World War I recruitment poster (public domain)
World War I recruitment poster (public domain)

Analysis of over 380,000 digitised historic naval records reveals that nearly a third of the sailors who helped Britain achieve naval supremacy in World War I were ‘underage’ volunteers.

The Royal Navy Registers of Seaman’s Services, 1900-1928, now available on Ancestry, detail each sailor’s name, birthdate, birthplace, vessels served on, service number, and other service details. Additionally, the records include more personal information such as remarks on appearance, conduct, promotions and reasons for discharge.

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Too Young to Vote, Old Enough to Fight

The records reveal that a large percentage of new entrants to the navy were adolescent boys aged 14-17, despite a legal combat age of 18. Numbering over 100,000, these boy sailors rushed to enlist following the outbreak of war in 1914, many of them leaving home for the first time.

At the same time, even more underage boys enlisted in the army and were sent to fight in the trenches. Because many people didn’t have birth certificates in the early 1900s, it was easier for boys to lie about their age, and military recruitment officers were paid for each new recruit, so they would often ignore concerns they might have had about an enlistee’s age.

The service of these young soldiers is now recognised as a great tragedy of WWI, given they made up 1-in-10 of the total volunteers in the army. Proportionally, the boy sailors made up an even larger share of the navy, with nearly a third of all recruits joining before the age of 18.

While these young volunteers were eager to serve, many lacked the experience and training afforded to their older colleagues. Analysis of the collection shows that “boy sailors” were 16 percent more likely to give their lives than adult servicemen.

Names That Became History

Often described as “fresh” in the records, examples of some of these youths include:

• Jack Cornwell — Originally from Leyton, Cornwell lied about his age and enlisted in the Royal Navy at age 15. A year later, while fighting on the HMS Chester at Jutland, he died from a gunshot to the chest. His true age only became known when his body was repatriated, and he became a naval legend to the extent that King George personally presented his mother with a posthumous Victoria Cross on his behalf.

• Claude Choules — Born and raised in Worcestershire, Choules enlisted on the battleship Revenge at the age of 16 and afterwards immigrated to Australia, where he transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and fought in WWII. He lived until the age of 110 and passed away in Perth, Australia in 2011. He was the last surviving combat veteran of WWI.

• Henry Allingham — Like Choules, Allingham became a centenarian and died in 2009, aged 113. He was the last surviving participant in the Battle of Jutland and recounted tales of shells bouncing off the water near him. His Royal Navy Register entry describes him as being of a “fair complexion”, while having “hammer toes” on both feet and a scar on his right arm.

Lost at Sea

For young or old, the sea was a dangerous battleground during WWI, and the collection features thousands of records for men and boys who never returned home. These include the crew of the HMS Cressy, which was sunk by the German submarine U-9 on September 22, 1914. In total, 1,459 men were lost across three ships, and their records simply state “drowned in the North Sea” as “reason for discharge”.

The attack on the HMS Cressy remains the biggest single loss of life at sea during WWI, and news reports of the attack struck a chord with the public back home. The Royal Navy considered the disaster a wake-up call, which led to significantly increased funding behind improvements to the British submarine fleet.

The collection includes crews from a number of other famous ships that fought battles such as Heligoland Bight (1914), the Battle of Dogger Bank (1915) and the Battle of Jutland (1916), which saw the loss of 6,000 men and 14 ships as the Royal Navy came up against the German fleet off the coast of Denmark.

One of those ships was the HMS Queen Mary. A modern battlecruiser, in May 1916 she saw action at Jutland and was hit twice by fire from the German battlecruiser Derfflinger. She sank to the bottom of the North Sea on May 31 with the loss of 1,266 men, 866 of whom are marked in the records as ‘killed in action’. Only 18 survivors were rescued from the water.

Miriam Silverman, Senior UK Content Manager from Ancestry, comments: “It’s hard to comprehend that nearly a third of these records pertain to young adolescent boys who, despite not being old enough to vote, were prepared to risk their lives at sea to help Britain win the war.”

You can search for your First World War ancestors in military records on Ancestry. Or start a free trial.