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  1. ITV Report

WW1 letters reveal excitement and horror of the generation of children who lied to go to war

  • By ITV News Content Producer Marcus Chippindale

By the time Cyril Jose celebrated his 16th birthday, he had already signed up to fight for Britain in World War One.

He was trained, armed and sent to the trenches, attacking the German lines in the Battle of the Somme and suffering a serious injury to his shoulder.

Cyril was one of around 250,000 underage troops who signed up to fight in the war.

Soldiers were meant to be 19 to fight overseas.

Not everyone lining up to be cleared for war was old enough to fight. Credit: PA

But many youngsters either slipped through the net or were allowed through by recruitment officers turning a blind eye because of the need for troops and the commission received for each they signed up.

The underage letters from the front and journals written after the war reveal the lengths some went to join those going off to fight.

After being rejected in Hertfordshire at 16, T.A. Bickerton wrote that he was “determined to do something about my size and my chest measurement” in order to appear 19.

"I asked the soldiers to show me the best sort of exercise to expand my chest measurement and also to increase my height," he wrote.

T.A. Bickerton was recruited to fight at the second attempt after beefing up his underage body. Credit: Imperial War Museum

"I managed during the next three months to increase my height to 5ft 2.5in, which was the minimum required, and also to expand my chest so that I was just the right measurement."

He was still too young the next time he appeared for assessment, but this time his recruiters weren't deterred.

Bickerton wrote: “He enquired my age and when I replied ‘17’ he said ‘Ah! I’m afraid you are too young, but you come along to the Orderly Room tomorrow morning, tell them you are 19 and you are in the North Staffs, and a jolly good regiment to join’.”

Bickerton ultimately signed up to the Hertfordshire Regiment in 1915 and saw action in France.

But his youth still showed when it came to undertaking the manual labour required at the front.

He recalled: "I had been in the Army about 13 months, and had grown quite tall during that period, but unfortunately I had not developed physically and found the hard works at night intolerable, often falling down under the loads I had to carry."

While many accounts from these underage soldiers document the horrors of war – as well as death, Bickerton describes how “trenches and dug-outs were infested with rats” - Cyril Jose’s letters from the early part of his service portray his excitement at going off to fight.

Cyril Jose's letters describe how close he came to death after enlisting at 15. Credit: Imperial War Museum

While in training, he wrote to his sister: “Dearest Ivy, Stand back! I’ve got my own rifle and bayonet. Guess the rifle is heavy.

"The rifle with bayonet fixed reaches up to my ear from ground. The bayonet is about two feet long from hilt to point.

"Must feel a bit rummy to run on to one of them in a charge.”

In a later letter from the trenches to his mother in August 1915, he described “the most exciting day I’ve ever had” in which he came under mortar fire, at one point being thrown through the air by an explosion.

Cyril Jose wrote home excitedly from war, even after being wounded. Credit: Imperial War Museum

This youthful exuberance is evident in many of Cyril’s early letters from the war, but following his injury at the Somme – which he described as “a bit of a wound in the shoulder” – he displayed more disdain for the war and its commanders as the years went by.

Another underage soldier was Horace Calvert. Born in Bradford in September 1899, he signed up just days after his 15th birthday.

Horace Calvert, right, seen revisiting the Somme in 1987. Credit: Bert Hunt

He deserted the West Yorkshire Regiment within a few months and joined the Grenadier Guards, where he describes himself being “a boy amongst men”.

The youngster was shipped off to France in the spring of 1916, where the horrors and dangers of war were all too evident.

“When digging outside the trenches there was a smell which was most unpleasant, the smell of death so the old soldiers told me,” he writes.

Horace was injured by a bomb splinter in September 1916 and returned to England, whereupon his true age was discovered and he did not return to the front again until he was of age.

  • Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders of T.A. Bickerton’s private papers. The Imperial War Museum would be grateful for any information which might help to trace them.