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Have a reflective Remembrance Day. Remember WWI's young teens

When the book Russian ANZACs came out in 2005, I was sitting in an outdoor coffeeshop, discussing the subject with my neighbour-cousin. I knew our two grandfather had sailed together to Australia in Jan 1914, but I had no idea that the two teens had later run away to enlist in the army together. They had no car, no parents to sign consent, no savings and little English. So they hitch-hiked interstate where they were not known, and forged each other’s parental signature.

Today, Remembrance Day 2019, a new book was launched that suggested our two grandfathers were far from the only under-age boys who en­list­ed. In The Lost Boys: The Untold Stories of the Under-age Sold­iers who Fought in the First World War,  the author Paul Byrnes told their stories. I haven’t seen the book yet, so I have relied on The Sydney Morning Her­ald review.

In the 1914–18 Great War, the Australian Army's enlistment age was 21 years, or 18 years if there was parental consent. Boys under 18 could only enlist as buglers. In New Zealand, the govern­ment’s National Regis­tration Scheme required men aged 17-60 to reg­is­ter with the govern­ment.

The book captured the incredible and previously un­told stories of 40 boys and one girl from Australia and New Zealand who fought in the Great War, from Gallipoli (1915) to the Arm­is­tice (11th Nov 1918). Gallip­oli was the most horrific war site, since 8700 Australians and 2700 New Zealanders died on that rocky beach.

A unique perspective on WW1, The Lost Boys was military history made deeply personal, a homage to youthful bravery and a poignant reminder of the horror of war. The Lost Boys was fully illustrated throughout featuring stunning portraits from the Aus­tralian National War Memorial archives, photo­graphy, exquisite writing and very moving stories.

In The Lost Boys: The Untold Stories of the Under-age Sold­iers who Fought in the First World War, by Paul Byrnes, 2019 

In WW1 of 1914–1918, thousands of boys across Australia and New Zealand lied about their age, forged a parent’s signature and left to fight on the other side of the world. The book featured haunting images of the boys taken at train­ing camps and behind the lines, telling tales that were both heart breaking and rousing, full of daring, ingenuity, recklessness, random horror and capricious luck. With this unique perspective on WW1, The Lost Boys made military history that was a deeply pers­on­al,  a powerful homage to young brav­ery and to the sacrifice of war.

Les Shaw was the youngest known Anzac enlisted to go to Gallipoli, at 13.5! The former Kings School Parramatta student lied about his age and signed up when he was only 165 centimetres tall and weighed only 53.5 kilograms, to fight against the Germans. What was the Australian Army thinking?? Thankfully Shaw was discharged at 17 when it was discovered how young he had been. But after a few post-war exploits in Sydney, some prison stays and two childless marriages, he died a drunk in 1947 at 46.

William Jackson, a farm boy from the NSW plains near Hay, had never seen a train until he went to Sydney aged 16 to sign up in the Army. Jackson, who lost a hand in June 1916, still went back out into No Man’s Land to rescue mates with the severed hand tied up with string. Jackson was the young­est of the 100 Australians to be aw­arded a Victoria Cross for brav­ery. But he too had a horrible post-war life of drunkenness and police records, dying in 1959 at 61.

Now I want to know what the motive was, urging adolescents to leave home and join the army:
To serve their country in war-torn Europe?
To leave their rural home for the first time in their lives?
To earn a regular living, albeit a skimpy one?
To get away from a brutal father or an alcoholic mother?
To test their manhood?
To learn some employable skills?
Something else or some mixture of motives?

Author Paul Byrnes felt moved to write the book when he learnt some of the untold stories of the many young lads who left for battles abroad. The idea came to him while he was on a battlefield tour in Belgium and dis­cov­ered 150 graves of under-age soldiers. So he began a two-year quest which took him through Belgium, France, Sydney's State Lib­rary and Canberra's War Memorial, RSL archives and, tracking families of under-age WW1 soldiers. Many had tragic stories. Even of those who did arrive home alive, many suffered shell shock, all forms of addictions, broken marriages, shattered family relationships and early deaths.

Let me repeat, what was the Australian Army thinking? What a waste of young lads' lives! It was no insult to the memory of the lost boys to say they should never have been there at war, and no justification to recognise that they fought well and bravely.


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