Good news is especially welcome in strange times like these. We’re pleased as punch that not only did Affirm Press take out Leading Edge Books Small Publisher of the Year, but Paul Byrnes’s The Lost Boys has been named Illustrated Non-Fiction Book of the Year in the Indie Book Awards. Congratulations Paul!

This extraordinary book captures the incredible and previously untold stories of forty Anzac boys who lied about their age and fought in the First World War. Featuring haunting images of the boys taken at training camps and behind the lines, these tales are both heartbreaking and rousing, full of daring, ingenuity, recklessness, random horror and capricious luck.

We asked Paul to share what motivated him in putting together The Lost Boys.

What do you hope readers will get out of the book?

I guess I can’t predict what anyone will take from it, but what I wanted to communicate was both a sense of respect for what these boys did, and a sense of outrage that they were allowed to go to war in the first place. It is hard for us now to walk in their shoes, so in that sense I did not want to condemn the families and the governments that allowed this to happen, although I think they certainly deserve scrutiny. I was struck by the drama and tragedy of those young lives, and by the vast difference in Australian society and attitudes in just 100 years. The Lost Boys is partly an inquiry into the mindset of Australians in 1914, and partly a backdoor history of the war from the vantage point of these young soldiers. It was not surprising that 13 and 14-year-old boys wanted to go, because boys are always quick to embrace risk and adventure; it is more surprising that their loved ones and the country’s political masters would have let them go. How did that happen?

On a more personal level, I wanted to find stories that gave the reader a really intimate connection with individual boys, so the reader could walk a mile in those uncomfortable army boots, understand some of what they went through, and grieve the way I had for some of their fortunes. I wrote it with a smart 16-year-old boy or girl in mind as my ideal reader, because I want young people to read it and think, ‘Never again’. It is by no means a book about the glories of war – quite the opposite.

Can you share some of the stories or images in the book that most struck you?

There are so many. I decided at the outset that the photographs would be really important and I think the finished book shows just how powerful the images are. Those photographs travelled with me as I dug for these stories, helping to keep me focused. They became ‘my boys’, and the more I found out about their lives, the more protective I felt. Sounds silly, I know, but I wanted to do their stories justice, to tell them well enough that the reader would weep for them too, and not forget them. ‘We will remember them,’ as the poem says.

The story that moved me the most, at the start, was that of Will Richards from Newcastle. He joined the 35th battalion and became batman (or servant) to Hugh Connell, who had been his high school teacher. A shell took off both of Will’s legs in a dugout in northern France in 1917, and he died in Connell’s arms, aged 17 and a half – still six months too young to join the army.

And there was the story of Leslie Thomas Prior, who died at Bullecourt in May 1917. He was 14 years and six days old when he joined up – and he had contracted syphilis by the time his troop ship arrived in Egypt a few months later. He was dead by the age of 15 and three months. HIs life was short and painful and full of spirit. I think he’s the youngest Australian soldier to die in action in the First World War, although we may never know for sure because no-one knows how many underage Anzac soldiers there were. They all lied about their ages to get in, and it would be a mammoth task to try to find them all. I am satisfied that there were several thousand underage Anzacs, not the 180 or so now on the war memorial’s Honour Roll. And of course, any who survived are not listed on the Honour Roll, by definition (it lists the Australian armed force members who have died during conflicts).

One of the best things about the publicity tour I did at the end of 2019 was that I got to meet a few of the children and grandchildren of some of my boys. That was an unexpected pleasure.

What was your biggest challenge in creating The Lost Boys?

Historical research. It is incredibly absorbing and rewarding to do, but also very frustrating. You can dig for weeks for one particular thing, and sometimes you find it and sometimes you don’t. I would give several limbs to be able to know the further details of some of the stories in the book. I took them as far as I could but some of them are still open-ended. We just don’t know the answers to a lot of questions – particularly what was in the minds of the boys when they went. Almost none of them left a diary or wrote letters that have survived, so there are very few original written sources – although of course, I am finding out since the book came out that many families have their own private treasures that are only known within the families themselves. I have tried to urge people to let the Australian War Memorial know when they have these records, because they are so important for writers and researchers. People are worried the War Memorial will not give them back, but they need not worry. If they want them, the AWM will copy those documents, and that will help to preserve them for future generations.

Congratulations to all the finalists and winners in the Indie Book Awards 2020.