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Call to War: Adolescents in Combat,1914-1918 (L’Appel de la Guerre: Des Adolescents au Combat, 1914-1918)

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Original Language: French | 256 pp. | April 2019

2 Seas Represents: Dutch, Nordic and English (US & Canada) rights.

NON-FICTION| HISTORY| WWI

In the world’s first global conflict, teenagers fought with – and against – grown men of real armies. Manon Pignot examines these adolescents’ backgrounds and motivations, and uncovers the shocking possibility that young fighters were motivated by a lust for war. In turn, this calls us, her twenty-first century readers, into question, along with our modern-day views of the world.

Christian Sarton du Jonchay, born in the final stretches of 1899. Ernest Wrentmore, born in 1904. Marina Yurlova, born 1900, Rudolf Höss in 1900, Jack Cornwell, 1900…What ties this Frenchman, American, Cossack, German and Englishman? Each, despite their youth, took part in First World War combat.

These were amongst the juvenile combattants, the teen soldiers, which historian and author Manon Pignot has tracked through America and Europe’s archives for years. It proved to be quite the paper chase to find them, for the fighting youth are often well camouflaged due to the illegality of their presence at the front, and sources concerning them are often fragmented or hidden.

With finesse and prudence, and through the lenses of different human and social sciences, Pignot questions the motivations, reasoning and commitment of these teen soldiers, the trials they had to face and the effects the Great War had on them. There is patriotism, transgression (or lack thereof), a desire for adventure, and, perhaps, the desire for war itself…

In this ground-breaking study, Manon Pignot attacks a blind spot in contemporary historiography. Her subject must therefore be broached delicately, as it calls into question our contemporary conceptions of childhood and adolescence. But at a time when a fair few teenagers have moved to join the ranks of Isis, the stories of Christian, Ernest, Marina, Rudolf and others, known or otherwise, can help us grasp a modern reality that has hitherto escaped our understanding. For as Marc Bloch wrote: “It is the historian’s role to create from the past a new understanding of our own time”.

Manon Pignot is a professor of contemporary history at the Université de Picardie Jules Verne. In association with several institutions including the Institut universitaire de France and Centre de recherches de l’Historial de la Grande Guerre, she has been working on the experiences of children and youth in the First World War for 15 years. She is the author of 19141918. Françoise Dolto, veuve de guerre à sept ans (Gallimard, 2018) and Paris dans la Grande Guerre (Parigramme, 2014).