The identity of the youngest authenticated British soldier to fight in World War 1 was revealed yesterday, thanks to the soldier’s son.
Colin Lewis was reading a Remembrance Sunday feature in the paper last week about WW1’s boy soldiers when he suddenly recognised his father Sidney, who enlisted in the British Army in August 1915 at the tender age of 12 years and 4 months. Sidney, one of seven children from Tooting, South London, kept his age secret during 10 months of training with the East Sussex Regiment. He was then posted to the Western Front in May or June 1916, attached to the Machine Gun Corps, and it is probable that he operated a Lewis gun at the Battle of the Somme.
Military historian and expert on Britain’s boy soldiers, Richard van Emden, said,
“Private Sidney Lewis was born on March 12, 1903, and enlisted in August 1915. That makes him the youngest authenticated serving soldier of the First World War. It is astonishing to think he went on to serve on the Western Front for at least six weeks without anyone in authority realising his true age. Military historians have for decades known about a rather vague report that a Pte Lewis joined up at the age of 12. They’ve tried without success to confirm his identity. But it was only when his son read the Sunday People that he contacted me with absolute proof that his father was the child soldier.”
Colin, aged 80 and Sidney’s only child, said,
“My father told me more than once that he had been in the Great War. Knowing that he was born in 1903 I always thought he was making it up. His age was all wrong for it. We had always been an Army family. My grandfather George had served in the Boer War. So when my father told me he had fought as a boy on the Somme I assumed he had just let his imagination run a bit wild. After his death in 1969 the family went through his effects and it was only then that I realised he had been telling the truth all along. I felt really bad because I’d never believed him. But thanks to the Sunday People’s article I was reminded what a uniquely brave dad I had.”
Pte Lewis was found out by the military authorities in August 1916 after his mother heard that her son was serving on the Western Front from a comrade who was home on leave. She immediately wrote to the Army to have him discharged.
Colin said, “My grandparents must have been worried sick when Dad disappeared. They had no idea where he had gone. It was only when an older lad returned from France on leave that my grandmother learned the truth. She couldn’t get him home straight away. The Army kept him in uniform and sent him to a camp in Lincolnshire to await his discharge. He must have re-enlisted when he was old enough. He told me that after the war he was in Austria in the army of occupation. I knew that to be true.”
After his second stint of Army service, Sidney joined the police force in Surrey. When WW2 broke out he volunteered to work on bomb disposal.
Richard van Emden, author of the book Boy Soldiers of the Great War, said,
“At the start of the First World War young Britons joined up on a tide of patriotism. People were entirely ignorant of the catastrophic effects of modern industrial war. So all too often parents allowed their boys to enlist in the belief that they would enjoy some fresh air and fun with their mates. At the time Sidney Lewis enlisted in August 1915 there was a 30 per cent leap in the number of underage boys joining up. It was the start of school holidays. Also by mid 1915 the number of volunteers had shrunk alarmingly but the Army’s monthly requirement for men was rising sharply because of the casualties. Recruiting sergeants, paid a bounty for every man, were cajoling young lads to enlist. And they were even happier to turn a blind eye to the false ages given by enthusiastic youngsters, some of whom had run away from home to join up. We don’t know into which category Sidney Lewis falls. But we now know he was the youngest among those brave, adventurous but foolhardy young boys.”
Source: The Sunday People