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The Anzac Story
Prelude to War
Prelude to Gallipoli
P. J. Lalor
Littlefair's lamp
Will Lycett's Diary
Anzac Sunday
Simpson's Donkey
Boy Soldiers  
The Unknown Soldier
Fisher H.
Aussie Air Aces

Boy Soldiers
Amongst the people across the world who greeted the declaration of War in 1914 with enthusiasm were many underage boys, some as young as 12 years old from just about all the allied countries involved. Everyone knew that the 'War would be over by Christmas" and here was an opportunity for great adventure.

Notable amongst these boys was Victor Silvester perhaps better known in his later life for his orchestra which featured in more than 6500 BBC Radio broadcasts and his record sales which eventually exceeded 75 million!


Victor Silvester wrote about his experiences in the First World War in his autobiography Dancing Is My Life.

This is his story:

The mood of the country was one of almost hysterical patriotism, and no excuses were accepted for any man of military age who was not in uniform. Rude remarks were made about them in the streets. Sometimes they were given white feathers.

I was fourteen and nine months on the morning I played truant, and went up to the headquarters of the London Scottish at Buckingham Palace Gate. A sergeant in the recruiting office asked me what I wanted, and when I told him I had come to join the regiment he questioned me about my Scottish ancestry.

"My mother's father was a Scot," I said.

That seemed adequate, so he asked me my age.

"Eighteen and nine months."

"All right," the sergeant said. "Fill in this form and wait in the next room for the medical officer to look at you."

 Victor Silvester soon discovered that the war was very different to what he expected:

We went up into the front-line near Arras, through sodden and devastated countryside. As we were moving up to the our sector along the communication trenches, a shell burst ahead of me and one of my platoon dropped. He was the first man I ever saw killed. Both his legs were blown off and the whole of his face and body was peppered with shrapnel. The sight turned my stomach. I was sick and terrified, but even more frightened of showing it.

That night I had been asleep in a dugout about three hours when I woke up feeling something biting my hip. I put my hand down and my fingers closed on a big rat. It had nibbled through my haversack, my tunic and pleated kilt to get at my flesh. With a cry of horror I threw it from me. 

In an interview Silvester gave just before his death in 1978, he described how in 1917 he was ordered to execute a man for desertion.

We marched to the quarry outside Staples at dawn. The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy.

Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face the ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but I remained sober through fear.

The tears were rolling down my cheeks as he went on attempting to free himself from the ropes attaching him to the chair. I aimed blindly and when the gunsmoke had cleared away we were further horrified to see that, although wounded, the intended victim was still alive. Still blindfolded, he was attempting to make a run for it still strapped to the chair. The blood was running freely from a chest wound. An officer in charge stepped forward to put the finishing touch with a revolver held to the poor man's temple. He had only once cried out and that was when he shouted the one word 'mother'.

He could not have been much older than me. We were told later that he had in fact been suffering from shell-shock, a condition not recognised by the army at the time. Later I took part in four more such executions.

WW1 saw the manifestation of an illness never before experienced - - - Shell-shock.    The army did not recognize it for some time. Even then, some senior officers took the view that claims of shell-shock were simply cowardice. There were differing views on its cause and it was suggested that the only cure was a complete rest away from the fighting.

Between 1914 and 1918 the British army identified 80,000 men (2% of those who saw active service) as suffering from shell-shock. A much larger number of soldiers with these symptoms were classified as 'malingerers' and sent back to the front-line. In some cases men committed suicide. Others broke down under the pressure and refused to obey the orders of their officers. Some responded to the pressures of shell-shock by deserting. Sometimes soldiers who disobeyed orders got shot on the spot. In some cases, soldiers were court-martialled. Official figures said that 312 British soldiers were court-martialled and shot. (Read more here) and (some individual cases here)
A common punishment for disobeying orders was 'Field Punishment Number One'. This involved the offender being attached to a fixed object for up to two hours a day and for a period up to three months. These men were often put in a place within range of enemy shell-fire.