Not suitable for a boy: Russell Redman and the Boys’ Battalion

Newfoundland Regiment Soldiers, St. John’s. (Photo: The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, F 46-27/Holloway Studio)
Newfoundland Regiment Soldiers, St. John’s. (Photo: The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, F 46-27/Holloway Studio)

Acting Corporal Russell Redman enlisted on 13 September 1915 with the 46th Battalion (South Saskatchewan), also known as the “Suicide Battalion” due to their high casualty rates. Redman, like many boys looking for adventure, listed his age as just turned 18. His attestation paper shows that he claimed his birthday had been the day before. The commanding officer may have been suspicious of Redman and may even have known that he was not 18, but he was still permitted to enlist. Without glaring proof, most recruiting officers would not bother to push a recruit about their age and most were not required to produce a birth certificate as proof of age. In actual fact, Russell Redman was 15.

Redman was trained with his fellow recruits and sent to France with the 46th Battalion in June 1916, where he spent roughly a month on the front before being hospitalised. By this time he was just approaching his 16th birthday, and spent his birthday in No 39 Stationary Hospital at Le Havre. Redman was sent back to the front in January 1917 and remained there until April of the same year, when it was discovered that he was underage. How this occurred in unclear. His attestation paper makes reference to the arrival of a British birth certificate, making it possible the Redman’s family petitioned for his release. He may also have been fully examined by a doctor during his time in the hospital, who might have been able to properly assess his age. Regardless of the circumstance of his discovery, Redman was removed from the front and sent to the Boys’ Battalion camp in Bexhill.

The Boy’s Battalion was begun in the summer of 1917 as a way to deal with the large number of underage recruits that had been found within the Canadian army. Rather than discharge these boys altogether, especially since they already had military training, it was thought better to keep them as members of the army but to find away to keep them away from the front line fighting. Originally, underage recruits had simply been kept at base camp; however, questions were raised about the necessity of education (most were still school age) and the morality of keeping young boys around soldiers. To answer these concerns it was decided that a separate battalion would be organized that would provide training for under age recruits and an education; they would then be transferred to the regular army upon reaching the age of 18.

Redman, after a summer and fall with the Boys’ Battalion was sent back to the front with the 3rd Battalion after his 18th birthday. He spent the last two weeks of the war in France and after the armistice remained with the CEF until his demobilisation in April 1919. Though he may not have had as much of an adventure as he wished, Redman’s time in the Boys’ Battalion probably saved his life. The National Service League claimed that 15% of British soldiers serving in active battle were under 18, many thousands would die before reaching adulthood.

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