9-15 February 1915: Correspondence from an Under-Age Soldier

The February edition of the Sir Walter St Johns School magazine contains several stories relating to the war – including one about a debate on whether or not professional football should still be played whilst there was a war. The overwhelming majority of the vote went against the motion, with only 5 people thinking football should stop, and arguments including that many of the spectators at football matches were dock and arsenal workers who were not allowed to join the Army, and that those in the Forces enjoyed football as well.

The magazine lists former pupils who have joined up and the regiments to which they are attached, as well as giving details of the staff who have joined and publishing correspondence from any old boys who have written to the school. Three letters were published in February 1915, one from Lance-Corporal A L Finding of the City of London Yeomanry, who was still in Norfolk, and the other two from old boys in the Queen Victoria Rifles – H Bischiné and J W Mahony. Mahony reports that the regiment have been in the firing line “a number of times; also under shell-fire and I can assure you that is nothing to wish for… On January 5th we were shelled in our billets…Although we are Territorials we are thought a lot of by the regular regiments in our Brigade, and have been complimented by the Officer commanding the Division, several times. We have just done 72 hours in the trenches, without relief, sometimes waist-deep in water, and how have 6 days rest”.

Bischiné was not able to write of his experience in the same way, as he was under-age and was not allowed to go to the front line. He had experienced the shelling: “we were at a small village just behind the firing-line when we got shelled by the Germans. I was peeling potatoes at the time and heard a familiar whiz, and then a terrific bang, so guessed what was happening. We got the inhabitants into their cellars, and then followed them, for there was nothing else to do.”

Harold George Alois Bischiné was born in March 1898, his father was from the Alsace region of Germany and became a naturalised citizen when Harold was 3 months old. His service record is one of the ones which survived the damage of the Second World War, and it shows that he joined the Territorial Forces in December 1913, when he was 15 years old. On the form, he writes that he is an articled pupil with Messrs Harris and Cullow and that he is 18 years and 6 months of age – clearly a lie. The medical inspection record has a section for “apparent age” where the medical officer has written “17”, although it is clear they didn’t look too closely into his age. He was not discharged from the Territorial Forces until November 1917, when he was commissioned in the London Regiment, having spent from November 1914 to June 1916 in France, then on home duties from 1916 to the date of his commission. At no point does his Army Service record reveal that he was under 18 for almost the whole of his service in France.

Bischiné served through the whole of the war, married in 1921 and emigrated to Canada, working in the Civil Service in Quebec. His army service record, marriage index entry and appearance in passenger lists from the 1950s are all available via Ancestry, meaning it’s possible to find out what happened to him after the war – not always a straightforward task. However, if it weren’t for his letter to his school magazine it would look like a mismatch of dates somewhere – the magazine makes it clear he was there under-age and with the knowledge of his superiors.

Sir Walter St John’s School magazine, February 1915, ref: S17/2/5

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