When World War I ensued, many young boys were eager to enlist and protect the country even when they were still minors. The youngest ever who was able to sneak himself in and lie about his age was a British kid named Sidney Lewis, who was just 12 years old.

Minimum Age to Enlist

In most countries, you have to be at least 18 years old to enlist or, in some cases, 17 with parental consent. The 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions prohibit children who have not reached the age of 15 from taking ”direct part in hostilities,” although there were some loopholes in it.

David Balton, former Ambassador of the State Department’s Office of the Legal Advisers, said, ”In the U.S., it is possible to enlist at 17, with parental consent. We are not involved in an armed conflict, but we may be one day, and it would be very hard for the armed forces to guarantee that the 17-year-olds would be separated out from combat.”’

As the International Committee of the Red Cross stated, “Children are especially vulnerable in armed conflicts. Despite the protection provided by law, they continue to be recruited by armed forces and armed groups. They are often separated from their families, driven from their homes, killed, maimed, sexually abused or exploited in other ways.”

According to the BBC documentary titled Teenage Tommies, aired in 2014, “As many as 250,000 boys under the age of 18 served in the British Army during World War I.”

Sidney Lewis

In August 1915, Sidney George Lewis was 12 years old when he enlisted in the East Surrey Regiment, which was just five months after his birthday. His parents had no idea where their son was, and so Lewis was able to sneak himself in. A few factors that might have allowed him to do it was that military recruiters didn’t care much about underage recruits at that time. The second one was that Lewis didn’t look like he was just twelve— his appearance was matured with his tall and heavy build. He was 6 feet 2 inches which were even taller than the British height requirement at the time that was only 5 feet 3 inches.

Joining The Action

In 1916, he was 13 years old when he fought in the Battle of Somme as part of the 106th Machine Gun Company of the Machine Gun Corps. The Battle of Somme was fought between the British and French versus the German Empire. Specifically, he was involved in the Battle of Delville Wood (one of the engagements under the Battle of Somme). They combated to the east of Longueval’s thick, grassy terrain with dense and tangled hazel thickets and hornbeam trees. This was one of the deadliest battles in history, with approximately one million men wounded or killed. Luckily for Lewis and his clueless parents but worried, he was not one of those casualties.


A German trench occupied by British Soldiers near the Albert-Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. (John Warwick Brooke, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was not long until his mother found out that his 13-year-old son was out on the firing line kicking some German asses when a comrade who was on leave snitched him. His mom immediately sent a letter to the War Office, demanding to release him. They asked for Lewis’s birth certificate to prove the claim, which she sent. After that, this was the response that she received dated August 23, 1916:

War Office of London’s letter to Sidney Lewis’ mother. (Army Tigers)

And Lewis was indeed discharged and also awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal. But young Lewis really wanted to be in the army, so just two years later, he re-enlisted and became part of the occupation army in Austria. After the war, he became a cop in Kingston upon Thames. When World War II started, he joined the bomb disposal team and then, later on, ran a pub in Frant, East Sussex, until he died in 1969.

Lewis was not the only known underaged soldier during WWI. There was also Horace Iles, who also faked his age and joined to fight with Leeds Pals at the age of 14. Then there’s George Maher, who was thirteen when he joined the 2nd Battalion King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment after claiming that he was 18. His age was later on discovered after he began crying during heavy shelling on the battlefield. He was initially the first confirmed youngest British soldier of WWI until the Imperial War Museum authenticated the claim that it was indeed Lewis.