I can see him still as he fixed his bayonet. With speed and immaculate precision the blade was whipped from its sheath. No sound in the world is quite so frightening to me as the click of that cold steel knife being fixed to the end of a rifle. It is the sound of a murderous intimacy. It says to me: death is very close.
I was in central Africa in the middle of a civil war. The person wielding the bayonet was a rebel soldier who had been assigned to protect our group. He’d been fighting since he was 14 years old. He was disciplined and calm, far calmer than I was when I saw the men running from the road up ahead, sensing with certainty that we were about to drive into an ambush. We stopped, turned around and raced to safety.
Over the decades I’ve come across many boy soldiers. Some were members of disciplined armies. Others were drugged or drunk, wild-eyed and all-powerful, dispensing death upon a whim.
As the father of a teenage boy, I have always been acutely grateful that he did not live in a place where children were conscripted or recruited and sent into the front line of battle. It was a feeling that frequently came back to me while making Teenage Tommies, with its haunting stories of boys’ destinies irrevocably altered by the Great War. My son is 18 now and older by four years than the youngest of the boys in the film. I simply cannot picture Daniel in the trenches at that age, or even now, knee-deep in mud, under shell and sniper fire, cold and hungry and scared.
Yet more than 15,000 underage soldiers were killed fighting for Britain in the Great War. Many more were badly wounded. And many would live with the trauma of the war for the rest of their days.
Take the case of 14-year-old Horace Iles, a blacksmith’s apprentice from Leeds. Horace was a strong boy who looked considerably older than his years and joined up after a woman on a tram presented him a white feather – the symbol of cowardice. Horace joined the Leeds “Pals” – one of the battalions made up of men and boys from the same locality.
In 1916, soon after Horace arrived at the front, the Germans mounted a raid on his trench. This was the war of hand-to-hand combat, of bayonets and clubs. The Germans were repelled, but at a cost: 15 Leeds Pals were killed, 34 wounded and an officer was left suffering from shell shock. Horace, who by that time had turned 16, was lightly wounded in the skirmish. On 22 May in a letter he sent to his older sister afterwards, there is a note of loneliness, a longing for home.
He wrote: “Dear Florrie, I was discharged from hospital two days ago. It’s three weeks since I’ve had a letter. Hope you and the nipper are in the pink. Your loving brother, Horace.”
By the summer of 1916, Horace was among the troops waiting to advance in the wake of the greatest barrage the world had seen. On 1 July he looked over the Somme thinking, as did so many others, that the Allies’ guns had wreaked havoc on the German defenders…
I went back to the Somme, where Horace fought, with his 16-year-old great-grandnephew William, a schoolboy from Leeds. Using modern GPS technology and an old army map, we were able to locate the precise spot where Horace was waiting to attack. William looked out over the same fields where his ancestor had faced the German army nearly a century before.
“No one would have believed that anything could have survived,” said William. “I mean, he was hit by a barrage himself and wounded, so he knew what damage it could do.”
But as Horace climbed out of his trench to advance, the German machine guns opened fire. Their crews were still effective despite the barrage. There were almost 60,000 British casualties, dead and wounded, on that first day. And among the dead of the Somme was the teenage Horace Iles.
Back in Leeds, Horace’s beloved sister Florrie had been worrying constantly. She wrote begging him to come home. It is one of the saddest letters of war that I have read. In it she tells Horace that the army is now willing to bring the boy soldiers home.
“My dear Horace. I’m so glad you are all right so far, but I need not tell you what an anxious time I am having on your account… did hear that they were fetching all back from France under 19.
“For goodness sake Horace, tell them how old you are. I’m sure they will send you back if they know you are only 16. If you don’t do it now you’ll come back in bits and we want the whole of you. Just remember I am always thinking of you and hoping for your safe return. So no more this time, only my love.”
He never got to read the letter. It was returned to Florrie with the words “Killed in Action”.
We visited Horace’s grave, set among so many others along the valley of the Somme. As William paid his respects, he noticed a wreath of poppies that had been left there by a group of servicemen. It bore the words: “You have our ever serving gratitude.” William Iles’s eyes brimmed with tears. There was sadness, but pride too.
“I’m happy for who he was and grateful for what he did. And that’s all I can really do,” he said. It was a gentle and moving epitaph for the lost boy of 1916.
Teenage Tommies is on tonight (Tuesday 11th November) at 9.00pm BBC2