In the movies, every man who volunteers for the army is accepted — usually because a character is destined for either glory or a senseless death. During World War I, there was no shortage of eager men willing to fight. These men needed to pass the military’s various requirements for service.
Men joined the military for adventure, to see foreign countries and because of patriotic fervor. They were told the war would be short, and there was every reason to believe it.
Physical and Medical Requirements
Recruits needed to pass physical examinations to join the armed forces. These requirements varied from nation to nation.
Great Britain’s requirements were:
- Be at least five foot, three inches tall
- Have a minimum chest size of 34 inches
- Pass a medical exam
At the war’s onset, 40 percent of men could not pass the army’s medical test. Soon reality struck and, as the death toll mounted, recruitment became difficult. Eventually, standards were lowered.
Standards in other nations were lowered as well. In Canada, the vision test was altered.
In September 1916, men who could read a thick, black letter measuring 1.25 inches from a distance of 20 feet with both eyes and without glasses would be eligible for the infantry. Men who could read the letter from that distance with their right eye and a 3.5-inch letter with their left eye also were eligible. Men who could read a 3.5-inch letter with their right eye and a 1.25-inch letter with their left eye would be eligible for the medical corps, forestry battalions, engineering, the service corps and as drivers.
In many nations, especially those in the Central Powers, it became necessary to accept any able-bodied male, from preteens to elderly men.
Others lied about their ages to join. Many people born in the late 19th century didn’t have birth certificates, so this was easy to do. But other times, recruitment officers simply looked the other way.
In Britain, a man had to be 18 to join the military and 19 to serve overseas, but recruitment officers were paid for each recruit so they were more likely to worry about their own pocketbook than a stranger’s safety.
It is estimated 250,000 boys under the age of 19 fought.
The financial benefit from accepting underage recruits was eliminated when Britain introduced conscription in 1916. Still, many boys continued to filter into the armed forces and die for a cause they believed in.
For decades, John Condon from Great Britain was believed to be the youngest Allied soldier to die. He was 14 when he was killed during the Second Battle of Ypres. Recently, however, records seem to indicate he was actually 18 years old, and the wrong date was listed on the tombstone.
It is unclear who the youngest British soldier was. George Maher was 13 in summer 1916.
“I was locked up on a train under guard, one of five under-age boys caught serving on the front being sent back to England,” Maher said. “The youngest was 12 years old.”
The boys were so short, they couldn’t see over trench walls.
Serbian Lance Sergeant Momčilo Gavrić was the youngest person to serve in the war. He joined the military as a war orphan in 1914, at the age of eight, and was given rank and a uniform later that year.
Updated: 20 October 2020
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