REVIEW

Paul Byrnes' book about the under-age boys who enlisted to fight in the First World War is vivid and detailed

17-year-old Will Richards died in Belgium in 1917. Picture: Supplied

17-year-old Will Richards died in Belgium in 1917. Picture: Supplied

Many readers would probably think that there is nothing more to say about Australia in the First World War.

The battles, the home-front, the participants, the causes, the motivations, the horror and the heroism have all been trawled for their last ounce of meaning.

Paul Byrnes thought otherwise, having been amazed to discover the names of 170 under-age Australian soldiers.

He looked into their stories and made some quite profound discoveries. He begins with the important point that there is "a stark difference" in attitudes to age then and now.

If a boy left school at 12, as many boys did then, and worked for four years, he thought of himself at the age of 16 as a man.

If he then enlisted, that was his independent and mature decision. A doctor would not be troubled completing the medical examination, and recruiters would easily countenance the fiction that he was eighteen.

Many parents easily signed the required consent form and felt proud of the 16-year-old doing a man's job.

Some parents did not agree with this way of thinking but what, really, could they do? Drag the boy out of the training camp and march him back home?

Well, yes, some tried to do that, but what was to stop the boy enlisting somewhere else, under a false name, to be lost to his parents possibly forever?

If we put aside the 16 and 17-year-olds, and I think we can, Paul Byrnes can still provide the stories of dozens of others of a much younger age.

This where his story becomes so engrossing.

I was surprised and saddened to read that many of these younger boys were prompted to enlist, it would seem, to get away from very unhappy homes.

It is something that most historians would not have considered and have not explored. Byrnes piles on examples of men and women caught in desperate marriages.

The boys enlisted to escape the unhappiness and misery of home life.

And some too came from orphanages, which were much more common in Australia then than they are now.

If a boy left school at 12, as many boys did then, and worked for four years, he thought of himself at the age of 16 as a man. If he then enlisted, that was his independent and mature decision.

Many years ago I came to know of the enlistment and death at Gallipoli of Sydney Anglican clergymen, Everard Digges-la Touche.

Here his story is told in detail and graphically. It is gothic in its horror.

We would now say that the cleric exhibited mental health issues; earlier descriptions might have been more straightforward.

Digges-la Touche decided that he could serve his God best by giving his own life in battle. So he enlisted with explicit intention of being killed.

There may have been other soldiers in such a frame of mind, but very, very few.

The trouble was that Digges-la Touche took an acolyte with him, 15-year-old John "Jack" Harris, from Waverley in Sydney.

Digges-la Touche promised the boy's father that he would diligently watch over the boy on the battlefield and shield him from its dangers. Bunkum.

The two of them left Sydney in June 1915, arriving on Gallipoli on 5 August, just in time for the Battle of Lone Pine, the next day.

The clergyman and the child had no experience of war or fighting whatsoever.

Digges-la Touche begged to be allowed to join the fight and superiors, without thought or reason, allowed this to happen.

And so Jack Harris's fate was sealed.

Going into action at about 5.30 in the afternoon of 6 August, Digges-la Touche was one of the first to reach the enemy trenches. He was shot through the intestine and "fell mortally wounded" as he had so fervently desired.

Jack Harris was already dead, "severely wounded" just outside the Turkish trenches.

Of course, those in Australia who saw the war as God's moment of grace lauded the clergyman to the skies, doing God's will, "even unto death".

It was utter madness and poor little Jack was the awful victim of this insanity.

Digges-la Touche has a grave at Lone Pine on Gallipoli; Jack Harris is one of the missing, his life thrown away for some theological mumbo-jumbo, described by one of the very few who knew him as "a gallant little chap".

Paul Byrnes writes that this story is almost "the strangest and saddest in this book".

A beautifully produced book, most of those whose stories are told here are given a photograph so that the reader might understand them better. Some look old enough and tough enough for war.

They might even fool you now into thinking that they were indeed ready to be enlisted, clearly 18 years of age.

But not Jack Harris.

Clearly a little boy, not yet shaving, with somewhat mournful eyes, he, simply, should have been rejected when he reached the recruiting sergeant.

Digges-la Touche had promised Jack's father "I will try to keep him with me and to see after him as far as I can . . . but we are both in God's hands". What lies.

This is a sad book from an awful war.

  • Michael McKernan is a Canberra historian.
  • The Lost Boys, by Paul Brynes. Affirm Press. $45.
This story Sad stories from an awful war first appeared on The Canberra Times.