June 28, 1914. In Sarajevo a nineteen-year-old Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shoots and kills Archduke Ferdinand of Austria as well as his wife the Countess Hohenberg. In reaction to the death of the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria sends Serbia an ultimatum. Within a matter of weeks European countries mobilize their armies. It is the beginning of the First World War, a conflict that will consume Europe and lead to the deaths of millions.
The First World War (1914-1918) is a turning point in history. The conflict saw the fall of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires. It introduced the use of chemical weapons, such as chlorine and mustard gas. Fighter planes, flame throwers, machine guns and tanks would wreak terrible havoc on enemy troops. This conflict was the dawn of a new age.
Old Enough to Fight: Canada’s Boy Soldiers in the First World War is written by Dan Black and John Boileau. It is the stories of young combatants who enlisted and fought side-by-side men twice their age. It’s estimated that out of the 424,589 who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, as many as 20,000 underage soldiers fought in Europe.
The thought of child soldiers in the Canadian army is a strange one. After all, how could a minor be able to enroll in the army? In 1914, birth certificates were rare. It was easy for boys to lie about their age because there was no way to verify this information. In some cases recruiting officers turned down the applicants because it was obvious the potential recruit was underage. However, that did not stop those who were determined to fight. Occasionally, it was as simple as trying to enlist elsewhere. Canada was at war and it needed every available man and child to help defeat the Hun.
But why would a young man want to rush off and fight in a war? There are many reasons as to why boy soldiers decided to join the CEF. For some, it was an opportunity to leave their jobs in the factories or farm fields. Those who lived in poverty or orphanages enrolled out of desperation. Then there were those who enlisted for the same reasons as the adults- the promise of adventure. Stories from popular publications such as Boy’s Own Annual helped fuel the idea of achieving glory on the battlefield.
For Burton Woods it was an opportunity for a better life. Born in England (1899), he was orphaned at an early age. He was sent to Canada at the age of eleven by an English Christian charity who committed themselves to the welfare of orphans and street urchins. Woods had been working on a farm for five years when the war began. Shortly afterwards he ran away and joined the army. While working on the farm he had been earning 5 dollars per year plus his keep. In the army he was paid a dollar and ten cents per day, and received a uniform, food and a roof over his head. Whatever the reasons, thousands enlisted.
As the book unfolds we follow the CEF throughout the course of the war. At Valcartier , Québec, citizens train to become disciplined soldiers of the CEF. At the Second Battle of Ypres, the German army unleashes chlorine gas on the French, Algerians, and Canadians. At Festubert, after a fierce battle the Canadians gain 1200 square meters at the cost of 2,605 dead. The Battle of the Somme, which came to represent the greatest loss of life on the Western Front, 432,000 British, 204,000 French and more than 650,000 Germans are killed and wounded.
The book is much more than a historical account of the war; it gives us a unique perspective from the child soldiers who fought in these battles. Letters written by these boys are featured throughout the book. These give us a rare glimpse into the minds of these youths.
Private Willie Dailey was fourteen when he joined the CEF. Despite his boyish looks he was able to pass as eighteen years old, perhaps because the recruiters purposely turned a blind eye. During his time with the army he wrote back home. In his letters he tells his mother about life in the military. He writes about some extraordinary sights of the Western Front, such as Zeppelins flying overhead. At times he asks for his mother to send him something to eat, or a pair of socks. In spite of all the hardships the young soldier does his best at adapting to life in the military. But at times he allows his frustration get the better of him, “I wish you would send me some cedar oil to kill some of the ‘elephants’ (lice) on me…”
Along with these letters the book also features interviews with some of the surviving soldiers. These interviews bring the battles alive as the veteran’s words jump from the page.
Shortly after his seventeenth birthday, Fred Claydon arrived in France with the 43rd (Cameron Highlanders of Canada) Battalion. The young soldier acted as a scout and survived several close calls while serving with his Battalion. Before heading into the Battle of Amiens the military police left him in charge of a drunken private. “This guy- the private- was a hell of a good guy. There wasn’t a mean bone in his body.” The private got away from him, made his way through a crowd of men, then cold-cocked a colonel. Considering the subject of the book, this is a surprising and very welcomed moment of humor.
‘Old Enough to Fight’ is an important book because it discusses the war and its combatants. The courage which these underage youths displayed rivals that of any other veteran. The authors have written a great book which shines light on something that was previously ignored.
– D.P. Bohémier