Lying about your Age

One of the commonest narratives about enthusiastic recruiting in 1914 is the story of the young boy who lies about his age in order to serve his country.

I’ve been reading Patrick MacGill‘s Children of the Dead End (1914), his fictionalised autobiography of the years before he joined up, and this maybe puts the stories into perspective.

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Dermod (whose life-story follows that of MacGill in all essentials) is hired out at the age of twelve to a farmer miles away from his impoverished home, so that he can send money home to his desperate parents. After a series of mostly grim employers, he runs away to Scotland, to dig potatoes initally, and then to work on a navvy.After a while he finds the possibility of a job as a platelayer on the railways. Such jobs were reserved for over-nineteens, but as MacGill says:

I was only eighteen when I started work on the railway, but I told a lie in order to obtain the post.

He lies without compunction, and it is made clear that truthfulness is not the most useful of virtues among the navvying underclass.

I wonder how this relates to the boys lying to the recruiting sergeant. How widespread was this kind of practice? Was the high unemployment caused by uncertainty in the first months of the war a factor in driving young men to the recruiting office, demonstrating more patriotism than veracity?

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