Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Boy soldiers

A recent commission reminded me that we are fast approaching the centenary of the outbreak of WW1. I was contacted by a researcher who had identified a series of files in the papers of the Liberal activist Violet Markham, but she was unable to visit the archives department of the London School of Economics and Political Science in person. I have used the archives at the LSE in the past - most notably for my own research when I looked at the personal account book of an anonymous Trinidad sugar planter (ref. COLL MISC 266) - so I felt that I would be in familiar surroundings.

It was not actually Violet Markham's own papers that I was to look at, but rather some correspondence of her brother, the mine owner and Liberal MP Sir Arthur Basil Markham (1866-1916); the two were very close, which probably accounts for the presence of his archives in hers (and it seems likely that this group of papers actually constitutes the bulk of his archival remains). In 1915 Sir Arthur had become involved in exposing - and trying to rectify - the scandal of underage boys being allowed, in some cases encouraged, to join the Army. Although I am unfamiliar with the historiography, I gather that the subject of boy soldiers in WW1 has been studied in some depth. What emerged from this particular set of correspondence surprised me: no pity of war here but the sheer bloody irritation felt by some at being saddled with people who were, to put it bluntly, of no practical use in wartime. The bulk of the most relevant file (MARKHAM 22/24) consists of letters from one George C. Curnock,  honourable secretary of an organisation called simply 'National Service'.The tone of some of Curnock's comments is stinging ('useless under-age boys', 'worthless article', 'a danger to the Army', etc.), but Markham himself should be absolved of any callousness as the few copies of his replies that he retained are lacking in vitriol. A passing comment from Markham suggests that once he went public with his concerns he received many letters from parents who were worried about their sons, but I am unsure if Markham actually intervened to spirit anyone away from the front. I suspect not: after all, what could he have actually done? Unfortunately, it appears that Sir Arthur did not retain this correspondence from anguished parents or document his own response.

One final point: it seems that the Wandsworth Regulars raised by the mayor of Wandsworth, and a similar regiment raised by the mayor of Bermondsey (perhaps in competition) were particularly infamous when it came to underage soliders (Curnock referred to the Wandsworth body as 'that notorious boy regiment'); has anyone looked at this in detail I wonder.

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