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.
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:
8TH RIFLE BRIGADE
14 JANUARY 1916
‘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.
‘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.