First World War heroes who were just boys

Military records show the efforts of under-age volunteers to get on the front line
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The Independent Online
As Britain today observes a two-minute silence on Armistice Day itself in addition to yesterday's act of remembrance, records revealing the horrors and heroism of the First World War are being released by the Public Record Office.

The first batch of enlistment, medical and discharge records of the 1914- 18 war come into the public domain in a year when an unprecedented three national silences are being observed to remember those who died in the conflict. The first was at the Royal Legion's Festival of Remembrance on Saturday, the second was the traditional ceremony at Whitehall yesterday and the third is today.

The released service documents show the lengths to which under-age volunteers went to get past recruiters and on to the front line. One such case was that of 15-year-old Private George Alfred Redrup, who led a double life. Redrup, of Prestwood, Buckinghamshire, joined two regiments at the heart of the fighting and was awarded the 1914-15 Star and the Victory Medal, before dying at the age of 19.

"Until now, the medal-roll has shown Pte Redrup as two separate soldiers with the same name," said Simon Fowler, exhibition officer at the Public Record Office at Kew, west London. "The Army does not seem to have realised that the two entries refer to the same man."

Only 40 per cent of service documents have survived. Many were destroyed in 1940, when the London building in which they were stored was bombed. Three-quarters of those surviving are fire-damaged and are not therefore being released at present. Some historians hailed today's release of documents as "enormously significant" - the 750,000 files could change our understanding of the war, they said.

But Francisco Romero-Salvado, lecturer in modern European history at London Guildhall University, doubted they would add much to scholarship unless they showed under-age volunteers were still desperate to join in 1917-18. "We know there was this great heroism ... of masses trying to get conscripted in 1914. It would, however, be shocking if the documents provided evidence that these people below age to sign up still wanted to go and fight in the later stages of the war. By 1917 it was not patriotic at all. It was almost a miracle that they managed to finish the war."

Norman Stone, professor of Modern History at Oxford, said the records might provide a yardstick for the peaks and troughs in the Army's mood during the war. "If people go pilfering or report sick, it's a sign of collapsing morale ... You can tell simply by the number of French people who reported medical conditions in 1917 the level of demoralisation. One of the big questions about the First World War is: Why did the men stand it? There might be something there."

The British Legion, which has campaigned for a revival of the Armistice Day silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, believes that yesterday more people than in many a year observed the two-minute silence.

Since the Second World War the Sunday nearest 11 November - rather than the date itself - has been the day when the Royal Family and political leaders have led the nation in silent tribute.

David France, director of the Legion's Armistice Day silence campaign, said: "When we started the campaign last year many firms said they found out too late and did not realise the extent of support. This time supermarkets and other leading firms have been telling us that they intend to announce the silence on their premises on both Sunday and Monday."

The Queen Mother, who is 96, was said to be "very disappointed" that a chill kept her away from the Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall yesterday.

Meanwhile, two members of the last Labour government have launched a campaign to make Second World War poetry part of the National Curriculum.

Lord Healey and Lord Merlyn Rees believe the standard of The Voice of War, a collection of the best poems from the Second World War, published this week, is so good it ought to be studied in schools.

"This is the authentic voice of war," said Lord Healey. "This was a grass- roots war and the poems are a poignant reflection of what happened. It would be marvellous if today's students were given the chance of studying them."