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Child Soldiers of the Great War

Although most European armies conscripted men for military service at 20, in wartime they allowed older teenagers to volunteer, setting a minimum age for service at 17, 18, or 19, depending upon the country. As official documentation about individuals was sparse in those days, once the war began it was relatively easy for younger boys to lie about their age or produce false papers and enlist. Underage volunteers were found in all countries, and they were not rare. By one calculation an estimated 250,000 “Boy Soldiers” served in the British Army during the war, of whom perhaps a third or half perished, amounting to about a seventh or eighth of the army’s war dead. Boy soldiers were rather common in armies that experienced very heavy manpower losses, such as the Turkish, Russian, and Serbian, with the last two having a suprising number of girl soldiers as well. The service of underage soldiers is generally poorly documented.

Some examples from various armies:

  • Jean Corentin Carré (1900-1918): Hailing from a part of France under German occupation, which meant his correct age could not be checked, he enlisted in the 410e Regiment de Infanterie in early 1915. Commended several times for excellence as a soldier, in 1917 Carré volunteered for the air service. In March of 1918, while flying a Sopwith in the escadrille SO-229, he was shot down near Verdun, and died of his wounds in a military hospital on the 18th. Carré is generally regarded as the youngest “poilu,” the French equivalent of “Doughboy.”
  • John Condon (1896/1900-1915): He joined the 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment in 1913, and is often regarded as the youngest Allied soldier known to have been killed in action in the war. While there is some doubt as to how young Condon was when he was gassed in Flanders on May 24, 1915, whether 14 – as tradition has it – or the more likely 18, when he arrived at the front in 1914 he was certainly legally underage for military service.
  • Momčilo Gavrić (1906-1993): Eight years old in August of 1914 when his family was killed by Croatian troops during the first Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia, Gavrić attached himself to the 6th Artillery Regiment of the Serbian Drina Division. He spent most of the war with the regiment, took part in the great retreat through Albania, and ended the war on the Salonika front, by which time he had been promoted to sergeant. After the war Gavrić was sent to school in England for a time, was conscripted into the Yugoslav Army (despite his claim to have already done his bit) and engaged in business. During World War II he had difficulties with the German occupation authorities and also with the Communist regime post-war. Gavrić is believed to have been the youngest combatant on the Allied side in the war. 
  • Mike Mansfield (1903-2001): In 1917, aged 14, he altered his birth certificate to join the U.S. Navy and served on Atlantic convoys until his real age was discovered and he was discharged. Mansfield later worked as a miner, became a professor of Far Eastern History, and entered politics as a Democrat, serving ten years as a Representative and 24 as a Senator.
  • Thomas Collier Marshall (1899-1925): Apparently with the aid of his father, he enlisted illegally as a field musician in the 5th (Territorial) Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment in 1913, when about 12½. Marshall served at the Front from early 1915 until discharged as underage in 1916.
  • James “Jim” Martin (1901-1915) : He lied about his age to enlist in the Australian 21st Battalion at age 14¼ years, he served three months in the trenches at Gallipoli and died of dysentery at 14¾. Martin was the youngest of the 20 known underage Australian soldiers who died in the war.
  • André Marcel Dieudonné (1899-1918): He lied about his age to enlist in the 26e bataillon de chasseurs in early 1915, and was killed during the Second Battle of the Marne.
  • Lazare Ponticelli (1897-2008): An Italian laborer living in France, he lied about his age on the outbreak of the war to join the Foreign Legion at 16. He served with other Italian volunteers in the Legione Garibaldina, then transferred to the Italian Army as a machine gunner in the 3º Reggimento Alpini (1915-1918), being wounded and gassed. After the war Ponticelli settled in France, and later took part in the Resistance (1942-1945). He held the French Croix de guerre, Médaille Interalliée, and Légion d'honneur, and the Italian Ordine di Vittorio Veneto. On his death at 110 on March 12, 2008, Ponticelli was the last French combat veteran, the last Foreign Legion veteran, and the next-to-last Italian combat veteran of the Great War.
  • Victor Marlborough Silvester (1900-1978): He enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at 16, fought in the Battle of Arras, and served until discharged as underage in 1917. He later served as a British Army ambulance man on the Italian Front. Postwar Silvester became a noted figure in British ballroom dancing and television.
  • Martin Steinhardt (1900-1914): One of a number of underage Jewish volunteers in the German Army, he was a school boy from Mannheim. Big for his age, on the outbreak of the war he enlisted using false papers, was killed in action on October 18, 1914, and was awarded an Iron Cross.
  • Erich von Zelewski (1899-1972): A secondary school student, he enlisted at 15, using false papers and served through the war (wounded twice, gassed) rising to lieutenant, while receiving the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class. Postwar he falsely claimed to have been the youngest soldier in the Kaiser’s army. Changing his name to Erich von dem Bach Zelewski, and then to Erich von dem Bach, he became a notorious Nazi thug, responsible for the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and other atrocities, and died in prison for war crimes.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that navies commonly had many very young teenagers in service. Britain’s Royal Navy accepted boys for service at 13, and many boys died during the naval war; John Cornwell (1900-1916), who died of wounds incurred while serving in the cruiser HMS Chester at the Battle of Jutland, was the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross in the war.

The actual number of child soldiers who served in the war will never be known.


Mobilization for the Great War

Although the impression is that all of the European armies in 1914 were ready to march off to war at the drop of a hat, in fact during peacetime many higher formations, such as divisions and corps, existed only on paper, and the troops were scattered all across their homelands in small garrisons. This facilitated recruiting and training, not to mention internal security. Even active regular army units were rarely at full war strength. So before going to war, the armies had to mobilize. Because of differing military systems, railroad networks, resources, and geography, each of the principal European powers had a different model for mobilization, and it took their troops different times to get ready to achieve full mobilization and undertake operations.

Mobilization had several phases.

War Warning. Whether it was called “War Warning” or “Threat of War” or some other term, all of the countries had arrangements to take certain preliminary steps before initiating full mobilization. These included things like recalling active duty personnel from leave, alerting railroads of possible imminent mobilization, ramping up munitions production, purchasing or requisitioning additional horses, initiating special financial measures, arresting dissidents, and so forth.

The “Couverture.” All armies had some forces immediately ready to take the field, to serve as a “Covering Force,” known in French as the “Couverture” The mission of the covering force was to secure important installations on or near the frontier, slow down any sudden enemy moves and to protect – “cover” – the arrival of additional forces. France, for example, had five army corps and four cavalry divisions close to war strength stationed on its frontier with Germany, to act as the covering force during mobilization. Some units of the French couverture were supposed to be ready for duty within three hours of notification, and the balance within eight. These troops took up their positions so quickly that skirmishing between French covering force troops and German scouts began on August 2nd, before war had been declared between the two nations, though after Germany had already occupied Luxemburg and sent patrols into France. On their part, the Germans had the special “Army of the Meuse,” of about 60,000 men in six brigades plus two cavalry divisions, drawn from the army corps closest to the Belgian frontier. Although not fully up to war strength, the “Army of the Meuse” was tasked with invading Belgium on the third day of mobilization (August 4), to capture take Liege by a coup de main in order to facilitate the movement of the right wing armies; in the event, Liege failed to fall immediately, and a siege was required, which slowed the German advance by a day or three.

While the covering force was moving into position, the other steps of mobilization were being implemented.

Activation and Concentration. In all armies, active duty units were rarely at full war strength and second- and third-line units existed largely on paper. So reservists, territorials, and militiamen had to be notified to report to their duty stations. In Germany delivering mobilization notices required the services of some 200,000 telegraph and 100,000 telephone workers.

As the reservists reported to their units, they were given physical examinations, issued arms, uniforms, and other equipment, and then took their places in the ranks. Some idea of the proportion of reserve component personnel in the various types of units can be gained by looking at the Germany Army.

  • Active Army Corps: c. 55 percent active personnel and c. 45 percent recent reservists.
  • Cavalry Divisions: In peacetime these actually only consisted of designated commanders and staffs. Active cavalry regiments were close to full strength, however, so aside from some officer reservists, they were composed almost entirely of regular personnel, and brigades and divisions could be activated quickly.
  • Reserve Formations: These only existed on paper in peace time, so they had to be formed quickly from about 45 percent reservists and about 55 percent men aged 27-32from the First ban of the Landwehr (Landwehr I) with a small cadre of active duty personnel.
  • Landwehr Formations: A few reservists or recalled retirees served as cadre, plus c. 60 percent Landwehr I and c. 40 percent Landwehr II personnel (men aged 33-38).
  • Landsturm Formations: These were composed almost entirely of overage personnel.

As the troops were concentrating, unit staffs were supervising the packing of equipment in anticipation of entraining for movement to the unit’s assigned deployment areas.

Reservists were mostly assigned to units near their homes, so that concentration could be done quite quickly, as units mobilized in place at their home stations. For the French Army:

  • Active corps required between 4 and 9 days to mobilize
  • Reserve divisions, 9 to 12 days
  • Territorial divisions, 5 to 15 days
  • Cavalry divisions only 1½ to 3 days due to the higher peacetime readiness of the mounted arm.

The time required to mobilize varied depending on a unit’s peacetime strength, the population density of its recruiting area, and extent of the regional rail net. Units with large but thinly populated recruiting areas, or where the rail lines were less well developed, would generally take longer to complete mobilization.

Of course some reservists were not home when mobilization orders were issued, and they had to travel further than usual to get to their units. Although both France and Germany issued mobilization orders on August 1, 1914, since Britain did not enter the war until midnight on the 4th, for three days Londoners were "entertained" by the sight of German and French reservists who were living in Blighty rubbing shoulders with each other as they crowded the railroad stations to catch trains to the ports from which they could take ship to the Netherlands, Germany, or France in order to return home and join their units.

Entrainment and Deployment. Once concentrated, units began moving to their assigned deployment areas, mostly by rail. The German deployment was the most complex of all the powers, because of the size of the army and the need to deploy for a two-front war, in the West against France and in the East against Russia.

Although there was some variation, a combat-ready German regular army corps, of about 44,000 men and 160 pieces of artillery, with thousands of horses and tons of ammunition and supplies, required 280 trains to move from its depot to its deployment area. These comprised nearly 300 locomotives and over 12,000 wagons, of which:

170 were passenger carriages for the officers,

965 were freight wagons for the troops,

2960 were specially fitted wagons for horses,

1915 were flat cars or freight wagons for artillery and impedimenta,

c. 6000 were freight cars for ammunition, food, fodder, and supplies.

The entire German Army comprised 26 regular and 12 reserve army corps, 12½ cavalry divisions, 10 independent Reserve, Ersatz , and Landwehr divisions, 27 independent brigades of various types, plus many smaller miscellaneous units such as heavy howitzer and mortar battalions and batteries, pioneer units, and railroad repair battalions. To move this host, and the naval reservists called up to strengthen the fleet, required some 11,000 trains. On paper these came to over 460,000 railroad wagons, though actually far fewer were involved, since as soon as troops were delivered to the front, the trains would head back to pick up more. Germany’s rail net had been deliberately laid out to facilitate mobilization, and the movements were carefully orchestrated. Traffic over some bridges was almost continuous.

The largest coordinated rail movement of troops in history, the German mobilization was essentially completed in just 18 days, with an insignificant number of trains failing to meet their targeted departure or arrival times. Oddly, at the height of mobilization, perhaps the busiest rail lines in Germany were those of the Berlin metro, as it linked the several railroad stations in the city, making it easier for hundreds of thousands of troops converging on the capitol from different parts of the country to switch trains without having to march through the streets.

Although the German mobilization required 18 days, some formations were ready sooner. On August 1st, orders were issued for mobilization to begin on the 2nd (mobilization day or M-Day). Units of the covering force and the Army of Meuse were ready within a day or two of mobilization. Although in peacetime the cavalry was mostly distributed around the country in brigades and even separate regiments, since these were more or less at war strength, all ten divisions were formed around pre-designated cadres and were ready for operations by August 5th (M+3). Active army corps were ready by the 12th (M+10), reserve corps by the 15th (M+13). So by the 15th (M+13) the bulk of the field forces had reached their assigned deployment areas, mostly on the frontiers, and by the 20th (M+18), the remaining Landwehr, Ersatz, and miscellaneous supporting units had reached their starting positions.

The experience of the other armies was similar. Counting from their respective M-Days, the 13 Austro-Hungarian army corps required 21 days and about 4,3000 trains to get to the front, of which only 19 were late, while the 24 French corps needed 15 days and about 7,000 trains, with only a minuscule number late. The 17 Italian corps took 23 days and 7,000 trains, though their mobilization was not completed.

Some of the differences in the time required for mobilization were due to speed of the trains, as well as the density of railroad network. Surprisingly, during mobilization German trains only moved at 30 kilometers an hour, and the Austro-Hungarian ones were even slower, 18 kph, in part due to the quality of track and equipment, but also because of the intricacies of the mobilization planning.

The Russian and British mobilization system were somewhat different from those of the other European countries.

The British Expeditionary Force required just 12 days from mobilization on August 5th for the completion of the movement by rail and sea of the first elements of the two army corps, cavalry division, and an “air force” (63 airplanes) to France (via Boulogne, Le Havre, and Rouen) on August 17th. Three days later the BEF concentrated on the French left flank, between Maubeuge and Le Cateau in northern France, where on August 23rd they were joined by an additional infantry division. A third corps, of two active divisions was at that time still in Britain, in reserve for emergencies. Although usually thought of a manned by long serving veterans, about half of the troops who went to France with the BEF in 1914 were reservists, some men having been on “Civie Street” for nearly a decade.

Although the Russians required six weeks for full mobilization, they agreed to undertake operations against Germany by the 15th day of mobilization, to support their allies the French. So in effect Russian mobilization took place in two phases. The corps in military districts near the German and Austro-Hungarian frontiers were the first to be completed, in order to undertake operations on M+15, while the rest of the army was still getting ready. Some Russian units in the hinterland, such at those in Siberia and the Far East, required the full six weeks to reach the front. By the 23rd day of mobilization (August 23rd), about 45 percent of Russia’s 114 divisions were on the German or Austro-Hungarian fronts, without counting c. 20 divisions assigned to the Caucasus to watch the Turks, who would not enter the war for more than two months. Mobilization times are not given for the smaller countries, as they were quite short, due to their size; Serbia, despite having a very poor rail net, mobilized in about five days.

Mobilization of Army Corps
Corps M+
Austria-Hungary 13 21
British 2 12
France 24 17
Germany 38 15
Italy 17 23
Russia 16 17-22
Key: M+ indicates the number of days after mobilization day all the corps would be ready. Figures for Russia covers only the army corps intended for immediate operations, against
East Prussia; mobilization of the entire army required 42 days. Italy mobilized partially in August of 1914, but did not enter the war until May of 1915.

In all armies, the troops involved in the initial mobilization were those on active duty or in first line reserve status, who were usually joined by some second and third line troops, the bulk of whom would not be ready for some time yet.

Manpower. During mobilization active manpower expanded enormously, and it continued to expand as the year went on, despite very heavy losses. The Russian Army is a good example.

Although some preliminary measures had been quietly taken beginning with Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia, it was not until July 29th that a partial mobilization was ordered for the military districts on the Austro-Hungarian frontier. As it turned out, there were no plans for a “partial mobilization,” so on July 30th the Tsar ordered full mobilization to begin, designating the 31st as M-Day.

The Russian Army had 1,423,000 active duty personnel. On M-Day 3,115,000 reservists were called up, so that by mid-August the army had about 4.5 million men, of whom about 3.5 million were available for operations, which had already begun.

Meanwhile, more troops were being called up. By September 22nd 1,100,000 Territorials had been ordered to report, of whom only about 400,000 had prior service, being older reservists. The rest had had little training, as was the case with the 715,000 recruits and volunteers who were on hand by October 1st. Finally, in November a further 200,000 minimally trained Territorials were called up. So on paper Russia put 6,553,000 men into uniform in 1914, though after accounting for casualties (c. 1,000,000), there were actually only about 5,000,000 men on duty by the end of 1914, with many poorly trained or wholly untrained, so Russia’s field strength actually declined despite ongoing mobilization.

Russian Field Strength, 1914

Mid-August   c. 3.5 million

Oct 1           c. 2.7

Dec 1          c. 2.0

Russia’s five million men in uniform by the end of 1914 was by no means a extraordinary effort, given the population of the country. By the end of 1914, despite losses, France had about 4,000,000 men under arms, about a tenth of her population, Germany was close to 5,000,000, Austria-Hungary around 3,000,000, and even Britain had nearly a million, albeit most still in training.

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