*** World War II -- age of soldiers

World War II: Conscription and the Age of Soldiers

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 boy looks to be in the regular Wehrmacht.

World War II was total war. The War was fought with conscript armies. Volunteer armies could not reach levels capable 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 pursue 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 inducting 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 and Service Act (September 16, 1940), creating the 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 Congressional vote on the eve of Pearl Harbor, the Selective Service Act was renewed (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 enlisted 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 high school. 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 conscripts 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 Defense (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, limitations on conscription seemed to represent a lack of commitment on Australia'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 opponent of conscription in World War I. Instead he staged a debate within the Labour Party. Opposition proved so limited that the Government proceeded to amend the conscription 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 as Europe was moving toward war (April 1939). Hitler's seizure of what was left of Czechoslovakia (March 1939) made it clear that the NAZIs could not be appeased. Britain's left-wing unions had opposed conscription because of the huge losses of World War I, but in the deepening European crisis and opposition to the NAZIs 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 and Empire war effort. The NAZIs in Germany never drafted women for military service. Younger boys could enlist. Here we are not sure of the age limits in place during the War. We believe the Royal Navy was accepting boys at age 15 years. We are not 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 (April 26, 1943). 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. Even so, Canada went along with British decisions with few eceptions. King at first believed that the French would prove a bulwark to the Germans as they bdid in World War I. He 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. As a result the issue of conscription rose again. King did not dare introduce conscription without overwhelming 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 overwhelming for conscription. French-speaking Canadians were a majority in Québec and the Quebecois in the plebecite rejected it. This was an interesting vote as the primary use of the Canadian Army would be in Europe with the purpose of liberating France. We suspect the vote was more of the Quebecois toward the British than attitudes toward the French. Even after the plebiscite, however, King did not immediately 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 Québec in part because he was clearly reluctant on the conscription issue. Few Canadian conscripts served overseas. Meaning that the Canadians who liberated France were overwealmingly English speaking Canadians.


We see very young boys in the Nationalist Army. Some look more like Boy Scouts. We would guess that some were as young a 10 years of age. Teen agers were very common. We are not sure what the legal age was, but clearly recruiters were not to concerned, Many soldiers were press ganged from peasant communities.


France unlike the Britain entered World War I with universal male conscription. France required virtually all young men at age 20 years to fulfill 3 years of military service. As a result, the French Army while smaller than the German Army was the backbone of resistance to the Germans on the Western Front (1914-16). This did not change until the British introduced conscription (1916) and America entered the War and had to conscript men (1917). France continued conscription during the inter-War era. France used French regulars of the Colonial Army, colonial regiments and the Foreign Legion to garrison its overseas empire. And like World War I, called on them when World War II broke out. Partly as a result of World War I, the French birth rate declined. Over a million young Frenchmen had been killed in the War and even more had been wounded. Military age also meant men of marriageable and child raising ages. The French Government after the World War I decided to reduce the term of conscription from 3 years to 18 months (1923). The Government further reduced it to 1 year (1928). The fall in the birth rate mean that the draft-able age cohorts did not produce the needed number of men. And Hitler's seizure of power and military steps caused the Government to again extend conscription to 2 years (1935). The age 20 year conscription age was continued, although educational deferements were possible. French defense policy was based on a defensive outlook centered around the Maginot Line. The dominant outlook in Both Britain and France was to prevent another war, not on fighting one. This and other political, social, and economic matters meant that France was not morally prepared for war. And the French military was even in worse shape. The French High Command largely consisted of aging commanders who had held senior command positions in World War I. They had won the War and saw little need for major changes and innovation. The Maginot Line was essentially an improved version of World War I trenches. The French Commander-in-Chief, General Maurice Gamelin, at the outbreak of the war wax past retirement age. When th Germans struck in the West (May 1940), he ordered his best troops (the French First Army) and the BEF north into Belgium, repeating World War tactics. He had no understanding of the new Blitzkrieg tactics the German Wehrmacht had developed. The low morale of France and the French troops played a role in the disaster. Demoralized French troops surrendered in large numbers. The result was a massive defeat and 4 years of German occupation. The French Army thus spent the rest of the War in POW camps. The armistice signed with the Germans allowed only a small French military force. The was allowed only a small, poorly armed military force. Its primary duty was to police the colonial empire Vichy was allowed to retain. There was no military conscription during the German occupation. The Germans, however, began drafting workers including mny young men for war work in the Reich. After D-Day and liberation (June-August 1944), France began to build a new army. Here resistance fighters units could be absorbed and conscription was reintroduced. The French Army of 1940 remained in German POW camps until liberated (1945).


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 the same month announces the creation of the Luftwaffe. 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 Volkssturm 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 Volksturm members were not given uniforms. but only arm bands. The Volksturm was sent into battle with little or no training. The Hitler Youth boys inducted into the Volkssturm had received some military training. Much of the defense of Berlin (April 1945) was conducted by the Volksturm. While boys had to joint the Volkssturm at age 16 joined. We are not entirely sure with the circumstance under which these younger children joined the Volkssturm. 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 encountered 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 Indian Army was the largest all-volunteer force in World War II, some 2.5 million men. They played an imprtant, but largely unsung role in the British war effort. We have not yet, hoever, been able to dterrmin the age required to volunteer forb miitary servuice in India. Hoperfully an indian reader will be able to furnish such nformation.



Japan did not have a modern military or educatin system until after the Meiji Restoration (1868). The military for centuries had been dominated by the Samurai class, largely a kind of medival nobility similar to European knights. The new Japanese education stressed the idea of patriotic duty and devotion to the Emperor. Until this point the peasantry was largely outside the natiinal, political system, uneducated and largely prey on my the country's land owning nobility. But if Japan was going to become a player in internatiinal affairs, it was going to mean creating a large conscript army and this meant drafting the peasantry. National conscription began soon after the Meiji Restoration as part of a series of reforms (January 10, 1873). It was the beginning of important changes the country's social structure. Many conservatives, especially the old samurai class, objected because a modern military including the peasantry meant an end to the Samurai. This was the cause of the short-lived Satsuma Rebellion (1877). The Japanese used Prussia as a model for its new army and its conscription system. The new Conscription Law required every male at age 20 to register for 2 years of service and remain in reserve status, subject to recall, until age 40 years. First-born sons, students, and teachers were exempt. Inevitably, as as the bulk of the population was composed of the peasantry, the new Japanese Army would be composed of peasants. Unlike the medieval Samurai weapons, peasants could be trained to use modern firearms in a short period of time. This made the professional samurai warrior obsolete. And it also created a rare avenue of advancement for poor peasant boys--a factor in the extodinary fighting spirit of the Japanese soldier. At the sam time land reform was not part of the Maeiji reforms. (This will not come until after World War II and Japan surrendered to the Americans. Gen. MacArthur imposed it on Japan during the occupation.) The result was that Japan well into the 20th century had a depressed peasant class and an inefficent agricultural sector. Some aspects of the system caused dissension. All military conscripts were channeled to he Army for training and evaluation. as a result, the Imperial Navy basically got a lot of rejects the army didn't want. This did not include the cadets accepted by the Navy Accademy. It did, however, feed into the intense rivalry which developed between the Imperial Army and Navy. Such rivalries existed in other coyntrues, but not to the extent of the rivalry which developed between yhe Imperial Army and Navy. The Navy was at first a minor service. It took longer to develop a modern navy than army. Here the British Royal Navy was the model. (Japan was a useful foil aginst the Russians during the Great Game competition.) The Imperial Navy gained immense prestige a a result of its stunning victory over the Russian fleet at Tsushima (1905). And its technical overtaking of the Army's air arm (late-1930s) made Pearl harbor and the Japanese victories which followed it possible. Another poblem was that many reservists with 2 years experience were pressed back into service during World War II as the war expanded. They often resented having to take orders from younger officers and NCOs who outranked them. This caused another crack in Japan's traditiinal social system in which age was very important, but wa not important on the Pacific War battlefields. As the War began to go against Japan, the Conscrotion Law was changed. Exemtions were dropped and teenagers began to be conscripted. It is virtually impossible to understand Japanese calculation that the way to complete the conquest of China was to attack the United States. It proved within a year to be a catastrophic decision, but this was hid from the Japanese people until 1944. The Japanese militarists were forced to attempt to match the greater size and resources of the United States with a greater effort by the Japanese people. Eventually 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. Eventually a the Americans began to approach the Home Islands, the Ketsugo program was adopted. Military training wa expanded in schools and included pre-teen children, both boys and girls. 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 replaced male workers that had been conscripted for service at the front.


Soviet Union

Marshal Klemenly Voroshiloff, Commissar 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 atrocities 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.


Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main World War II page]
[About Us]
[Aftermath] [Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[Military forces] [POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology] [Totalitarian powers]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]

Created: May 28, 2004
Spell checked: 9:35 AM 1/28/2017
Last updated: 6:04 PM 4/4/2019