The Controversy Over The Youngest Soldier Killed in World War I

The Controversy Over The Youngest Soldier Killed in World War I

Patrick Lynch - January 25, 2017

World War I was the bloodiest conflict in history up until that time, but soldiers initially had a romantic idea about fighting for their country. At the beginning of the war in particular, young men willingly signed up. For those who lived in the United Kingdom and Ireland, it was an honor to take up arms and fight against the Central Powers.

Boys lied about their age to join the army, and the story of Private John Condon is one of the most poignant tales of all. There is some dispute as to his real age, but the tombstone of the boy from Waterford, Ireland says he died at the age of 14 at the Second Battle of the Ypres in 1915. This means he is the youngest soldier to perish in World War I.

The Boy Soldier

Condon was born in Waterford and enlisted in the Royal Irish Regiment’s 3rd Battalion in 1913. An estimated 4,800 people from Waterford were among the 400,000 Irish troops that fought in World War I. The 3rd Battalion was a reserve division, so the men only served part time. However, they knew it was possible for them to end up in active service during wartime.

Condon told the recruitment officer that he was born on October 24, 1895, which would make him 18 years old upon enlistment. The youngster trained with the regiment for four months before his return home. A recall followed in April 1914, and training lasted a month before another release. While Condon was hungry for action, he had to remain with the reserves until at least October 24, 1914, as 19 was the minimum age for overseas service. The only blemish on his military record occurred on November 28, when he committed a couple of minor offenses. Confinement to the barracks for four days was his punishment.

The Controversy Over The Youngest Soldier Killed in World War I
The Munster Express

War & Early Death

Condon received his wish and saw active duty and was called up on December 16, 1914. He was part of the British Expeditionary Force’s 4th Infantry Division, so Private Condon took his post in France. The Battalion fought in a number of engagements known as the Second Battle of the Ypres in Belgium from April 22 to May 25, 1915.

John tragically met his end on the second to last day of the battle. In the early hours of May 24, the Germans launched a massive artillery attack followed by clouds of deadly chlorine gas. The gas spread across the four and a half mile front manned by members of the 2nd Battalion amongst others. John was one of nearly 400 people who died in the attack.

Condon was initially buried in a mass grave, but in 1923 the grave was dug up and his remains were identified. Condon’s body was moved to Poelcapelle Cemetery in Flanders, in what is today one of the most popular graves among tourists; only the Unknown Soldier’s resting place receives more visitors. But was Condon the youngest soldier to die in World War I?

The Controversy Over The Youngest Soldier Killed in World War I
John Condon Memorial in Waterford. Irish Times

Is It All a Lie?

The men that collected the body believed it was Condon because they saw 6322, Condon’s service number, on part of a boot. In Waterford, there is a birth certificate that clearly says a boy named John Condon was born in October 1895. This means the youthful adventurer told the truth about his age. In 1938, however, a local newspaper, The Waterford News, claimed that John Condon’s brother Patrick had stowed away, pretending to be his older brother. Patrick’s older cousin Nicholas was the source of that particular story.

Perhaps neither John or Patrick Condon is the body buried in Poelcapelle Cemetery. Condon’s Battalion never fought in the place where his body was allegedly found. The Royal Irish Rifles 2nd Battalion, on the other hand, did fight there. On June 16, 1915, Patrick Fitzsimmons, one of the Battalion’s members, was killed in action and had previously fought with the Rifles’ 4th Battalion. His service number? 6322. Fitzsimmons’ body was never recovered or identified.

There is a certain level of ambiguity associated with the stamp found on the supposed boot of Condon. It said 6322 4/R.I.R which was taken to mean service number 6322, 4th Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment. This is how the Imperial War Graves Commission interpreted the identification. The trouble is, Condon was apparently in the 3rd Battalion. R.I.R could just as easily stand for Royal Irish Rifles. Although no one can offer conclusive evidence, there is more than an element of doubt over Condon’s age and identity.

How Did Boys Get Into The Army?

A man needed to be 19 years old to join the army and serve overseas, but recruiting officers were willing to turn a blind eye. At the beginning of World War I in 1914, the German army had approximately 3,000,000 more men than its British counterpart. The British frantically searched for volunteers, and an estimated 250,000 boys under the age of 19 joined.

Even young kids who naively told the truth were only told to come back later. A significant number of people didn’t have birth certificates in those days, so lying about one’s age was easy. Additionally, officers received two shillings and sixpence for each recruit, so it wasn’t in their best interest to turn people away. According to Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State, boys as young as 9 wrote to him asking for the rules to be set aside to let them join the military. Rejected boys often tried to join another regiment nearby.

Recruits only needed to be 5’3″ tall, so teenagers like Condon had no problem getting in. While a substantial number of underage troops were caught and sent home, thousands remained overseas, and plenty of them died. The onset of conscription in 1916 reduced the level of teenage troops, and the War Office agreed to send kids home if their parents could prove they were underage. As far as the case of John Condon is concerned, we will most likely never know the whole truth.