Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Great War

Your Country Needs You! Lord Kitchener’s famous recruitment poster encouraged working class lads to join the call to arms.

At the age of 15, my grandfather William Joseph Millington joined the 14th South Birmingham Gloucestershire Regiment with the intention of going to fight in the Great War. He enlisted in Smethwick on the 30 August 1915. However, in January 1916 it was discovered that William was underage and he was discharged from the regiment “having made a misstatement as to age on enlistment”. He was discharged on the 20th January 1916 having served 144 days. William’s discharge paper says that he was of good character and was aged 15 years and 320 days. His complexion described as fresh, his eyes and hair brown.

It is possible that William attempted to join the army under the legal age of seventeen because he was already disillusioned with work at the Birmingham Mint and life in the slums of inner city Birmingham. Even though it was 12 months into the Great War of Europe when William illegally joined up (the war started in July 1914), news of the war’s brutality and the cruel loss of life in the killing fields of northern Europe had obviously not put off Britain’s youth from answering the call for new recruits.

From the start of the Great War until January 24th 1916 when Conscription was introduced, an unparalleled recruitment campaign took place right across Britain and especially in the big cities like Birmingham. Local regiments like the Warwickshires and Worcesters held massive recruitment rallies in places such as Victoria Square and at the city’s football grounds. One recruitment poster of the time shows an image of two young men in uniform with an enraptured young lady on each arm whilst a man in civilian clothing looks enviously on – the caption reads “No eyes for the shirker”. With this kind of coercion and the romantic notion of serving one’s king and country, tens of thousands of young working class men proudly joined the ranks and marched off to be slaughtered in Belgium and France.

It is estimated that about 10 million soldiers lost their lives in the four year period of the Great War and many millions more returned home injured and shell shocked. During the most ferocious battles of the war, such as Marne and Ypres, men were literally poured into the trenches as cannon fodder for the great guns blasting from either side. Those not killed immediately spent months living in the rain and mud at places like Passchendale, in these trenches men were virtually rotting alive or else blinded by poison gas drifting through the air.

Had my grandfather William not been found out for being under age and discharged in 1916, four days before the start of national conscription, who knows what fate might have befallen him had he been sent to fight in Europe?

A scene from the Great War (1914-1918) showing the horror of the trenches. Across Europe some 10 million soldiers died during the so-called ’war to end wars’.


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