William Rivers was not the only civilian to sacrifice his health in order to try and influence the fate of WW1 soldiers. MP Sir Arthur Markham is another interesting example:
-Sir Arthur Markham (1866 – 1916)
Born at Brimington Hall, Chesterfield on the 25th of August 1866, Sir Arthur Markham was a Baronet who served as Liberal MP for Mansfield in Nottinghamshire from 1900 until his death on the 5th of August 1916. ‘Fearless and honest ‘ when it came to standing up for his beliefs (R. Van Embden, ‘Boy Soldiers of the Great War’), like Rivers, he had come to the forefront in a campaign for justice regarding a controversial group of soldiers. Unlike Rivers, his concern was for boys serving under-age. Critics argue that, an industrialist, he was merely worried by the effect recruitment had on his workforce but his growing dedication to the cause suggests otherwise. His family , and opinions had been active in the war from the start, his home at Folkestone being offered as a military hospital, his family sending aid packages to POWs and Markham himself voicing his concerns over the conduct of the conflict and the lack of equipment available for the thousand of new recruits being encouraged into the army.
In mid-1915, these concerns led him to another issue that had so far been , if not ignored, given a blind-eye to; under-age recruitment. He was not the first to take it up; Barnet Kenyon raised the issue in June, but it was quietly dropped when the war office stone-walled any query. In absence of query, however, evidence of the sheer numbers of boys under 19 who had enlisted and were fighting oveseas began to mount up, and discovering this included that least one case in his own constituency, Markham brought it back into focus, despite the lack of support from his colleagues. Many parents were ‘glad to leave their boys to do their bit in the Home Defence army” but understandably did not want them in the Frontline. (RVE, Boy Soldiers)
Stone-walled again, he made the issue known to the press, finding it ridiculous and shameful that the government should seek to cover up a problem which was already obvious to parents all over the country. His response was met with perhaps not quite the reaction he envisaged: not change from the government but numerous letters from worried relatives begging him to help trace a boy or have him extracted from his regiment forthwith. Other made demands to have the laws changed or more stringently enforced. One morning alone, he received around 300 letters. Markham found himself compelled to take a stand
It appears that, as with so much pertaining to the Great War, parliament did not want to discuss the realities, and certainly could not bear to countenance the thought of the public doing so. Their main aim in general was to supply the front-line with the two things it most needed : men and munitions and both were becoming increasingly short in supply. Britain’s industry, although strong and enterprising had not been prepared for long term war and neither had the British people: seeing the causality trains drift into London and other recevinng depots, and reading the ever present lists of dead in the papers, the crowds of volunteers were understandably beginning to dwindle. Any threat to manpower was thus a call for ignorance on the part of those in power. Harold Tennant, Under-secretary-of-state-for-war, merely argued that, on paper, no male beneath the age of 19 years had been permitted to go overseas with his regiment. This was, in effect, true; because the boys had given false ages, their attestations stated them to be of military age thus, the ministers in parliament could see no blame on their part, nor any evidence it was happening. Essentially their view was that if any boy got into the army by lying, the army thus did not know anything other than what they were told, and it was the boy’s own fault if he now found himself on the Frontline. Others argued that it was sometimes impossible to tell by sight whether a boy was of age or not. By a set of men merely replied that he had become “ convinced the army is run and managed who have no sense of homour, truth or justice.”
Markham proved to be indifferent to the devices employed to distract him and was relentless in his pursuance of the topic at any given opportunity. Richard Van Emden called his perseverance ‘a remarkable campaign.’ Focussing mainly on cases of those aged 14-16, he made it his personal crusade, replying to every piece of correspondence that he could, reassuring parent, relatives, friends that he was doing his best to see that the relevant youngsters would be found and brought home. A famous example was that of John Flint, a sixteen year old resident of Kirby who was permitted to fight at the Front despite parental permission not being obtained. Eventually , due to Markham, he was found and sent home but not before seeing overseas duty with the Sherwood Foresters.
This persistence did pay off to a degree and eventually the War Office agreed to a series of measures. The first concession was that parents could write and ask for their son’s release from service – with sufficient proof that he was too young – and the boy would be sent home or kept a t the barracks. This would not, however, ensure it would happen if the lad was already overseas. Should that be the case, the decision lay with the commanding officer of his section – who was generally not keen to carry out the extraction. In honesty, when asked, several of the boys concerned did not want to be removed.
Through out the year, pressure began to tell on Markham; no law came through to make it compulsory that each identified case be met with return to Britian and no real effort was being made to ensure it would be. Over 500 boy-soldiers, it is now estimated , were killed during the Battle of the Somme (1st July 1916 -18th November). Enthusiasm was beginning to dwindle, however, and the numbers of young recruits was beginning to decrease for another reason. The government had brought in Conscription, compulsory service for every male over 18, unless they had a very good reason. Boys now had to register their ages by law and thus the possibility of joining up early was much reduced.
Sir Arthur Markham’s opinion on the long-term effect of this is not known. He died in August, of a heart attack brought on by stress, aged 50.
*The reader may be interested to know that the youngest official age for voluntary service with the army during the Great War was 18 but theoretically the soldier could not be sent abroad until he reached 19 years of age. With just a cursory glance at casualty details, it is easy to see that this rule was not as strictly adhered to as it might have been. The youngest soldier known to have served was Sidney Lewis who was only twelve upon joining up. He served on the Somme in 1916 before being identified and returned to the UK. (The oldest recognised was Henry Webb who volunteered in order to be with his sons. He died in service aged 68)
Entry and service age was rather different in the Royal Navy because, as the authorities commented, a boy could not be easily brought back from the middle of the ocean in time of conflict, particularly if there was a sudden escalation in hostilities