The 14-year-old who was probably the youngest Irish serviceman to die in WW1

Thomas Woodgate faked his age to join the RAF in 1918 just a month before he died

The headstone on the grave of Thomas Woodgate will be changed to reflect that he was 14 years of age when he died. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

The headstone on the grave of Thomas Woodgate will be changed to reflect that he was 14 years of age when he died. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

 

For much of the last 100 years it was assumed that Private John Condon from Waterford city was the youngest British soldier to die in the first World War and therefore the youngest Irish fatality of the war.

His grave in Poelcapelle Cemetery outside Ypres in Belgium is one of the most popular on the Western Front. Schoolchildren come from across Europe to see the last resting place of a soldier who learned how to handle a gun before he handled a razor blade.

The popularity of the grave is undimmed despite the documentary evidence which suggests that John Condon was 18 not 14 when he died. His birth certificate states that he was born on October 16th, 1896. He is listed in the 1901 census as being 4 and in 1911 as 14.

This would make him 18 when he was killed during the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915.

Now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has recognised that an Irish combatant, who it previously assumed was 18, was really 14.

Woodgate drowned when the RMS Leinster was sunk by a German submarine on October 10th 1918. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy
Woodgate drowned when the RMS Leinster was sunk by a German submarine on October 10th 1918. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

The Commission, which looks after the graves of British servicemen and women killed in both world wars including thousands in Ireland, says it is satisfied having been presented with new evidence that Thomas Woodgate from Callan, Co Kilkenny was 14 when he died in October 1918.

Woodgate drowned along with 501 servicemen and women, passengers and crew when the RMS Leinster was sunk by a German submarine off the Kish Lighthouse on October 10th 1918 just a month before the war ended.

He joined the RAF’s 23rd Training Squadron as an apprentice mechanic just the previous month. In the latter stages of the first World War there was a surge of recruits for the rapidly expanding RAF especially for those looking to learn a trade.

His RAF attestation form shows he lied about his age stating that he was born on September 3rd 1900. Conveniently that made him exactly 18 when he joined the RAF, the legal minimum age for military service.

As a consequence the RAF, the CWGC and even his own family assumed that he was 18 when he died. The truth only emerged when records were being collated for a new memorial which was unveiled last month to the 827 men and boys from Co Kilkenny who were killed in the war.

His family found to their astonishment that he was born on December 22nd, 1903 making him 14 years, nine months and 18 days old when he died. He was baptised on the same day, according to the records held in his local parish church in Callan.

Woodgate will be one of 3,270 men and women from the county who fought in the first World War to be remembered when a second memorial is unveiled on Sunday at MacDonagh Train Station in Kilkenny.

The CWGC says it is now satisfied having been presented with the evidence that Woodgate was 14 when he died.

It also found that he is not listed in the 1901 census but is listed in the 1911 census as living with his parents Edward and Hanora Woodgate at their home in Mill Street Callan.

The CWGC has amended its electronic records accordingly and will change the age on his headstone in Grangegorman Military Cemetery in Dublin from 18 to 14 at a later date.

Though Condon is still recognised as the youngest British soldier to die in the first World War, the CWGC lists 44 other 14-year-olds who died as combatants in the war, the majority in the Mercantile Navy.