Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick 5750

It’s 100 years ago this very day that perhaps one of the most poignant among the millions of Great War deaths occurred. Valentine Joe Strudwick was just 14 when he enlisted. He celebrated (secretly?) his fifteenth birthday whilst serving  and was killed on January 14th 1916, exactly a month before what would have been his sixteenth birthday.

His grave – marked with a cross and a stamped, tin inscription as it would still have been in 1919 – features in my novel, Known unto God. As the first battlefield tourists – and pilgrims – begin arriving, the men of the 5th Labour Company are given orders to escort a group of ex-VAD nurses round the Salient. It makes a change from digging graves, as one of them says.

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As the nurses pay their respects at Essex Farm cemetery they come across the grave of one of the youngest casualties of the war. And they can’t quite believe it:

Outside, the rest of the party has wandered back into the cemetery and is gathering round one of the larger, better built crosses.

‘The grave of Valentine Strudwick, ladies,’ Ocker is announcing. One of the nurses stares at the inscription, leaning closer to the tin plate on which the soldier’s details have been stamped:

5750 RIFLEMAN
V.J.STRUDWICK
8TH RIFLE BRIGADE
14 JANUARY 1916
AGE 15 

‘Surely this is a mistake?’ She steps back as if she’s just been stung.

‘No mistake, miss.’

‘But he was just…’

‘…a boy,’ someone else says softly.

‘I didn’t think that sort of thing…’

‘It was nae meant to,’ Mac says. ‘Especially not when there were some o’them old enough still at home and sucking at their mammy’s titties!’ Fuller looks down at the floor, and kicks a clod of earth.

‘But…’

‘Joined up when he was just a wee lad o’ fourteen. Had his last birthday out here in the Salient, before…’

The girls all bow their heads. Someone mouths a silent prayer. The French exhumation party walks past carrying a stretcher.

Strudwick enlisted in January 1915 in Lambeth, Surrey, shortly before his fifteenth birthday, having lied about his age. Assigned to the 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade (the Prince Consort´s Own) he landed in France on the 12th of August 1915. A little over a a year later he was dead, having been killed in action at Boezinge, not far from Ypres.

Today his grave is one of the most visited on the Western Front.

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Kipling and the CWGC

It’s not the first time in the short life of this blog that Kipling has merited a post. And it probably won’t be the last.

The story of Kipling’s war, the tragic loss of his son Jack and the family’s fruitless search for the boy’s body, is well known. Less well-known, perhaps, is Kipling’s tireless work for the fledgling Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission.

I confess, it was a story I wasn’t overly familiar with before researching my novel, Known unto God (in which Kipling makes a cameo appearance). I’d certainly not heard a broadcast from 2005, repeated recently on BBC Radio 4 Extra, in which Julian Barnes travels in France in Kipling’s post-war footsteps.

It’s a fascinating programme, the second of two. And they are both available now on BBC iPlayer for a further 28 days. Here’s a link to programme one: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0076vkh#play

And this is the link to the second programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0076vnz

Catch them while you can!

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First British Conscription Bill 1916

Britain had been fortunate, in most previous conflicts, to have relied on a relatively small, volunteer army. Together with the mighty British navy, this land force had been sufficient to conquer an empire. But by the end of 1914 after the First Battle of Ypres it had been virtually destroyed.

Volunteers, in the early stages of the war, were plentiful. But as the conflict dragged on, numbers dwindled. And casualties rose. It became obvious that drastic action was necessary, and so on January 5th 1916 the first British Conscription Bill was introduced in the House of Commons by the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.

Initially the Act (which didn’t come into force until the following March) compelled all men between the ages of 18 and 41 to enlist, unless married, widowed with children, ministers of religion or occupied in any one of a range of industries deemed essential for the war effort. It was hoped that the measure would raise at least two million men.

But from the earliest days, conscription was opposed by pacifists and others who either refused to fight on principle or else rejected the notion of being forced to fight. In order to meet the army’s desperate need for manpower, two more conscription acts followed – one later in the same year adding married men to the draft, and a final one in 1918 extending the upper age limit to 51.

The right to appeal against the call up was enshrined in the Act, and local Military Service Tribunals heard objections from three quarters of a million men in the first six months alone. Many were granted an exemption, especially if their work was regarded as being vital to the war effort. 6,000 of those who objected on moral or religious grounds and who became known as conscientious objectors were jailed and a further 35 were sentenced to death for refusing to fight, although the punishments were immediately commuted to a 10 year prison sentence instead.

Britain’s centuries-ol tradition of voluntary service was at an end. The conscription acts of the Great War were only repealed in 1919. Twenty years later, at the outbreak of the Second World War, they were back in force and compulsory military service was to remain a part of British life until the 1960s.

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