My grandfather lied about his age to enlist in World War One. Compared to others, he was an old man at all of seventeen.
Although the minimum age allowed for enlistment was eighteen, V.J. Strudwick enlisted by lying about his age. He became a rifleman in the 8th battalion. It appears that he was fourteen when he enlisted. He was wounded, and repatriated to a hospital in England for three months. When he recovered, he requested to return to his battalion, and died one month before his sixteenth birthday in Ypres, Belgium.
Much is made today of child soldiers, but it is nothing new. The reason Valentine enlisted may never be known, but he was remembered as a good soldier by his commanders. He was clearly dedicated, as inferred by his return after being wounded severely enough to have been sent to hospital back in England. His family was poor, so poor in fact that his mother was unable to travel to the hospital to visit him, her last vision of her son was of him leaving for war.
In the early days of the war, there were many reasons to enlist. One man stated his reason as being able to get away from the coal mines where he had worked. Another knew that soldiers received new boots, and he had no shoes. There was a great deal of anti German propaganda at the time, and certainly many enlisted out of a desire to protect their families, from the evil German hordes, or out of national pride, or a sense of duty. When I enlisted in the military in 1980, at the age of 22, it was because I felt the only differences could be made from within the system, that I would be able to bring some level of intelligence to the decisions being made and with hope save a few lives. We can all be foolish when we’re inexperienced.
Valentine may be among the youngest, but he had much company. Young men from many countries enlisted for a spectrum of reasons. A few years into the war, when the reality of the horrors taking place trickled home, volunteerism dropped off and conscription filled the ranks. In Germany, universities were vacated to provide soldiers. Unlike other nations, in which a recruit would receive training and then be assigned to a low intensity unit to acclimate to the war, young Germans were placed directly on the front after training. Of a population of 65 million, Germany lost 2.1 million in the war, more military deaths than any country except Russia. As a percentage of population, Serbia lost over 16% of its people, many were civilian deaths. The Ottoman Empire had its greatest losses in civilian lives, over 2 million lost mostly to famine.
Simon Hazard, a Sergeant Major of the 12th mixed brigade, wrote home to his mother “Dear Mother, I leave for Liege, probably tomorrow Saturday. I am very pleased. I join my unit. I am going to war on horseback, it is better dying doing your duty than living without fulfilling that duty”.
The young have served as cannon fodder for all time.
The German cemetery in Ypres, Langemark, is a collection of mass graves. Following the first World War, Belgium granted the land on which German soldiers were buried to the German government for 35 years, after which they would be required to pay for rent and upkeep. Originally Langemark held 10, 143 remains. After the second World War remains were exhumed from other cemeteries and “amalgamated” to Langemark. The remains of approximately 25,000 unknown soldiers reside in a single mass vault, the total of remains in the cemetery is in the range of 44,000. Adolf Hitler visited the cemetery in 1940, and while photos of him appear to show solemnity as he viewed the graves bearing only the names of entire units of student soldiers, a more cynical view may imagine other thoughts in his mind.
A statue by Emil Krieger, inspired by a photograph of mourning soldiers, stands near the rear of Langemark cemetery. The soldier second from the right in the photograph, portrayed by the figure at the far right in the sculpture, was killed a week after the photograph was taken.
In the museum in Ypres, there is a slice from a tree that survived the war. From counting the rings, the tree dates to the eighteenth century. The large black stains are scars at the rings representing the period of the first World War.
In the battles of Passendale, lasting 16 weeks in the late summer of 1917, although figures have been in dispute, between 400,000 and 800,000 lives were lost. one estimate is that for every meter of the eight kilometer campaign, thirty five lives were lost. In American terms that’s about one life per inch for five miles. All sides faced recriminations for the losses. Today, many consider Marshal Foch to be a “war criminal” for maintaining tactics that led to so many “unnecessary deaths”. Stop and think about that reasoning. It assumes that there are necessary deaths.
The first recorded war, between what was then Iraq and what was then Iran, was in 2700 BC. There were probably earlier wars, but we had not invented writing yet. Today, starving people buy bullets rather than food. I would never say there is nothing worth dying for, but it is always important to balance all the things worth living for.
I’ll write about something lighter on Sunday, then continue with this series on Monday. For now, I’m off on my quest to find a particular beer, listen to some nice music, and enjoy the company of family.