Young Horace Iles
Young Horace Iles, a choirboy
A child at just fourteen
Fresh of face but his build and strength
Would pass him for eighteen
Creating the Centena
I visited the Imperial War Museum WW1 Centenary Exhibition when it first opened back in 2014, and among the many memorable exhibits one in particular really stuck with me. It was a letter written to Lord Kitchener by Alfie Knight, it begins: “I am an Irish boy 9 years of age and I want to go to the front… I am very strong and often win a fight with lads twice as big as myself.”
Alfie was, of course, too young to join the army. He received a reply from the War Office thanking him for his letter and politely refusing his offer of service on the grounds that he was “not quite old enough” yet. But why were young lads like Alfie so keen to enlist? And how many had slipped through the net at recruiting offices and been sent off to fight underage?
At the start of the the war, the British Army had just 700,000 available men, while Germany had amassed a force of over 3.7 million. The government launched a huge recruitment drive, plastering towns and cities up and down the country with propaganda posters with headlines such as “I’m doing my duty, are you?” and “Who’s absent? Is it you?”
The message was clear: do your duty. Enlist. And, so, many young boys answered the call. Young boys such as Horace Iles.
I came across Horace’s story online and read how he had been shamed into joining the army at the age of just fourteen after being given a white feather – a symbol of cowardice – by a woman on a tram. After a bit of Googling, I landed on the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First Worlds War website. Here I found Horace’s obituary, which describes how he had “refused to be dissuaded” from joining up, and read the heartbreaking letter written to him by his sister Florie in 1916.
“For goodness sake Horace tell them how old you are”, writes Florie, “If you don’t do it now you will come back in bits and we want the whole of you.” The letter was returned unopened two days after sending, marked: “KILLED IN ACTION.”