 according to staff at Ancestry.com.
While the young volunteers were eager to serve, many lacked the experience and training afforded to their older colleagues. Analysis of the collection shows that “boy sailors” were 16 per cent more likely to give their lives than adult servicemen.
Yesterday Yvonne McEwen, project director of Scotland’s War, said: “We don’t know how many young men lied about their age to join the Royal Navy but what we do know is that many did lie about their age to enlist in the armed forces.”
Miriam Silverman, Ancestry’s senior UK content manager, said: “It’s hard to comprehend that nearly a third of these records pertain to young boys who, despite not being old enough to vote, were prepared to risk their lives at sea.”
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