Teenage Tommies, BBC2 - TV review: The shocking tale of how Britain's boy soldiers were killed by their own side


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The Independent Culture

If you're going to lay it on thick, a centenary Remembrance Day is not a bad time to do so. Replete with moving letters from the trenches, gut-wrenching stories of bereaved families, and a sentimental orchestral score, Teenage Tommies (BBC2) retold the stories of five adolescents sent over the top during the Great War.

Those hoping for a blindly patriotic affair will have been disappointed. A sombre-faced Fergal Keane was the presenter charged with bringing great grand-children, nephews and nieces back to the Somme, Ypres and Loos, and the futility of the action fought on those war fields was rarely lost sight of. "I was alone in a field of dead men, my uniform purple with blood," recounted a letter of one soldier forced to crawl back through no man's land following a day of fighting at the Somme.

It's not the only anecdote of its kind to survive the Great War, but it remains striking, as Keane pointed out, that this was an account written by a 16-year-old. These are stories many viewers will have been all too familiar with, but what Teenage Tommies did so well was to expose the callousness with which British enlistment authorities signed up adolescents to fight. As many as 250,000 boys under the age of 18 served between 1914 and 1919, and British Army officials, Keane told us, had few qualms in allowing every 10th volunteer to lie about their age. The youngest, we were rightfully reminded, were just 14.

Most shocking of all was Keane's retelling of the many cases in which young British soldiers were executed by their own side. The "death for deserters" rule saw 306 soldiers killed by the British firing line. One of whom, we were informed, was 17-year-old Abi Bevistein, a Jewish boy from east London, executed for fleeing the French front line after wounding, hospitalisation, and shell shock.

Did Teenage Tommies give us sufficient pause to think about the events of a 100 years ago? My partner wept from minute one to minute 60. Mission accomplished.