By: Capt Michael O'Leary, The RCR
We are all familiar with the story of John Babcock, a soldier of The Royal Canadian Regiment and the last Canadian soldier of the First World War to die. Although Babcock did not serve in France or Belgium, and remained in England, his story is engaging to a large extent particularly for the reason that was the case. John Babcock was an under-aged soldier, and spent the later months of the War serving in a Young Soldiers Battalion in England where he, like his peers, awaited the day they were old enough to transfer, or transfer back, to an active unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).
Born in November 1901, White would have been just 13 years old when he joined the Regiment in Bermuda, and still only 15 years, 3 months of age when he was first sent to England as a minor in Feb 1917.
The simple fact that there was a requirement for a Young Soldiers Battalion tells us that there were more than a few young men who managed to get past the Recruiting Sergeants, the Medical Officers, the training camp staffs – and their own mothers – to find themselves overseas and in the uniform of the CEF. We should not, however, be surprised by this, it was in an era when it was not unusual for a young teenager to leave school to work, either to help support his family or simply because further studies were considered unnecessary. Well-built teenagers, some with a few years employment as a labourer in farm or factory behind them, might easily pass the medical and be recorded as of an acceptable "Apparent Age" on enlistment. While some, perhaps, should have been turned away by the Recruiting Sergeants or Medical Officers, the fact remains that those same teenagers would have been readily hired on at a local farm or mill, without hesitation simply because of their ages.
From surviving records, we can identity those under-aged soldiers who were themselves identified as such by the military. The details of those moments of realization, occurring through their individual admissions of youth – or possibly the receipt of a mother's letter by the Minister of Militia – and the handling of the requirement to remove them from the front line is recorded by a simple entry in the Daily Orders of the units in which they served. The Part II Daily Orders of The Royal Canadian Regiment, which recorded personnel changes within the overseas battalion, record 40 such soldiers as "transferred to England as a Minor."
It should be noted, however, that this is the number of underage soldiers that were identified. We shall never know how many others managed to remain undetected until they were of age, or the War ended, whichever came first. Of those unconfirmed soldiers of the Regiment, how many served out the War, or were buried overseas with their secret unrevealed to the Regiment?
Of the 40 that can be identified from the Part II Orders, each has their own story, and more details of their individual service will be recorded in their service records with the Library and Archives Canada. For a introduction to their stories, we can use the available information in their Attestation Papers and the Regiment's Part II Daily Orders to examine some of their experiences as soldiers of The RCR.
477986 Pte Harold William White was taken on the strength of The RCR on 9 Nov 1914 while the Regiment was serving in Bermuda. Initially given the regimental number 16198, this was changed to the CEF service number 477986 in late 1915. At 5 foot 5 inches in height with a 36-inch chest, White would not have been considered too small to be an infantry recruit. He also reported prior service with the 71st Regiment, Canadian Militia, a predecessor unit to the Royal New Brunswick Regiment.
On his attestation paper for overseas service with the Regiment, completed while the The RCR was in Halifax en route between Bermuda and England, White declared his birthdate to be 26 Jun 1896. If this was true he would have been 18 years of age on joining the Regiment and 19 on proceeding overseas. But that was not the case.
Harold White would serve with The RCR in Bermuda, Canada, England and France until 28 February 1917, when he was "Transferred to CTD Hastings for discharge as a Minor under A.C.I. 1905 of 1916." White was identified as an under-aged soldier after serving almost 28 months with the Regiment including 15 months in France. During his service in France he was charged once, receiving 2 days Field Punishment No. 1 for Conduct to the Prejudice of Good Order and Military Discipline during December 1915, and he received a period of leave for nine days in February 1916.
White's declared birth date of 26 Jun 1896 is contradicted by his family's appearance in the 1911 Canadian Census, where his birth date is given as "Nov. 1901." Born in November 1901, White would have been just 13 years old when he joined the Regiment in Bermuda, and still only 15 years, 3 months of age when he was first sent to England as a minor in Feb 1917.
Although White returned to England as a minor he was not released and sent home to Canada. On 9 April 1918 he rejoined The RCR in France, at the age of 17 years, 3 months. He remained with the Regiment for another six months until 16 Oct 1918, when he was posted to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot in England in order to attend training for a commission in the Royal Air Force.
Joining The RCR in Nov 1914 at the age of 13 made Harold White both the youngest Royal Canadian to serve in the First World War (that we can confirm at this time). At 15 years 3 months of age he was also the youngest under-aged soldier identified by the Regiment at the time of his removal from the front lines.
There is no doubt that the under-aged soldiers of the CEF who served in The RCR did their duty. One, 478916 Pte Walter Dobbie, has the distinction among his young peers of appearing in the Part II Daily Orders twice for being wounded and evacuated to England while serving in France.
Walter Dobbie was taken on the strength of The RCR from The RCR Depot on 28 Aug 1916. His declared age based on his attestation forms at the time was 20. Dobbie's attestation paper, dated 23 Aug 1915, gives no indication of his real date of birth and he cannot be identified by that name in the 1911 census. Although his exact age is unknown from available resources, his service record would likely offer more detail. The Regiment's Part II Daily Orders do confirm that Dobbie was returned to England from France on 1 Aug 1917, and was still underage after almost a year at the front.
During his time at the front, Walter Dobbie had the unfortunate experience to be evacuated twice. The first time, after being wounded in action, he was transferred to Shoreham, England, aboard the Hospital Ship Lanfranc on 17 Oct 1916. Given the date of his transfer to England, Dobbie was probably wounded during the Regiment's actions at Regina Trench earlier that month.
Not yet identified as under-aged, Dobbie returned to the Regiment, rejoining in France on 22 Apr 1917 after six months in hospitals and reserve units. Although the Regiment experienced a relatively quiet month after his return, Dobbie would spend only a month with the battalion in France before being evacuated once again. On 21 May 1917, Pte Walter Dobbie was classified "Shell Shock, Wounded" and admitted to No 4 Stationary Hospital.
Three months later, on 01 Aug 1917 he was again transferred to England on posting to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot at Bramshott for discharge as a minor.
One method by which some under-aged soldiers avoided identification was by enlisting under assumed names. Of the 40 under-aged soldiers confirmed by the Regiment's Part II Daily Orders, three also show up in those records as having declared their "true names" while serving.
739088 Pte William Leslie Clyde arrived from the 1st Casualty Training Battalion in England as a reinforcement and was taken on the strength of the Battalion on 29 Dec 1916. Five months later, in April 1917, he declared his true name to be Edwin Chapman. The next month, on 13 May 1917, he was transferred to England for discharge as a minor.
734000 Pte James William Meuse joined The RCR in France on 17 Jun 1917. By this time he had already identified that he has enlisted under a false name and had declared his true name to be the very similar James William Muise. He would serve in the field with the Regiment until returned to England as a minor on 5 Feb 1918.
488353 Pte Roy White was recruited in Canada as a reinforcement for The RCR. He was listed on the Regiment's Reinforcement Draft sailing nominal roll in Oct 1916 and joined the Regiment in France on 27 May 1917. The next year, in Jun 1918 he would declare his true name to be Joseph Roy Leblanc and subsequently be transferred to England and posted to the Young Soldiers Battalion at Bramshott on 13 Jun 1918.
As noted, James William Muise joined the CEF under an assumed name and was serving with The RCR in France before being identified as a minor. James William Muise started his wartime service on 18 Feb 1916 when he attested for service with the 112th Overseas Battalion at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. That date, 18 Feb 1916, is notable not just as the enlistment date for James William Muise, but also because because Privates James Louis Muise and George Muise also attested that date in Yarmouth – and all three of them were under-aged soldiers who would serve in The RCR.
Although he claimed he was eighteen, 734000 Pte James William Muise was 14 years, 3 months, of age when he attested for service in Feb 1916. He would serve as a soldier for two years, including eight months in France with The RCR, before being set to England as a minor.
733947 Pte James Louis Muise was 16 years, 9 months of age when he enlisted in Feb 1916. he would join The RCR in France on 22 Apr 1917 and serve with the Regiment until being sent to England in Nov 1917. James Louis Muise's enlistment in Feb 1916 was not his first attempt to get overseas, he had previously served for two months in the 40th Canadian Infantry Battalion, presumably before being found out for his age and sent home.
734002 Pte George Muise was 16 years, 2 months of age when he enlisted. He would join the RCR in France on the same day as James Louis and serve with the Regiment until 21 Jan 1918 when he was posted to the Young Soldiers Battalion at Bramshott.
Three Yarmouth boys, all named Muise, all enlisted on the same day. All three also claimed that their were recruits with the 29th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, of the Canadian Militia. Since all three identified different next of kin we can rule out any fraternal relationships, but any of them might have been cousins and it is not an uncommon surname in the Yarmouth area as shown by the 1911 census. With their service records it might be possible to determine what relationship the boys had beyond their common date of enlistment, their shared service and their time in the trenches with The RCR.
We might be tempted to build a romantic image of the under-aged soldier. An eager and energetic youth, perhaps large enough for his age to pass as being older than he really might be, slipping under the recruiting sergeants and the medical officer's inspection with a wink and a nod. Perhaps sheltered by crusty old soldiers with a soft spot for the boy's obvious (to them) lack of maturity and worldliness. An innocent among the crusty and good-natured experienced soldiers of an accommodating regiment.. But the truth can be as far from that romantic image as one can imagine. Take, for instance, the case of 818166 Pte Robert James Glass.
Private Glass attested for overseas service with the 140th Overseas Battalion at St John, New Brunswick, on 5 April 1916. Although he claimed to be 18 years 3 months of age on enlistment, he was actually only 16 years and 3 months of age.
The surviving pages of the Part II Daily Orders do not show when Glass joined The RCR in France, but we know he was there by his appearance in the DOs on 7 Nov 1917. On that date, Glass was charged and awarded 28 days Field Punishment No. 1 for being "Absent from working party parade at 7.3-0 a.m. 26 Oct 1917 and remaining absent from his unit until apprehended by Military Police at 1.30 p.m. 4 Nov 1917."
Glass, however, was not content to serve his period of punishment and soldier on, and again went over the hill. He was soon back in custody, and the wheels of military justice turning regularly and swiftly in wartime, he was back in custody by 23 Nov 1917 and tried by Field General Court Martial on 3 Dec 1917 for "Absent from 6.30 p.m. 14 Nov 1917 to 3 p.m. 23 Nov 1917."
Glass was found guilty once again, but this time his punishment was much more severe. Glass was found guilty of "(1) When in arrest escaping; (2) While on active service, Deserting His Majesty's Service" and sentenced to 20 years Penal Servitude on 3 Dec 1917. His sentence was confirmed by the General Officer Commanding (G.O.C.) of the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade the same date and on review of the sentence, 15 years Penal Servitude were remitted by the G.O.C. 3rd Canadian Division on 6 Dec 1917.
Pte Robert James Glass was committed to No 10 Military Prison at Dunkirk on 4 Jan 1918. Later that month, on 23 January, his sentenced was again reduced, from 5 years Penal Servitude to 2 years Imprisonment with Hard Labour. He would be released from prison on 21 Apr 1918 after less than four months, and the remainder of his sentence was suspended from the date of his release.
On 27 Jun 1918, Pte Robert James Glass transferred to England and was posted to Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, Bramshott, as a minor.
That romantic image of innocent youths masquerading as a new soldiers quickly wears thin as the adventures of some of those under-aged soldiers is examined. Charges, Field Punishment, imprisonment, all show that these boys who were soldiering shoulder to shoulder with men in the ranks had few qualms about exercising their growing bodies and developing maturity at cross purposes to Good Order and Military Discipline.
One young man, 488353 Pte Joseph Roy LeBlanc, who we met above with others who declared their true identities while serving, also made regular appearances in the Daily Orders for other reasons.
Joseph Leblanc joined The RCR in the field on 27 May 1917. Within his first weeks in the battalion he decided that an overnight stay out of billets was due and this was objected to by his chain of command. On 6 Jun 1917, Leblanc was awarded 14 days Field Punishment No. 1 for "Absent without leave from 6.30 p.m. 4 Jun 1917 until apprehended at 9.45 a.m. 5 Jun 1917 (about 15 ¼ hours)." As a condition of punishment for being absent, he also forfeited two days pay by Royal Warrant.
Private Leblanc's first trip through the military justice system apparently did not satisfy his urges to test the system. Even before his first punishment had been completed, he was again charged on 19 June, receiving 3 more days Field Punishment No. 1 for being "Dirty on Parade."
After these two summary punishments, Leblanc's appearance in the Daily Orders take a decidedly different turn, though one that in not perhaps unexpected for a young man attempting to live up to his impressions of the soldiers around him. Between 31 Dec 1917 and 23 may 1918, Leblanc would spend a total of 101 days in hospital on three admissions. Each of these hospitalizations was for the purpose of treating venereal disease, and each was accompanied by the following penalty: "Forfeits Field Allowance and is placed under stoppage of pay at the rate of 50 cents per diem whilst in hospital." This constituted the loss of half his daily rate of pay plus the ten cents per diem field allowance he was receiving.
While it is hoped that Leblanc was cured by the time he was finally released from hospital, one does have to wonder if those periods of treatment were somehow linked to that first overnight absence in May 1917.
Glass and Leblanc were not the only under-aged soldiers to find themselves introduced to the military justice system. While serving with the Regiment, the following young soldiers also found time to get themselves into trouble. Between them, the range of charges shows the broad opportunities for trouble that soldiers found open to them.
We may never know for certain how many under-aged soldiers actually served with The RCR during the First World War. We do know of the 40 that are identified in the Part II Daily Orders, but how many others went undetected? What we can tell from the readily available resources is that their service was not unlike that of other soldiers, who may have been only a few, or many, years older than they were.
There is one area in which the romanticized image of older soldiers sheltering younger ones that they perhaps knew were too young to be at the front may have had an effect. Approximately 4800 officers, NCOs and soldiers served in the RCR during the First World War. Of these, over 800, or about 17%, were fatal casualties. By this ratio, for a random selection of 40 soldiers – like these under-aged troops – we might expect to find six or seven casualties among them. But none of those 40 young soldiers died. None are listed in the CEF Roll of Honour. Perhaps their youth did result in some of them being sheltered by their fellow soldiers from the worst of the fighting, perhaps being placed in work details or assigned tasks of lesser risk, just often enough to tip the balance in their collective favour. Without more information, well beyond what may have been officially recorded, we may never know if that might be true.
There is, however, evidence that other under-aged soldiers served in the Regiment and were not identified as such during the war. In the Courcelette British Cemetery rests 478681 Private George Ritchie of The Royal Canadian Regiment. Although Ritchie's attestation paper gives his date of birth as 30 Nov 1895, there is evidence to contradict that date. Ritchie's Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone at Courcelette states "Age 16" at the time of his death on 16 Sep 1916.
The impetuousness of youth led each of these young soldiers to serve in The Royal Canadian Regiment. They were soldiers one and all, and are certainly no less deserving of our respect and remembrance than any other Royal Canadian.