This evening , on Armitice Day 2014, as part of the WW1 Commemorative season, BBC2 will be screening a documentary “Teenage Tommies”.
Fergal Keane will be presenting the story of how in 1914 as many as 250,000 young boys under the age of 18 served in the British Army. Every 10th volunteer lied about his age in the general enthusiasm to enlist. Some were as young as 14. More than half of them were killed or wounded.
The Leeds Pals was a battalion raised in West Yorkshire and contained many underage boys, they trained in preparation to being deployed in the Battle of the Somme at a camp in Colsterdale in the Yorkshire Dales. Today on bleak moorland where the camp was located, stands a memorial to those who gave their lives.
It was on an appropriately grim and rainswept September day last year that I met Fergal and Mike Connelly, the director, and the production team at the memorial. The programme was to follow the stories of 5 boys from around the country and Fergal was to talk to experts and surviving relatives.
Horace Iles a Leeds blacksmith’s apprentice , signed up aged 14 after being handed a white feather, an accusation of cowardice, on a tram.
After being wounded and sent back to the Front, his worried sister Florrie – with whom he shared a moving correspondence – wrote to him begging him to reveal his true age.
The letter was returned to her unopened, marked to show Horace had been killed in action before he could read it.
It was Horace’s descendants who had come to Colsterdale to talk about their heroic relative.
My brief was to cover portraits of Fergal and the experts plus the relatives but I was most struck by the boy William.
William was about the same age that his great uncle had been when he had enlisted 100 years ago and even had the look and hairstyle of a raw recruit of the era . The army boots issued him as a modern army cadet completed the picture.
“The truth of war is that there have been boy soldiers fighting for time immemorial. What changed here was when the scale of casualties became apparent, and there was a backlash and public concern for the first time.”
Eventually, under public pressure, the army recalled all boys under the age of 19. Unfortunately it was too late for Horace.
This and the other stories will be told in full in the BBC2 programme Teenage Tommies, due to be broadcast tonight November 11 at 9pm.