The idea for The Lost Boys started in Belgium in summer 2017, with a gravestone and a pint of Belgian beer. Paul Byrnes had been researching in the battlefields, when he noticed a gravestone that mentioned an under-age soldier. Here, Paul shares how his this discovery turned into a book.

Back at the hotel in Ypres, I sat in the bar and started to search the internet for more information, which led me to a list on the Australian War Memorial website with short biographies of 150 under-age boys. Their stories were heartbreaking and fascinating. If I could find photographs, I thought, this would make a powerful book.

I have been reading about the Great War for most of my adult life. I find it both appalling and compelling. There are many superb histories, personal accounts and scholarly overviews. I didn’t want to write another one. I wanted to tell personal stories that would keep the reader close to the soldiers themselves –looking over their shoulders. This is not the way history or biography is usually written, so the book is a hybrid – a personal anti-war book set in the midst of a war. I realised that I could structure the stories on a timeline to take a reader through the whole war, from declaration of hostilities in August 1914, to Egypt and Gallipoli, the tragedy of the Western Front, and finally the aftermath in 1919.

Boy soldiers were there for every part of it, and their presence raised a lot of ethical and historical questions. Who let them go and why? Did their parents not love them? Why did the newspapers continually write stories encouraging them to enlist? Where was the political leadership? Were boys treated differently to other soldiers? What happened to their families when so many of them didn’t come back?

No-one knows how many under-age soldiers went, because the records are deliberately wrong. They almost all lied to get in; they had to keep lying to stay in, although many of their officers knew their real ages. There were certainly several thousand under-age Anzacs.

For me, one of the hardest parts of writing this book was to avoid hindsight, to try to understand the mindset of an Australian parent in 1914 who thought it was alright for their fourteen-year-old to enlist. Australians thought very differently about this war, and about the rightness of sending over people we would now call children to fight. Boys often left school at ten or eleven. By fourteen, some had been working for four years. They had their own money, some had left home, and they could do most things that older men did, including drinking, fighting and fornicating. They didn’t see themselves as children; in many cases, they were their family’s only bread-winner. Family ties were in fact one of the greatest reasons for going. The book tells many stories of sons who went to follow their fathers or older brothers – and vice versa.

The youngest I have found was a Kiwi, Leslie Shaw, thirteen years and eight months old when he joined up in London. It’s possible that he and his father tried to enlist together, and the father failed the medical – we don’t know. Leslie went anyway and had an eventful war. He survived to become a pilot in Australia and New Guinea, searching always for adventure. Many others were not so lucky.

One of the stories that most moved me from The Lost Boys was that of Will Richards from Newcastle; he was ‘batman’ – a personal servant – to Hugh Connell, his officer in ‘Newcastle’s own’ 35th battalion. Connell had taught Richards before the war. He was trying to keep him safe by making him his batman, but this war rarely showed any mercy. Will Richards died in the arms of his teacher in a dugout in Belgium in February 1917, a few minutes after a shell took off both his legs. He was seventeen and five months old.

Another was the story of Leslie Prior, one of the youngest boys to enlist – fourteen years and six days old when he turned up at a recruiting office in Brunswick, Melbourne, in early 1916. Leslie spent most of the war in trouble. He didn’t like army discipline. He distinguished himself by becoming one of the youngest to catch a venereal disease. He was already in treatment when his ship docked in Egypt on the way over. Leslie Prior was killed at Second Bullecourt, France, in May 1917, in a battle he should never have been sent to. The medical officer said he was fit to go, so he went and died.

A few of these fathers and sons are buried in small, well-tended cemeteries in northern France, Belgium and Turkey, but most have no known grave. I remembered that Peter Pan’s lost boys could never grow old – and that gave me a title. I wasn’t then conscious that it echoed Laurence Binyon’s famous lines in his poem, For the Fallen:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

The poem promised that we would remember them, but that was not quite true of these soldiers. No-one had written much about under-age Anzacs. It was as if they had never existed.

Finding the photographs was a revelation. Many of the boys had beautiful portraits taken by skilled photographers like Algernon Darge, who set up a studio at Broadmeadows, outside Melbourne. Other photographs have been lost, if they ever existed. I hope that the book will bring some of these to light – to be used in a later edition, perhaps.

Researching these lives was very rewarding, if demanding. On a few days, I would have to take a break from all the sadness and horror. Other days were full of wonder and joy, when I found something that told me about the courage, the sheer bottle that these boys took to war, and the good humour with which they faced it. Many of them have relatives who helped me to see the stories with more clarity.

The lost boys were too young, too wild and romantic for their own good, but they had grit. I wanted people to know that and to remember them, as we said we would.