Too Young to Fight? The Anomalies of War

From the records held at the Norfolk Record Office

This blog explores the very different stories of two teenage boys who saw active service in the First World War; one a legitimately recognized naval rating and the other an enthusiastic under-age volunteer whose enlistment was fully aided and abetted by his superiors. You had to be 18 to join the Army and conscription was not introduced until 1916.  By contrast you could join the Navy at 16 and be fully involved in naval engagements.

The Oldham journals (MC 2201) recount in detail naval engagements from 1914 to 1918.  It includes the story of John Travers Cornwell, from a scrapbook, NRO,

Photo 1 Cornwell-ed

John Travers Cornwell. NRO MC 2201/5, 935×3

 

Cornwell enlisted in 1915 and was a Boy Seaman First Class. He was sixteen and serving on HMS Chester during the Battle of Jutland in 1916.  The press reported that Cornwell was mortally wounded early in the action. He nevertheless remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders till the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him.  (MC 2201/5 935×3).  Cornwell died in hospital in Grimsby the next day.  He was initially buried in a common grave but, as news of his bravery spread, he was reburied in the same cemetery with full military honours.  Cornwell was awarded the Victoria Cross, the third youngest recipient to do so.

Photo 2 Cornwell at his post-ed

Cornwell at his post. NRO, MC 2201/5, 935×3

 

By contrast the personal account of William Kemp from Gorleston tells a very different story. (ACC 2003/49 Box 26).  While keen to do his bit, Kemp did not initially set out to enlist at the age of sixteen. A month after his 16th birthday Kemp wrote:

Was coming up Regent St; Yarmouth and in front was the 5th Norfolks band on a recruiting march, a Sergeant whom I knew, came to me and asked me to enlist, I told him I was too young and on top of that my Mother would not let me go although I wanted to, in any case he put my name down  and told me to be at York Rd; Yarmouth, Drill Hall, that evening, I finished work, told my Mother what I had done and she straight away forbid me to go, I got round her by saying it was for Home Service only.

Kemp volunteered and the following Monday we were marched down to the old R.G.A Barracks Yarmouth and the majority of us passed fit, before going there we were told not to give our correct ages but to put a year or two on. I was not the only one under age by far.

Following a short training spell in Dereham, Kemp was sent to Peterborough for further training. Kemp then volunteered for the 1/5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment and went to Bury St Edmunds.  While there was an aim to keep the Yarmouth men together, they had to be split to make up the numbers and Kemp became part of C Company.

On arrival at Bury we were issued with full kit and a long Lee Enfield Mk. 1 and started soldiering properly . . . . we were at Bury when the Zepps dropped bombs on the Butter Market. . . . we were then moved to Watford . . . . we came off Church Parade towards the end of July and were issued with tropical kit . . the tale was we were off to Egypt.

As Kemp left for Liverpool, his landlady threatened to write to his mother as she knew he was under age but he persuaded her not to. His company left Liverpool docks for Egypt and, after seven days at sea, they arrived at Mudros.

A sight for sore eyes, ships of all sorts from cruisers, destroyers British and French and even one Russian, the General something but called by the lads the packet of Woodbines as she had five funnels, besides troopships etc. not forgetting the “bum-boats”.

From Mudros they went onto Imbros on the Osmanieh.

The next day off again and we then came in sight of Gallipoli and could hear rifle firing etc; of course everybody crowded to that side and I remember the old Colonel shouting to us to spread out as the old boat was heeling over.

On 9th August they arrived at Suvla.  They were given a white linen bag containing food supplies and told to tie it onto their backpacks. What an ideal target for snipers but we did not realise it then.

At Suvla they marched in the darkness passing through different battalions of the Naval Brigade who were among the first to land at Suvla, the stench of dead bodies was awful.

A few days later Kemp’s company went sniper driving. Coming across a seriously wounded Australian scout, Kemp offered his own first aid kit but was told “keep that, you may need it yourself”. The scout died later that evening.   I had not experienced death before.

Death followed swiftly the next day. As Kemp and another soldier stood up to stretch, after hours of digging, his fellow soldier was shot and killed instantly. He came from Bury St Edmunds, I never knew his name.

The next part of Kemp’s account is as confusing as the incident itself. He appears to have been separated from the rest of his company and was not sure where he was or what had happened.  He spent some time wandering on his own eventually reaching a beach near a dressing station. I dropped where I was absolutely done and fell asleep . . . . I finally reached our dump to be greeted with the words “We thought you were killed”.

Kemp had clearly suffered some injuries because he was put on a hospital ship and went to Wharncliffe War Hospital in Sheffield. He returned to duty in June 1916.

There is much more I could put about my Army days both humerous and serious, but I think for the time this is suffice, other than to say I finished up with the 1st Battn. in France being wounded in the left thigh on 21st August 1918 when we went over on the Somme.

Kemp wrote that his main records never did show his correct age despite his mother sending his birth certificate to the authorities. Fortunately, unlike Cornwell, he did survive the war.

I had always said as a youth that I would never join the local regiment or marry a local girl, I did both, for I met some of the best lads one could wish to be with and I married one of the best girls there was in Yarmouth.

 Compiled by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger

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