Boy Soldiers

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has seen a massive upturn in magazine articles about the British involvement in the war, and one that I recently read dealt with the number of underage soldiers (i.e. under eighteen years of age) who volunteered for and served in the British Army.

I know that this was not a uniquely British phenomenon, and that the use of boy soldiers is not a modern problem. Whilst thinking about this I remembered two films that featured boy soldiers in action, John Ford’s THE HORSE SOLDIERS and Robert Lean’s DOCTOR ZHIVAGO.

In THE HORSE SOLDIERS the cadets of a military school – aided by an artillery battery – attempt to ambush some Union cavalry. They advance across a field towards the woods that are occupied by the cavalry …

… led by their headmaster.

The Union cavalry are unwilling to fight the boy soldiers and withdraw, pursued by the cadets.

In DOCTOR ZHIVAGO the situation is similar, except that the partisan cavalry are expecting an attack by White troops, and are fully prepared to fight … not knowing that the advancing enemy troops are cadets.

They open fire on the advancing cadets …

… who turn and run.

The partisans advance to see what damage they have done …

… only to discover that they have killed cadets from St Michael’s Military School …

… who were also led by their headmaster.

Very similar circumstances … but very different outcomes.


10 Comments on “Boy Soldiers”

  1. jhnptrqn says:

    The incident in The Horse Soldiers was inspired by the Battle of New Market, where the Confederates used the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute in the battle. The cadets of VMI were not as fortunate as in the movie; they lost 10 killed or mortally wounded and 47 wounded.

  2. Chris says:

    And I guess it's worth noting that the Partisans despised the Headmaster for sending boys into action…


  3. Jhnptrqn,

    I had read that the scene was based on a real incident, but I had not realised that the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute had taken part in the Battle of New Market.

    Thanks for sharing that interesting fact.

    All the best,


  4. Chris,

    I remember noting their disgust when I watched the film … although the Commissar was singularly unmoved by what had happened.

    All the best,


  5. arthur1815 says:

    Re British boy soldiers – My pupils and I once attended a session at NAM by Andrew Robertshaw, who made IMHO the very valid point that, at that time, many boys left school at 14 (my maternal grandfather left at 13 because he had secured a post as office boy for Averys the scales manufacturers) and did a day's work in mines, steelworks and other dangerous workplaces. They did not think of themselves as 'children', but as young men who had as much right to volunteer to serve as others. We must remember that the age of majority then was 21, so many soldiers aged 19 plus (IIRC the age at which one could be sent overseas) were, in law, still minors.

    That would have also been true in the ACW. The cadets of the VMI were – and I imagine still are south of the Mason-Dixon line! – held in high regard, not seen as an example of child-exploitation.

    Different times; different attitudes.


  6. Arthur1815,

    You are right. My father left school in 1940 when he was 14, went to work, and joined the Home Guard soon afterwards. He was kicked out when they found out he was underage. (He was stopped in the street by a policeman who wanted to know why he wasn't in the army, and when he handed over his identity card they discovered his true age. He then joined the Auxilliary Fire Service as a messenger. He stayed with them until he was called-up in 1944.)

    Most teenagers today don't think of themselves as children, even if the law does. In many ways things change … and yet still remain the same.

    All the best,


  7. Nigel Drury says:

    “The cadets of the VMI were – and I imagine still are … held in high regard”

    They are indeed – see

  8. Nigel Drury,

    From what I can see on the website you sent the link to, they certainly were – and still are – highly regarded.

    All the best,


  9. nobby says:

    You could still join the British Army as a boy soldier in the 1960's and later.
    After 15 and a half years old you could sign on as an Army Apprentice or Junior Leader.
    My brother and I both did it in the mid and late 1960's. I was a week short of my 16th birthday when I reported to my first camp and my brother three months short of his.
    No suggestion of being put to active service until you were 17 and a half though.

  10. Nobby,

    I always thought that the Army Apprentice/Junior Leaders scheme was an excellent idea, and its demise was a sad occasion.

    It was scrapped as part of that 'great' educational idea that everyone going through the education system should be given the same opportunities (i.e. they should all have an academic education). It did not suit a lot of pupils, who wanted to get some form of vocational training, be it as a soldier, a plumber, a police officer, or a carpenter.

    Nowadays we are going back to the idea that pupils should be given an education that matches their needs, and not some spurious concept that sees getting academic qualifications as the be-all and end-all of the education process … but that is one of my hobby horses so I won't continue!

    All the best,


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