Old Enough to Fight – Book Review
“And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen, when you joined the great fallen of 1916.”—Eric Bogle,”The Green Fields of France”
At what age is it appropriate for a boy or young man to serve his country in combat? The very idea of child soldiers is anathema to our 21st-century thinking and is ordinarily associated with low-intensity conflicts of the Third World. United States law, for example, prohibits soldiers under the age of 18 from deploying to a combat zone today. Yet Canadian, European and American military histories demonstrate a long tradition of young children serving in uniform as buglers, drummers, ships’ boys, ammunition bearers and front line soldiers, however. Across the US there are still a handful of military preparatory schools, such as Valley Forge Military Academy, with prescribed uniforms and martial training.
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Old Enough to Fight: Canada’s Boy Soldiers in the First World War by Dan Black and John Boileau focuses on the generally forgotten boys, some as young as 10, who enlisted, trained, deployed and fought as uniformed Canadian soldiers in the bloody years of the Great War. Often, these same boys died as soldiers.
Black and Boileau open their book by tracing the history of child soldiers from the Colonial Era through the Boer War to World War I. As with most of the West, Canadians generally felt soldiering produced healthy, law-abiding citizens and encouraged their youth to attend summer camps complete with military training. In lieu of a large standing army, the Canadian government established local militias to be called up in the event of a national emergency that required rapid expansion of the military.
These units were amongst the first to deploy in support of Britain and France at the start of World War I. Although adult men comprised the vast bulk of the Canadian armed forces, they often soldiered side by side with teenage boys. By war’s end, some 15,000 to 20,000 Canadian boys would serve their nation in uniform. Their reasons for enlisting varied, although most young men felt a patriotic duty to serve King and Country. Others sought adventure, better circumstances, employment or simply had nowhere else to go. Those caught up in the romantic appeal of war were quickly educated about the realities of combat in the trenches. Despite these experiences, a surprising number of the survivors served long careers in the Canadian military. Many rose to distinction, achieving high levels of rank or unit command.
Readers searching for a general history of the Great War will not find it here. Old Enough to Fight was written about Canadians by Canadians and largely for Canadians—or for anyone interested in learning more about Canada’s soldiers in the First World War. The war serves as a backdrop against which each individual soldier’s story is told. The book is arranged chronologically from the Canadian Army’s first battle at Ypres though the armistice and later Allied occupation of defeated Germany. Black and Boileau do provide sufficient strategic- and operational-level detail on the war to more fully explain how Canada fit into the overall Allied effort. Additionally, the authors commissioned a special set of 16 full-color maps depicting key battles to accompany the book’s numerous photographs and paintings. Sadly, these later illustrations are not in color and their overall impact is lessened.
More importantly, Black and Boileau made extensive use of the boys’ own letters in telling this tale. The boys’ firsthand accounts of trench warfare, of poison gas, of near-constant artillery shelling, of the dead and dying, are the true strength of this book. But they are only half of the story. Also included are letters from relatives back home in Canada that add further detail to the boys’ lives. Black and Boileau bring to life the parents who desperately wrote Canadian and British government figures to inquire about their children, demand their return or thank military authorities for official bereavement notices. The book’s final chapters briefly address Canada’s child sailors and airmen, the boys’ postwar lives and the tale behind the somber Memorial Cross medal.
If there is any weakness in Old Enough to Fight, it is in the sheer volume of soldiers profiled in the book. Although some individuals are present in multiple chapters, the majority are introduced and depart in just a few paragraphs or pages. Unlike other military history books, such as George MacDonald Fraser’s Quartered Safe Out Here, there is no core group of soldiers to follow. Ultimately, the chapters become a simple list of names, battlefields and dates, to the detriment of a cogent narrative. While that approach provides perspective on the scope of Canada’s war effort, it does little for the reader to develop a connection with the boys themselves.
The authors may have overlooked a secondary question in their writing—namely, what are the ethical or moral implications of a nation employing child soldiers on the battlefield? In the future, Black and Boileau plan to release a companion book on Canadian boy soldiers of World War II. Hopefully, this ethical dilemma and the change in Canadian social mores regarding boy soldiers between the world wars will be explored.
Major Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.