Heartbreaking Photographs of Child Soldiers from WWI and WWII

The military use of children can take three distinct forms: children can take a direct part in conflict as child soldiers; they can be used in support roles such as porters, spies, messengers, and lookouts; or they can be used for political advantage and propaganda.

Children have always been easy targets for indoctrination for military purposes because of their vulnerability to influence. Children have also been historically seized and recruited by force or join voluntarily to escape current circumstances.

Throughout history, children have been extensively involved in military campaigns even when such practices went against cultural morals. In World War I, in Great Britain, 250,000 boys under the age of 18 were able to join the army. In World War II, child soldiers fought throughout Europe, in the Warsaw uprising, in the Jewish resistance, for the Nazi army, and for the Soviet Red Army.

Following World War I, in 1924 the League of Nations adopted the Geneva Declarations of the Rights of the Child. Despite this attempt, World War II left millions of children unprotected from indoctrination, war, and murder. The lack of legal protection for children in times of war, which allows for their exploitation, can be linked to the lack of a universally recognized definition of a child during World War II.

The youngest known soldier of Wolrd War I was Momčilo Gavrić, who joined the 6 Artillery Division of the Serbian Army at the age of 8, after the Austro-Hungarian troops killed his entire family in August 1916.

The youngest member of the United States Military in World War II was 12-year-old Calvin Grahm who lied about his age when he enlisted in the US Navy. His real age came out after he was wounded.

The Hitler Youth was established as an organization in Nazi Germany that physically trained children and indoctrinated them with Nazi ideologies. At the onset of war, Hitler Youth totaled 8.8 million children. Hitler Youth children first saw conflict following the British Air Raids in Berlin in 1940. Huge numbers of Hitler Youth soldiers were removed from school in early 1945 and sent to war.

Many child soldiers served in the Soviet Union’s armed forces during World War II. Orphans often voluntarily, unofficially joined the Red Army. Children were often affectionately known as “sons of the regiment.”

The Japanese Imperial Army training started in schools. Military drills were a staple in physical education classes. Children between the ages of 14-17 were conscripted to fight in the Battle of Okinawa.

Currently the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) defines a child soldier as “any child – boy or girl – under eighteen years of age, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity” The age limit of 18 was introduced in 2002 under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of a Child. Prior to 2002, the 1949 Geneva Convention set 15 years old as the minimum age to participate in armed conflict.

Two young German soldiers armed with Panzerfausts (anti-tank weapons) and Mauser rifles, march along Bankowa street in Lubań (Lauban), Lower Silesia. There was fierce fighting there and it was the site of pretty much the last successful German operation of the war. worldwartwo
20 March 1945: Adolf Hitler decorates his last tranche of boy soldiers for fighting to the bitter end. Artur Axmann, a leader of Hitler Youth, is behind Hitler; Otto Günsche is in the background on left, then Hermann Fegelein in the center and Heinz Linge on the right. worldwartwo
1944 – Ten-year-old German boy soldier poses with his Major after their capture in Antwerp, Belgium. Hundreds of other prisoners taken with them march past in the background. Since Antwerp was in Allied hands by October 1944, this is proof that child soldiers were serving well before the Reich’s last days. worldwartwo
11-year-old soldier killed during the Warsaw uprising 1944. worldwartwo
13-year-old boy soldier, captured by United States Army in Martinszell-Waltenhofen, 1945. warhistoryonline
15-year-old boy soldier of Legion of French Volunteers Against Bolshevism, 1941. Bundesarchiv
15-year-old Misha Petrov with captured German MP-38 and Soviet grenade RGD-33 in his boot. warhistoryonline
A Chinese Nationalist soldier, age 10, member of a Chinese division from the X-Force, boarding planes in Burma bound for China, May 1944. warhistoryonline
A soldier of the 94th Infantry Division searching two young anti-aircraft gunners who surrendered in Frankenthal, 23 March 1945. worldwartwo
Admiral Giulio Graziani and X Flottiglia MAS. The boy on the picture is Franco Grechi. Italy, 1943. warhistoryonline
Seaman First Class Calvin Graham in 1942 was the youngest U.S. serviceman to serve and fight during World War II at the age of 12. Wikipedia
B. Mussolini during a review of a youth organization, Rome, 1940. warhistoryonline
Boy soldier from Hitlerjugend, at the age of 16, Berlin, Germany, 1945. Soon after this picture was taken, Soviets entered the city. Bundesarchiv
Chinese boy hired to assist troops of Chinese 39th Division during the Salween Offensive, Yunnan Province, China, 1944. The United States Army Signal Corps
German boy soldier after his capture, Italy, 1944. warhistoryonline
Hitler Youth being awarded medals, 1943. worldwartwo