Private Sidney Lewis was identified as the youngest Briton to fight in first World War at the age of 12, but his identity remained a secret for about a century until the chance revelation of faded documents revealed his extraordinary story.
The centenary of the start of the war in 1914 has brought official recognition of Sidney’s remarkable journey from an English schoolboy to a fighter on the bloody fields of the Somme.
His son, Colin Lewis, only discovered the truth about his father’s past a few years ago, long after Sidney died in 1969 aged 66
Stories about the child fighting on the frontline were printed in papers at the time, but they were never corroborated until now.
In an interview with AFP from his home in Poole on the southern English coast, Colin, now 80, expressed how proud he is for his father.
“The great disappointment is that I can’t congratulate him and tell him ‘I am very proud of you’,”he said.
“You did a fantastic job, you are a very brave boy actually. Well done, Dad.”
Sidney enlisted with the East Surrey Regiment in August 1915, five months after his 12th birthday, and was fighting on the Somme by the age of 13.
“Boys would have been filled with the patriotism which was amazingly strong at the beginning of WWI,” said Anthony Richards, head of documents and sound at the Imperial War Museum in London.
“There would have been a lot of pressure from their families and friends, and from society generally, to do your bit for the war.”
Lied about age
The fearless young Sidney decided to take his chances and signed up for the army in Kingston, London, on holiday from school.
He lied to the recruitment officer about his age, pretending he was several years older.
It is believed Sidney, who is said to have had the physique of an older man, tricked enlisting officers into letting him sign up. He underwent six months of training before being sent to France to fight.
According to historian Richard van Emden, author of “Boy Soldiers of the Great War,” Sidney was not alone, there are about 250,000 underage soldiers fought for Britain in WWI.
But Sidney was a special case. “How a 12-year-old got into the British army is really beyond belief,” van Emden told AFP.
Many parents allowed their underage sons to join the army because they thought it might do them some good, while poor families saw it as one less mouth to feed at home.
They were often reassured by a rule stating that soldiers could not be sent overseas until they were 19.
In Sidney’s case, however, his distraught mother had no idea where her son — one of eight children — had gone.
Sidney fought in the Battle of Delville Wood, scene of some of the most ferocious fighting in the Battle of the Somme, which left around 500,000 men wounded or killed.
Upon his mother’s knowledge, she sent his birth certificate to the War Office and pleaded that he should be sent home.
It was after six weeks at the frontline that he was plucked from the trenches and sent home to his mother.
One telegram sent to Sidney’s mother Fanny from the officer in charge of records at the Machine Gun Corps on 24 August 1916 read: “Madam, your application on behalf of your son, and birth certificate, have been forwarded here by the War Office.
“I have to inform you that action has been taken and the lad will be discharged with all possible speed.”
And a letter sent to Mrs Lewis the day before from the War Office’s director of recruiting said: “With reference to your letter relative to your son, Private SG Lewis, Machine Gun Corps, I am directed to inform you that telegraphic instructions have been issued that he is to be at once withdrawn from the firing line and sent home for discharge.
“On arrival in this country he will be discharged from the Army forthwith.”
Despite being sent home, the irrepressible Sidney went on to re-enlist in 1918 and served in Austria with the army of occupation after the Armistice. He later joined the police force and worked in bomb disposal during the Second World War. He then got married and, after retiring, ran a pub.
The Imperial War Museum has now officially backed his claim after being shown a bundle of family papers including his birth certificate. The new evidence included the discovery that Sidney was awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal.
Colin now plans a trip to the Somme with his children and grandchildren to remember where Sidney fought for six weeks, and unlike so many others, made it back alive.