Sidney Lewis, the child soldier of WWI


The youngest Briton to fight in World War I was just 12 years old — but Sidney Lewis’ identity remained a secret for almost a century until the chance discovery of faded documents revealed his extraordinary story.

The centenary of the start of the war in 1914 has brought official recognition of Sidney’s remarkable journey from an English schoolboy to a fighter on the bloody fields of the Somme.

 

The story began in August 1915, when Britain had been at war for a year. The army was desperate for more men, although it was still reliant on volunteers.

“Boys would have been filled with the patriotism which was amazingly strong at the beginning of WWI,” said Anthony Richards, head of documents and sound at the Imperial War Museum in London.

“There would have been a lot of pressure from their families and friends, and from society generally, to do your bit for the war.”

Lied about age

On holiday from school, the fearless young Sidney decided to take his chances and signed up for the army in Kingston, London.

He lied to the recruitment officer about his age, pretending he was several years older.

250,000 underage soldiers

He was not alone about 250,000 underage soldiers fought for Britain in WWI, according to historian Richard van Emden, author of “Boy Soldiers of the Great War”.

But Lewis was a special case. “How a 12-year-old got into the British army is really beyond belief,” van Emden told AFP.

In a photo from the time Sidney “looked older than his age”, the historian noted.

He also said that recruiting standards slipped as the war progressed.

In Sidney’s case, however, his distraught mother had no idea where her son — one of eight children — had gone.

She found out a year later when a soldier home on leave mentioned that Sidney was fighting in the Somme with the 106th Machine Gun Company.

Horrified, she wrote to the War Office to demand Sidney be sent home, attaching his birth certificate showing he was only 13.

The response was swift. In a letter dated August 24, 1916, an obviously embarrassed army official replied: “I have to inform you that action has been taken.

“The lad will be discharged with all possible speed.”

Unscathed, Sidney returned home, but when he was old enough he re-enlisted in the army and served in Austria following the armistice in November 1918.AFP

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