SONS OF THE BRAVE: The Story of Boy Soldiers

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The Story of Boy Soldiers
by A.W. Cockerill
Leo Cooper / Secker and Warburg, London, 1984

review by C. Farrell The universe of discourse for this work is a tad vague at first glance. The blurb gives the impression that it might be about boy soldiers the world over. And, goodness knows, there are still plenty of them fighting terrible wars in awful places like Africa and the Middle East.

But no, it turns out that what we are essentially studying here is the British military tradition, a story which lies pretty firmly in the rapidly-receding past. However, that includes the Commonwealth, and there are some snippets of fact about such previously little-known phenomena as boy soldiers in Canada. Much of the book's information, at least about relatively recent times, appears to come from letters the author received in response to an appeal for reminiscences. So the emphasis is on anecdotal rather than official evidence (of which, the author complains, there is very little), and on daily life as seen from the point of view of the boy soldier himself.

Cockerill touches on the issue of CP quite early on in his chronological tale. He has discovered a documented case in 1694 of a boy soldier, John Coopman, being sentenced to be whipped for desertion in Ostend (in what is now Belgium), where the English were helping the Dutch to repulse the Spaniards.

Flogging for army disciplinary offences in general arises here, too, if only in passing, because of the curious and long-standing custom in the British Army whereby one of the duties of boy drummers was to administer the cat-'o-nine-tails to offending adult soldiers. The author fails to discover a reason for using boys to perform this distasteful task. At all events, the number of army floggings rose sharply in the eighteenth century, not because the regime became more severe but because, on the contrary, there was a growing disinclination to use the death penalty for relatively minor infractions.

But it is not until the nineteenth century that we get into much detail. By then special educational institutions had been set up for army boys. They seem to have been a particularly unruly lot in the early days: at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, established in 1741, the boys were said to "fight like wild animals" and the main role of the duty officer was to protect the masters from being pelted with missiles thrown by the students.

At another such establishment, the Duke of York's school in Chelsea (later moved to Dover), it is recorded that in 1852 "Privates Bateman and Barry stole a muff from the regimental chapel and cut it to pieces. For this offence they collected 18 strokes of the birch each and four days in the black hole, followed by six days of extra drill. ... They were both 13 years of age."

Birching was also used at the Royal Hibernian Military School in Dublin, but a six-foot-long bamboo cane was the more usual instrument of punishment there. This seems unusually long for a cane. As in the Navy, the word "cuts" rather than "strokes" was officially used as the unit of measurement, as these extracts from the punishment books show:

3 March 1852: Pte Vialls, aged 13. Trade, Shoemaker. Charged with breaking two awls and telling an infamous lie. Punishment: 18 cuts.

30 December 1852: Pte Ends Seta, aged 13. Charged with answering the Commandant in a disrespectful manner. Punishment: 6 cuts and 6 hours in the black hole.

31 December 1852: Pte Ends Seta, aged 13. Charged with kicking and making a noise in the black hole, and being insolent and disrespectful to the sergeant major. (He threw his mug of water out of the hole and called the sergeant major a fathead.) Punishment: 18 cuts.

Thus Private Seta was caned twice on successive days. Cockerill provides us with a description from contemporary sources of how these penalties were inflicted:

"For administration of the cuts awarded, a sergeant major gripped the offender's head between his legs, high in his crotch, pulled out the boy's shirt tails and took a firm grip on his trousers. With his feet set apart for balance and his posterior raised, the boy, doubled over, gripped his sergeant major's legs with his arms. Then would the regimental sergeant major's rod be poised ready ... Boys waiting for cuts were said to be 'standing by to receive boarders'."

At the Duke of York's School a boy called William Tart received no fewer than 106 strokes of the cane in the course of 1888. However, the author assures us that "the majority thrived on the discipline they received".

All this sounds pretty much par for the course in what were basically boys' schools like any other, albeit with military ethos and jargon thrown in. It would be more interesting to know about the canings given on ordinary active service, either "in the field" or in camps and barracks where boys were serving alongside adult soldiers. But here the author fails to come up with anything very specific. What regulations applied, and how often were they put into effect? Were any records kept? We are not told. There are simply several anecdotal references to teenage soldiers receiving "six of the best" from their superior officers - whether officially or unofficially remains unclear.

For example, one Frank Ebdon joined the Royal Rifle Brigade in the First World War and was sent to the Isle of Sheppey, where he remembers "being caned good and hard by the Provost Sergeant in the yard of the Quarter Guard building for being absent from retreat parade". One waits for more details, but they are not forthcoming. Even more tantalising, another correspondent recalls a birching as recently as 1928 in the Royal Horse Artillery - but we learn nothing more about it.

Caning continued in the army schools until recent times, but Cockerill reveals that by the late 1940s it was becoming customary for the authorities to seek parents' consent first. Back at the Duke of York's School, older boys ("sergeant prefects") lost the right to cane younger ones in the middle 1950s. The author is himself an old boy of that establishment.

Of course, this book does not set out to be about CP so one cannot accuse it of failing to deliver what it promises. As a first stab at producing a history of an evidently under-researched aspect of past British military life before all the first-hand witnesses die off, it represents a commendable effort to come to grips with a hotchpotch of rather disparate evidence. The result is a bit of an unfocused ramble, but as unfocused rambles go it is scholarly and well-produced.


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