Innocence under fire: how children were used in warfare of the past
From medieval times to the modern day, young children have been put to tragic use in warfare. Emma Butcher and James Rogers tell their story
Children of “hard flesh”
Wrenched from their homes at the age of seven, Sparta’s boys were battle-ready by 20
The ancient Greek city of Sparta was a military superpower, and its children were enveloped within this fighting ethos from a very early age. Soon after birth, a council of inspectors would judge a male infant’s physical attributes; if he was deemed unfit, the baby would most likely be abandoned on a nearby hillside. At the age of seven, Spartan boys were removed from their parents’ homes and conscripted into the ‘agoge’, a military training scheme. The first-century AD Roman historian Plutarch detailed their regime: “Their training was calculated to make them obey commands well, endure hardships and conquer in battle… When they were 12 years old, they no longer had tunics to wear, received one cloak a year, had hard flesh and knew little of baths.”
Despite the boys’ early military education, the Spartans didn’t entertain the concept of a child army. From a practical perspective, children weren’t strong enough to handle the heavy weapons of the time. Instead, the youthful recruits served by conducting menial chores, such as bearing shields and mats for the more senior warriors. It was only when he turned 20 years old that a Spartan man would be deemed fit to serve as a soldier of the state.
The fearless fledglings of God
Armed with the gospel, a young Christian army set off on a crusade to Jerusalem. It turned out to be mission impossible
In 1212, around 30,000 children from across Europe banded together and marched towards Jerusalem. Although the facts are marred by mythology and a lack of historical sources, we know that their aim was to peacefully convert Muslims to Christianity. Versions of the story – over 50 of which have been found dating back to the 13th century – tell us of various child leaders marching to the Holy Land.
One was a young French boy, Stephen of Cloyes, who believed he’d been chosen by Jesus to lead the divine mission. He gathered followers by performing miracles and portents, and claiming that the Mediterranean Sea would part for his followers on their journey. Across the continent, droves of children joined the cause, taking the crusader’s vow, which was both militant and legally binding.
Sadly, their mission was to end in disaster. Once the band of children reached the coast and the sea remained unmoved, those who chose to continue their journey on ships were either taken to Tunisia and sold into slavery or died in shipwrecks. Despite their failure, however, their quest could be considered as the first mass European youth movement.
Boy pages were often seen on medieval battlefields and were deadly with a crossbow
In medieval Europe, boy pages were a regular sight in the homes of aristocrats. At the age of seven, noble boys would be sent from their family homes and stationed in another aristocratic household, where they would dutifully serve the lord of the estate through menial chores and personal service.
In return, they received hospitality and education. They also underwent military training, learning how to use weapons and ride. The children would mount wooden horses, learn how to handle lances and conduct target practice.
Boy pages witnessed their fair share of conflict, dressing and arming their lords on the field. They mainly performed minor auxiliary roles but, in the event of a siege, were expected to know the basics of how to defend a castle with a crossbow. This was one of only a few weapons a child could use; the string could be pulled back with a lever, or by winding a crank, giving the bow tension, power and the ability to travel long distances – all of which meant a child could kill without engaging in direct combat with an adult. Despite their military training, even in the heat of battle it was bad form to consider the boys a target. In the 1415 battle of Agincourt, it is rumoured that Henry V was so enraged by the French targeting his army’s boy pages, that he retaliated by slitting the necks of his prisoners.
Trained to die for their sultan masters
As the Ottoman empire flourished, non-Muslim children were rounded up and forced into military slavery
Between the 14th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman empire trained elite infantry units known as Janissaries. These units were populated by strong children, aged 7–18, who had either been kidnapped from local non-Muslim families or taken during military campaigns against Christian communities. This system of abduction and enlistment became known as ‘devshirme’, which is Ottoman Turkish for ‘lifting’ or ‘collecting’.
Upon capture, the children were dressed in red so that they would be recognised in the event of an escape. They would then be circumcised and converted to Islam. As the sultan’s personal slaves, the children were trained for a life of service; indoctrinated to fight and die for their master. They were known in society as ‘kapikulu’, servants who were neither free nor ordinary slaves.
Over the centuries, Janissaries were used in all major campaigns, including the 1453 capture of Constantinople and the Battle of Mohács in 1526. Despite their life in captivity, many considered their high standing in the Ottoman administration an honour.
In the powder keg of war
Children endured tough conditions while serving in some of history’s most famous naval battles
The British Royal Navy first began using the term ‘powder monkey’ in the 17th century. In the golden age of sail, young boys would be recruited or press-ganged to service artillery guns on warships. Their job was to ferry gunpowder from the magazine in the ship’s hold to the gun crews. It was a dangerous job: gun carriages would regularly dismount and maim crewmembers, scalding iron rained from misfired guns and giant splinters would penetrate flesh.
Brief autobiographical accounts from powder monkeys survive. One such account is from a boy named Robert Sands, who worked on Admiral Nelson’s ship during the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He explained that “the smoke sofecated us… our skreens took fire and burnt the Leftanant of mereans [marines] badley. I had jest left thair wen the exploshon took place. The men inside the skreens was burnt to deth… Then I had to go to the fore magesene for my powder.” Despite his age and lower-class status, Sands’ unlikely memoir is one of the few accounts that exist from the battle.
Historically, drummer boys have played a central role on the battlefield, especially in the American Civil War
The use of drummer boys on the battlefield has been a longstanding western tradition. These musical mascots had a practical role to play, using different drum rolls to enable officers and troops to communicate with each other.
Despite their wide-spanning history, drummer boys have become synonymous with 19th-century American warfare: sentimentalist poetry, art, sculpture and autobiography from the era juxtaposed these innocent children with sweeping battlescapes.
The American Civil War propelled drummer boys to semi-celebrity status. The youngest recruit of the war, nine-year-old John Clem, rose to fame after he opened fire on a Confederate colonel who’d ordered him to surrender, and managed to escape. ‘The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga’, as he became known, was subsequently promoted to sergeant, making him the youngest soldier ever to become a non-commissioned officer in the US army.
Other notable Civil War drummer boys include 13-year-old Charles King, the youngest recruit to be killed in the war; 12-year-old William Black, who lost his left arm during battle; and Louis Edward Rafield, who inspired the sentimental Confederate song ‘The Drummer Boy of Shiloh’, written by Will S Hays in 1863:
On Shiloh’s dark and bloody ground
The dead and wounded lay;
Amongst them was a drummer boy,
Who beat the drum that day.
The teenage Tommies
Children as young as 12 and 13 lied about their age to fight for Britain in the First World War
During the First World War, British youth movements such as the Boy Scouts, the Sea Scouts and the Girl Guides militarised the youth of the nation and provided them with practical medical and survival skills. These children were quick to volunteer their services. One such child, nine-year-old Alfie Knight, pleaded with the then-secretary of state for war, Lord Kitchener, to let him join the army: “I want to go to the front. I can ride jolley quick on my bicycle, and would go as a despatch ridder. I wouldint let the Germans get it.” Kitchener replied to thank the lad, but noted that he was a little too young to fight.
Many young boys did, however, find their way into the army. Approximately 250,000 British soldiers were under the legal age limit of 19. The youngest recognised soldier was 12-year-old Sidney Lewis, who fought in the battle of the Somme. Another young recruit, 13-year-old George Maher, lied about his age and was sent to the front line. His true age was revealed after he was found crying during heavy shelling. Punch magazine satirised this epidemic of willing youths with a cartoon. In it, an officer points to a young boy in a soldier’s uniform and booms: “Do you know where boys go who tell lies?”
The applicant replies: “To the front, sir.”
Hitler’s final hope
Only lightly trained, the youthful soldiers recruited to support the Nazis’ last stand were essentially cannon fodder
The Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls were among the primary tools used by the Nazi regime to control Germany’s future generation. Despite the compulsory gender roles attributed to each movement, the militant rhetoric that implored young subjects to devote themselves to the strength and defence of the ‘Fatherland’ was similar.
The Hitler Youth received only quasi-military training as part of their political programme, learning how to march, drill, throw grenades, dig trenches and escape through barbed wire reels under pistol fire. And when they were ordered to join the fight against Allied forces in the final months of the war, the boys were woefully inexperienced and ill-prepared. They were sent out in lightly armed ambush squads, fulfilling their vow to “be ready as a brave soldier, to stake my life at any time for this oath”. Fifteen-year-old Heinz Shuetze was put in an SS uniform and sent to fight Soviet forces on the front line after being given just half a day’s training.
He was armed with a panzerfaust, an anti-tank rocket.
A survivor from some of the Soviet confrontations, Guenter Dullni, noted: “They [the Soviets] had no mercy for child soldiers, particularly when you were slapped into an SS uniform.”
Tragically, many of the children who lost their lives in battle were sent to fight after the fate of the war had effectively been decided.
How the proliferation of assault rifles gave birth to a new breed of child warriors
While children were once of little use in combat roles, the invention of assault rifles like the Kalashnikov and the M-16 – smaller, lighter and with less recoil than previous guns – has enabled youngsters to be deployed as deadly ‘soldiers’. The Cold War marked the emergence of this trend, El Salvador in the 1980s being a prime example. Fighting between government troops and the rebel FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) resulted in the kidnap and rape of children, but also their conscription into the military by both sides. It’s reported that more than one in five of the FMLN’s troops were children, while 80 per cent of the government’s forces were under 18. In other words, children fighting children.
The FMLN would send ‘kids units’ into villages to recruit even younger children, but also deployed them in active fighting. The government forces reportedly sent children to kill or injure members of their own family to ‘prove’ their loyalty. Like the FMLN, they also used children in overt active combat roles. One former child soldier recalled “eight-year-olds carrying M-16s and losing their whole families”.
“Eyes wide, screaming in pain, fear and hatred”
Child soldiers in recent conflicts in Africa have been forced to participate in a number of terrible atrocities
The impact of child soldiers was ramped up to brutal new levels during the African civil wars of the 1990s, with mercenaries, gangs, arms dealers, militias and weakened governments all incorporating children into their ranks. In Liberia, ‘Small Boys Units’ were frequently used by the warlord/president Charles Taylor. Armed with Uzis or AK-47s, children would be used to engage against UN peacekeepers, pillage and plunder communities, or commit mass atrocities. One former child soldier recalled “the scent of gunpowder, eyes stinging from smoke, your friend crying… it was terrible. I missed my mother at that moment.”
Children were also used by the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) to take part in the country’s devastating 1994 genocide. Boys aged 14 and younger, many of them orphaned and desperate for protection, were drugged, kidnapped and sold, then forced to act as combatants taking part in rape, mutilation and the killing of civilians. A staggering 800,000 people were murdered in the space of just 100 days. As the commander of the UN mission in Rwanda said at the time: “Those child soldiers’ eyes were wide and brilliant, screaming in pain and anguish, fear and hatred.” For these fresh-faced fighters, the innocence of youth is short-lived.
Emma Butcher is a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker 2017. James Rogers is associate lecturer in international politics at the University of York. They are both investigators on the Wellcome-funded project, ‘Legacies of War Trauma’