World War II: Conscription and the Age of Soldiers

Figure 1.--This German boy wears a Wehrmacht uniform. We are not sure what age he is, but he looks quite young. We do not yet have details as to at what age boys could join. At the militarity situiation deteiorated in 1ate 1944, the Volksstrum was created and very young boys were accepted, but this bnoys looks to be in the regulsr Wehrmcht..

World War II was total war. The War was fought with conscript armies. Volunteer armies could not raise armies capabable of winning the War. There was differences from country to country as to the age that youths and men were drafted. The age of the soldiers who fought the War is a topic that we have not yet addressed in detail. It is, however, an important topic that we hope to persue as HBC develops. All of the major combatant countries introduced drafts to create the massive military forces needed to fight the War. The age of men drafted varied from country to country. The widest age range was in Germany who began industung youths and older men when the War turned against them. Youths in all country could and did volunteer for military service. Normally one could volunteer at a younger age than one was drafted.


Most Americans when war broke out in Europe (1939) were determined to stay out of it. The American Army at the time was almost non-existent as a major fighting force. Countries like Romania had larger armies. The fall of France shocked Americans into realizing that America needed a credible army. Congress passed the Selective Training andService Act (September 16, 1940), creating tghe country's first peacetime military conscription program. Conscription in America is commonly referred to as the draft. The initial act authorized the conscription of men, but placed a limit of 0.9 million on the number to be trained. The period of service was set at 12 months. There was intense opposition from pacifists, isolationists, and others. The original draftees were aged 21-35 years. Service was restricted to the Western Hemisphere and U.S. territories. Subsequently in a razor-thin Cngressional vote on the eve of Pearl Harbor, the Selective Serbice Act was remwed (August 1941). The bill passed the House of Representatives by a one-vote margin (203-202). This permitted the Army to keep the one-year draftees. Congress after Pearl Harbor passed a new Selective Service Act which removed restrictions and extended the draft to men aged 18-38 years of age (briefly to 45 years). All men between 18-65 had to register. The period of service was extended to 6 months after the end of the War. Over 10 million men were inducted under the terms of this Act until a new Selective Service Act was passed after the War (1948). In addition to the 10 million men inducted, 6 million men enlisted. Many of those who inlisted joined the Navy and Air Corps (still part of the Army). Some American youth were anxious to enter the War even earlier than age 18. The military was very strict about the age limits. The Merchant Marine being drained by the battle in the North Atlantic against U-boats was often less careful. Richard Stephens tells how in 1943 that he had just turned 17 and graduated from highschool. He showed up at a Merchant Marine recruiting office with obviously doctored documents. The only problem was that he weighed 129 pounds, 1 pound below the 130 pound minimum weight. He was sent to the corner grocery to buy some bananas that he could eat to gain an extra pound. [Stephens]


Most Australians had rallied to aid Britain during World War I. There was wide spread support for forming a voluntary army to fight in Europe. Conscription was, however, highly controversial. Australian law permitted conscription, but not outside of Australia. There were bitter debates in Parliament as well as street demonstrations. Australian voters in a national vote rejected compulsory military service twice (1916 and 1917). World War II was a very different conflict. The Australian Army was deployed in the Western Dessert when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and moved south toward Australia. For a time only a few American carriers stood between Australia and the Japanese. With the Japanese threat Australia confronted the issue of conscription again. This time the Japanese were moving toward Australia itself and actually invaded New Guinea, an Australian protectorate. Australian sconscriptts were used there and played a key role in preventing the Japanese from seizing Port Moresby, from where they would have threatened northern Australia. The Cabinet proposed major changes in the conscription law. The Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act 1943 included provisions allowing the use of in the South West Pacific Area during the War. A provision of the Act provided for the rescinding of this authority 6 months after the end of the War. As the fighting moved away from Australia in 1943, the issue arose of using conscripts in the new theaters further north. As American conscripts were fighting in these areas, still much closer to Australia than America, limiitations on conscription seemed to represent a lack of commitment on Australi's part. The Government had the votes in Parliament, but the issue had been so contentious during World War I, Prime Minister Curtin from the Labour Party was reluctant to act. Curtin had been a vocal opponet of conscription in World war I. Instead he staged a debate within the Labour Party. Opposition proved so limited that the Government proiceeded to amend the conscrioption law. The area was expanded, but there was still significant limitations. There proved to be no substantial objection to conscription during the War--in sharp contrast to World War I.



Parliament passed a Bill for limited conscription (April 1939). Britain's left-wing unions had opposed conscription because of the huge losses of World war I, but in the deepening European crisis the Trade Union Council agreed to support the Governments conscription plans (May 1939). Parliament extended conscription to all men age 19-41 (December 2, 1939). Parliament extended conscription for men and added women 20-30 years of age (March 5, 1942). Women were not used in combat, but served in a range of non-combat functions. This is an example of the extent of the British war effort. The NAZIs in Germany never drafted women for military service. Younger boys could enlist. Here I am not sure of the age limits in place during the War. I believe the Royal Navy was accepting boys at age 15 years. I'm notv sure about the Army or Royal Air Force. The Merchant Navy apparently accepted boys at age 14 years. Raymond Steed a galley boy served with the Merchant Navy at age 14. Perhaps he did not give his correct age. His ship hit a mine off the coast of North Africa when on April 26th 1943 it hit a mine. Raymond died in this incident. He was Britain's youngest boy to die on active service during the WAr. He was one of 3,597 boys under the age of 18 to die on active service.


Canada entered World War II reluctantly to support Britain (1939). Prime Minister Mackenzie King insisted that Canada control its war effort, in contrast to its World war I experience. King at first believed that the French would prove a bulwark to the Germans and that hoped that Canada might only have to train aircrews and manufacture arms for the Allies. King and his important ally in Québec, Ernest Lapointe, promised that there would be no conscription for overseas service as had been introduced in World War I. The collapse of France and NAZI victories elsewhere in Europe meant that a huge Allied army would have to be raised in. As a result the issue of conscription rose again. King did not dare introduce conscription without overwealming public support. King called for a national plebiscite on conscription (April 24, 1942). The Canadians by a ratio of 3 to 1 voted for conscription (April 27). The English-speaking majority voted ovewealming for conscription. The French-Canadians in Québec rejected it. This was an interesting vote as the primary use of the Canadian Army was to be in Europe to liberate France. We suspect the vote was more of French-Canadian attitudes toward the British than attitudes toward the French. Evven after the plebecite, however, King did not immediatedly introduce national conscription. In fact he dismissed his pro-conscription defense minister, Colonel J. L. Ralston. As a result, the Canadian Army which stormed ashore at Juno Beach on D-Day (June 6, 1944) was a voluntary force. King did not introduce conscription until late in the War (late 1944). King remained popular even in Qué in part because he was clearly reluctant on the concscription issue. Few Canadian conscripts served overseas.




German Führer Adolf Hitler withdrew from the League of Nations, denounced the Versailles Treaty, launched a massive rearmament program, and introduced conscription (March 16, 1935). Goering in tge same month announces the creation of the Ludftwaffe. Germany at the time was mired in the Depression an while some Germans had misgivings about their country's militarization, others saw it as a way of finding jobs for the unemployed. Hitler used the term “research for peaceful purposes". The widest age range was in Germany who began inducting youths and older men when the War turned against Germany. Most of the younger boys and older men were inducted into the Volksstrum created late in the War (1944). As a last ditch effort to stave off defeat in October 1944, all males aged 16 to 60 were required to join the Volkssturm, or Home Guard. The Wehrmacht now disgraced in Hitler's eyes. Thus command of the Volkssturm was given to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Many of the Volksstrum members were not given uniforms. but only arm bands. The Vollsstrum was sent into battle with little or no training. The Hitler Youth boys inducted into the Volksstrum had received some military training. Much of the defense of Berlin (April 1945) was conducted by the Volksstrum. While boys had to joint the Volkssturm at age 16 joined. We are not entirely sure with the crcumstance under which these younger children joined the Volksstrum. Many young children were caught up in the defense of Berlin. In some cases the Hitler Youth on a local level was involved in recruiting these boys. Many of these boys surrendered as soon as they encounteed Allied soldiers, especially on the western front. Others fought more tenaciously than regular Wehrmacht soldiers. We are are not entirely sure about the services in which these boys served.



The British feared that compulsive conscription of Indians would intensify anti-British feeling and promote Indian nationalism. Thus conscription was seen as causing potentially serious problems and impairing the reliability of the recruits. Important units were raised by the British in India, but they were an all-voluntary force.



The virtually impossible to understand Japanese calculation that the way to complete the conquest of China was to attack the United States proved within a year a catrostrophic decesion. The result was the country tried to match the greater size and resources of the United states witn a greater effort by the Japanese people. Eventuslly all healthy males aged 15-60 years as well as females aged 17-45 years were drafted. And we have noted younger uniformed school girls in factories. They may have been volunteers. One author writes, "Their weapons included ancient bronze cannon, muzzle loaded muskets, bamboo spears, and bows and arrows. Even little children had been trained to strap explosives around their waists, roll under tank treads, and blow themselves up. They were called "Sherman's carpets." This was the enemy the Pentagon had learned to fear and hate,a country of fanatics dedicated to hara-kiri, determined to slay as many invaders as possible as they went down fighting." [Manchester, pp. 510-11.] The males were to be used as soldiers. The girls seem to have been used more to maintain production in factories. They replace male workers that had been conceipted.


Soviet Union

Marshal Klemenly Voroshiloff, Commisar of War, announces the proposed Military Training Law which lowered the conscription age from 19 to 17, abolished most exemptions to service, and established two reserves, including women. There have in recent years been considerable press treatment of child soldiers. Many horrific accounts describe the damage done to society and the children themselves. we note images of boys in the Red Army. Clearly young people below the age of conscription joined the Red Army. Given the fact that the NAZIs committed wide spread attrocities against civilians, including women and children, the idea of keeping children out of the War becomes a rather unrealistic concept. Many children worked with the partisans in the occupied areas, but we also notice boys in Red Army uniforms. Thus the Soviets clearly accepted volunteers below the age of conscription. We are not sure how common this practice was or how important. We suspect that many of the boys that fought with the Red Army were children who had become separated from their parents or whose parents had been killed.


Manchester, William. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964.

Stephens, Richard W. ""So eager to get into the fight," Washington Post May 28, 2004, p. W10.


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Created: May 28, 2004
Last updated: 5:39 AM 5/12/2011