Off to War


Boy Soldiers

The term, “Boy Soldiers,” is generally used to describe those youngsters who, particularly during the early years of the First World War prior to conscription, fraudulently enlisted in the Armed Forces by lying about either their identity or their age. The rules of recruitment were straightforward:

No one under the age of eighteen could join the army.

Eighteen year olds could enlist but had to remain in the UK.

You had to be nineteen or over to fight abroad.

The service records of several of the lads named on the Barrow Hill war memorial reveal that they successfully flouted these rules and convinced the establishment that they were old enough both to enlist and to fight abroad. A number of possible motives have been cited as to what led, possibly, as many as 250,000 lads, under the age of nineteen, to enlist and fight in World War One. Those of a similar age today may find it difficult to understand why so many men, and especially those who were under-age, so eagerly volunteered to fight in what we now know to have been one of the deadliest, most brutal, conflicts in history – and how some of the young ones amongst them managed to do so, regardless of the rules.

Despite the death of Queen Victoria, the attitudes, values and beliefs of society were still essentially Victorian in 1914; distinctly Christian with a collective duty towards and an innate belief in the superiority of the British Empire. Everyone knew that Britain had ruled the waves for centuries and schoolchildren had saluted the Union Jack and sung patriotic songs on Empire Day since 1902. They would listen to stories that included such heroes as Clive of India and Wolfe of Quebec, and then leave school early to take part in the celebrations which usually included brass bands, maypole dances, concerts and parties. The Empire Movement actively promoted the training of children through the watchwords “Responsibility, Sympathy, Duty, and Self-sacrifice” and this message was strengthened by parents, who often named babies for famous battles or for revered heroes whose pictures could often be found decorating even the humblest of homes.

In Barrow Hill, the Exford family, who lived on the Devonshire Cottages, gave their son, George, the middle name of Osman, in honour of the much admired Osman Pasha who had led the defence of Plevna in 1877, whilst the younger brother of casualty William Harold Drury was named Wilfred Redvers Drury for Boer War hero, Lieutenant-General Sir Redvers Buller.

Arthur Fox was a pupil at Barrow Hill School from 1913 to 1922 and wrote that, “The teachers were very patriotic people; they held their school and the country with the Royal family in high esteem. The scholars, joined by their parents would celebrate Empire Day and other special occasions with singing national anthems and songs in the school yard, and when the Royal train passed through Barrow Hill, on the nearby railway we would all line up on the railway embankment and wave our Union Jacks as the train passed by.”

Brought up on such tales of daring and adventure, youngsters may well have dreamed of glory; of winning a fight for their country and returning a hero. Organisations, such as Baden Powell’s Boy Scouts, with their salute and their promise to do their duty to “God, King and Country,” strengthened the belief that the nation’s security and peace depended upon the Church and the Army.

Boys Poster

Kitchener’s appeal for volunteers, at the beginning of the war, was bolstered by a wave of propaganda posters designed to encourage enlistment and provoke the conscience.

 Meetings were held in every town and village where politicians, priests, unions and local worthies urged men to do their duty. Recruitment rallies, newsreels showing men doing their duty, recruiting sergeants on the streets, young ladies giving out white feathers and popular songs being whistled everywhere, all added to the pressure on young males to enlist. Even the much-admired entertainer, Harry Lauder, who is credited with the recruitment of 12,000 soldiers, lived locally and is known to have performed at the Barrow Hill Hotel. Enthusiastic letters to local newspapers from those in the trenches made the war seem like an adventure. John Steggles was a regular Derbyshire Times correspondent, writing comments such as, “We got shelled out of our trenches the other day, and with the exception of the bomb throwers all the company had to retire. We could see the huge shells coming through the air, and when we had judged where they would drop we ran for our lives out of the way. It’s the fun of a life time – that is if you don’t get hit.”

Stories of those who had enlisted under-age were regularly featured in newspapers and hailed as patriotic, whilst those who looked old enough, but were not in uniform, sometimes faced derision and contempt as cowards and shirkers. Charles P. Markham even wrote to strikers during an industrial dispute in 1916 that “since the war began, some 1750 men from our collieries have joined the Army… they have been replaced by some 1,800 shirkers who rushed into the collieries as a sanctuary.”[1]   A friend, writing to the parents of Joseph Benison, stated that “Joe didn’t die a shirker. He died fighting for his mother and his home.”

Friends would often enlist together, possibly encouraging each other or hoping to share an adventure. Barrow Hill pals, Edgar Bennett and Joseph Walsh enlisted together at Staveley in January 1915. They were in the same battalion and went to France together in November that year. One year later, they were both killed in action on the Somme on the same day.

Regulars and Reservists were mobilised immediately war was declared. Married father, Ernest Chapman, of 43 Devonshire Cottages, left behind a pregnant wife whilst Gunner Arthur Humphreys, of 5, Canal Row, was already aboard H.M.S. Queen Mary at Scapa Flow when the call to “commence hostilities” came. In the first months of the war, many other married men, like Frank Alton of the Lees Buildings, volunteered to become soldiers.

“F” Company of the 1/6th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters (Territorial Force) included many men from the Barrow Hill area. Recalled early from summer camp at Hunmanby, they were mobilised as soon as war was declared. It is likely that the younger boys would have watched as their neighbours and siblings gathered at the railway station to catch the train to Chesterfield and, from there, to march off to war. The glamour of the event, as the uniformed men were enthusiastically waved off, would have added to the youngster’s eagerness to be included. Hannah Hasman, of 53, Devonshire Cottages, already had two sons serving with Sherwood Forester Battalions when her younger sons enlisted under-age in 1915. Speaking of her son Leonard, she stated that “war fever was too strong for him.”

1895 Church TrailSocial life in Barrow Hill revolved around the Church and Chapels. Since 1856, the Church of England and the village schools were inextricably linked; sharing a building and a curriculum. In 1895, a new building opened but social activities continued in the school building where whist drives and dances were regularly held.

The Primitive Methodist (Zion) Chapel had opened in 1870 and the United Methodist Chapel (Ebeneezer) had opened in 1872. Both had previously held meetings in houses belonging to the Staveley Company.

Arthur Fox wrote that “Many were the activities at the chapel. The highlights being the Sunday School sermons with a full platform of scholars and choir, and a full house on the first two Sundays in May each year, the annual Sunday School trip to Cleethorpes on Staveley Feast Monday, the Hospital Sunday when members of all the churches together with the Barrow Hill Band paraded the village…”

At a time when the country was distinctly Christian, it was generally felt that Britain was fighting a righteous war, that volunteering was the right moral choice and that “God was on our side.”  The violation of Belgian neutrality stiffened this conviction, and reports of German atrocities brought the desire to avenge the victims. Newspaper obituaries included the information that Private Ernest Parry, “was a member of the Young Men’s Bible Class,”[2] that Rifleman Frank Cooper “took a keen interest in the Staveley Wesleyan Sunday School”[3], and that Lance Corporal Frank Johnson had been “a scholar at St Andrew’s Sunday School.”[4] Records show that, amongst the effects returned to families were 2 religious books belonging to Herbert Copley and a cross and testament belonging to John Steggles.

Children today are largely protected from the reality of death but, in the early years of the 20th century, Barrow Hill children were growing up in a time where infant mortality rates were much higher; where they had seen siblings and friends succumb to childhood illnesses and where, working in heavy industry from a young age, they had seen men injured or killed. Death was a common domestic fact of life for Victorians when most people usually died at home.  For many young men who set off to war, youthful self-deception may have led them to believe that “it’ll never happen to me” whilst others were quite prepared to die for their King and Country. A friend writing to the parents of Edgar Clarke said, “If you had seen him under fire and seen him die you would have felt proud of him.”

Sidney Lewis

For some volunteers, the war was seen as a break from the monotony of work, a holiday adventure; others feared that they would miss out on the chance to take part, after all, as everyone said, it “would be over by Christmas.”  John William Brown, a father of five who lived on the Long Row at Barrow Hill, is reported to have said that he “wanted to make the world a better place for his children.” At a time when few men, and no women had the vote, and when male/female roles were more traditionally defined, there was some expectation for men, and boys, to be “manly,” even for those still in short trousers.

Sidney Lewis has been recognised by the Imperial War Museum as Britain’s youngest soldier to serve in the Great War. He ran away and enlisted with the East Surrey Regiment in August 1915, five months after his 12th birthday, and was fighting on the Somme by the age of 13.

The youngest soldier to die in World War 1 is still officially recognised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as John Condon who was 13 years 11 months when he was killed at Shell Trap Farm, (later known as Mouse Trap Farm) near Ypres on 24 May 1915.

John Cornwell was only sixteen when he became the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross for bravery. Cornwall was on board the Chester when it was attacked by four German light cruisers. Within a few minutes the Chester received seventeen hits. Thirty of her crew were killed in the bombardment and another forty-six were seriously wounded. Cornwall remained at his post on one of the ship’s guns until the attack was over, but later died of his wounds. (Cornwell is not regarded as under-age as boys in the navy could go on active service at 16)

Lewis, Condon, and many others, including a number of youngsters from Barrow Hill and Hollingwood, managed to convince the recruiters that they were of an age to be on active service abroad. Although parents could demand their child’s return, many did not attempt to do so, at least until the horrors of the war became more apparent. Some thought that their sons would remain in England until they were old enough; there was little thought that these boys would go overseas.

Much has been made of recruitment officers being overzealous and it is often said that, as they were paid 2/6d for each new recruit, some were unscrupulous and turned a blind eye to any concerns about age. The recruitment process did not require volunteers to produce a birth certificate, which few people had copies of at that time, and medical checks focused on whether a male was fit enough to fight. Even when there was suspicion, some officers thought that the fresh air and good food would do some of the boys some good. Anyone, no matter how young, with a minimum height requirement of 5’3” and a chest size of 34”, was very likely to pass the checks.


With 40% of volunteers rejected on health grounds, the shocking lack of fitness amongst many recruits in WW1[5] was later attributed to poor living conditions.[6] A housing poster of the period, “You cannot expect to get an A1 population out of C3 homes,” referred to the military fitness classifications for recruits. Hundreds of thousands of working-class people in Britain then lived in poverty, in squalid conditions in overcrowded and dirty slums. Many were mal-nourished, under-developed or suffering sight and dental problems.

In Barrow Hill, families were brought up in homes which were then significantly superior to the great number of working class tenements, terraces and courts in many other areas. On the edge of rolling countryside, the “Blocks” had been built by Richard Barrow in the late 1850’s, part of his model village of Barrow’s Hill, exclusively to home the ironworkers, coal-miners and railway men who worked for what later became the Staveley Coal and Iron Company and its affiliates.

Blocks1The cottages were light and spacious, in comparison with the living conditions experienced in other working-class housing of the period. With large gardens where residents could grow fresh vegetables, some with a pig sty, these dwellings, and the later Midland Cottages built for railway workers, are still lived in today, a testament to their quality.

The Devonshire Cottages were a fairly recent development and had been built just a few years before the war.

All of the houses in the village were then tied to work with the Staveley Company or Midland Railway resulting in full employment. Despite low wages, the extremes of poverty seen elsewhere in the country were not so evident in Barrow Hill. The average weekly wage for a working class family was 18 shillings and Arthur Fox wrote of his father that, “although a Head Shunter on the railway, his weekly wage never exceeded £1 per week.”

For a few, the move to less salubrious dwellings in neighbouring villages occurred if a family bereavement or other circumstances left them bereft of a Company employee.  When Arthur Simpson’s brothers married and left home, his family had to move from the Long Row at Barrow Hill and into lodgings with his mother’s family at New Whittington. When Arthur later gained employment with the Company as a pony driver in the coal mines, and afterwards as a miner at the Seymour Colliery, the family was able to return to live in a “Block” cottage in the village.

1912 school trailBuilding his combined Church of England School and Mission in 1856 was just one example of Richard Barrow’s paternalistic attempt to impose his middle-class ideals upon his working class employees, whilst furthering his own business interests.

 Barrow wanted an efficient, sober, hard-working workforce and “never attempt(ed) to disguise his aim of diverting custom away from the public houses”[7], and so patronage of the schools, with a strong emphasis on Religious Instruction, was a good investment of his £3000 costs.[8]   

The majority of the WW1 casualties listed on the memorial plaque at Barrow Hill attended the “Staveley Works Schools.” Until 1880, when education became compulsory for 5 to 10 year olds, it was Barrow himself, and later the Staveley Company, who appointed the teachers and decided the curriculum. It was still legal at the time, and not unusual, for 10 year olds to go out to work.

Many of the WW1 lad’s parents would have worked from a very young age, some even as young as 6 years old [9] and not all of them welcomed education for their children, especially as they lost an income and had to pay school fees. Arthur Fox wrote that, “When my mother started school, in or about 1883, a charge of 3d per week was made which, for the average family of six to eight children or more, meant some sacrifice.” Education finally became free in 1891.

The school leaving age was raised to 11 in 1893, when the infant school on Station Road was built to accommodate the increased numbers of pupils[10]. It was raised again, to 12, in 1899.

Although children were expected to continue their education up to the age of 14, or to go onto further education or apprenticeships, the reality for the majority of local children, particularly those from poorer families, and for the majority of younger lads named on the village war memorial, was to leave school as soon as they were 13 and start work. Leaving school below the age of 14 required a Labour Certificate from an employer.

Meeting the minimum height and chest requirements for the Army was not difficult for some. In 1911, 13 year old William Harold Drury and 14 year olds Cecil Wilson and Horace Johnson were working at the local iron foundry whilst several other local lads were employed as pony drivers in the coal mines. With a few years of physically demanding work in the Company coal mines and iron foundry behind them, by the time that Kitchener appealed for volunteers, these lads had developed muscles and strength and childhood had already been left far behind.

Henry HasmanBarrow Hill brothers, HENRY AND LEONARD HASMAN, of 53, Devonshire Cottages had two older brothers serving in the Armed Forces.  On 24th August 1915, they both enlisted in the Royal Naval Division at the recruiting office in New Whittington.

Probably to avoid slipping up later, both boys gave their correct birthdays, but lied about the year. Leonard was born on 26th February 1898 but gave his date of birth as 1897. He was 17 when he enlisted.

Leonard Hasman trail

Henry had been born on 5th January 1900 and was only 15 ½, but gave his date of birth as 5th January 1896, adding four years to his age. Taller and stockier than his brother, Henry had no problems convincing the authorities that he was of age, but his deception was later discovered and he was returned home. He re-enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1918.

Leonard’s age was not discovered and he was sent to France in July 1916 as part of “Winston’s Little Army.” Less than 4 months later, he was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Ancre at Beaumont Hamel. He was still only 18 years of age and still under the legal age for service abroad.


cecilCECIL WILSON was the son of a railway engine driver and lived on Traffic Terrace at Barrow Hill. He was born on 28th December 1896 and was 17 years old when he enlisted in the Leicestershire Regiment. Cecil died on 25th January 1915 at Aldershot, just one month after his 18th birthday, never having taken part in any action overseas.



HARRY HUMPHREYS was born in late 1897 at Canal Row, Hollingwood, and enlisted in early 1915. When he arrived in France on 16th Nov 1915, he was just 18, still one year below the legal age for service abroad.

Harry served on the Western Front for 2½ years and died at the Battle of Bapaume on 25th March 1918, aged 20.His brother, Arthur, was killed at the Battle of Jutland.

HORACE WESTON was born on 25th July 1897 and lived on the Long Row at 222, Brickyard Terrace. He lied about his age and enlisted in the Sherwood Foresters in December 1914, aged 17 and 5 months.

HoraceAlthough he was too young to serve, Horace “was one of those youngsters who in the early part of the war felt it their duty to go.” [11]

It is possible that Horace also gave the recruiters a false Christian name as two Medal Index cards exist for him, one with the initial A. He was just 18 when he went to France and 19 when he died in the trenches on 13th Oct 1916. Having served abroad for over a year, he had only been legally of age for 11 weeks.


ARTHUR WEDGWOOD was born on 23rd March 1898 at Midland Terrace, Barrow Hill.  He was only 16 when he enlisted with the Royal Scots Fusiliers in November 1914.

Arthur was killed at the 2nd Battle of Bellewarde on 25th Sept 1915. He was still only 17 ½ years old, still too young to legally enlist and over a year too young to serve abroad.

©Ann Lucas 2015

Barrow Hill: A Community Remembers Project  (F.O.S.T.A.)

[1] Derbyshire Times 21.10.1916
[2] Derbyshire Times 23.11.1918
[3] Derbyshire Times 17.2.1917
[4] Derbyshire Times 23.10.15
[5] Almost two in every five volunteers were entirely unsuitable for military service on the grounds of health
[6] 1917 Tudor Walters Committee Report and The Housing, Town Planning, &c. Act 1919 (Addison Act)
[7] Chapman, S.D. Stanton and Staveley
[8] Whites  Gazeteer, History and Directory of Derbyshire 1857
[9] See “1842 Royal Commission Extracts”
[10] Believed to have been designed by Sir Raymond Unwin, then a draughtsman at the SC&I Company
[11] Derbyshire Times 21.10.1916