Written by Laurence Spring, Surrey Heritage
Sidney George Lewis was born in Tooting on 24 March 1903, the son of Edward John Lewis and Fanny Lewis. On the 1911 census his father’s occupation is given as asylum attendant. It is likely he worked at London County Council’s Springfield Hospital (formerly the first Surrey County Asylum). The family lived at 53 Defoe Road, now 934 Garratt Lane, and a blue plaque marks the house.
On 9 August 1915 Sidney Lewis enlisted at the recruiting office in Wimbledon, a sub-office of the Kingston Recruiting Office. He seemed like any other recruit. He claimed to be a tailor and to be 19 years old. Whether the recruiting officer, Mr Holland, or medical examiner, Mr Clapham, suspected anything is not known, but he passed his medical and his details were entered into the East Surrey Regimental Recruiting District register. His height was given as 5 foot 5¾ inches, his weight as 113 pounds and it was recorded that he had several moles as distinctive marks (SHC ref 2496/4 page 93).
Lewis joined the East Surrey Regiment, but at some point he was transferred to the relatively newly formed 106th Company of the Machine Gun Corps with the number 14645 and sent to France in time to take part in the bloody and horrific battle of Delville Wood, which began on 15 July 1916 and would last until 3 September 1916, one of the many actions that made up the battle of the Somme which began on 1 July 1916.
However, it is at this point that there is a twist in the story of his military service, because on 18 August 1916 Sidney’s mother wrote to the War Office with a copy of his birth certificate which proved that rather than being 19 years old he was in fact 12 at the time of his enlistment, being born on 24 March 1903. What made Fanny Lewis wait so long before she contacted the War Office is not known – possibly she did not know his whereabouts until then or Sidney had written home to say that he had had enough after three months in action. Certainly when he enlisted he did not give his address.
Whatever the reason the War Office moved quickly and wrote back to her on 23 August informing her that instructions had been issued ‘that he is to be at once withdrawn from the firing line and sent home for discharge’. On 24 August 1916 she received a telegram from the Machine Gun Corps that, ‘action has been taken and the lad will be discharged with all possible speed’. By 18 September 1916 he was back in England waiting for his discharge.
His age on discharge was 13 and he is believed to have been the youngest British soldier to have fought in the First World War. What he thought about being discharged is not recorded but in 1918 he was once more back in the ranks of the army, still under age, this time in the Guards’ Machine Gun Regiment. After the war he served in the Army of Occupation before joining the police force.
In September 1928, Lewis married Ivy Bardell and by 1939 had moved to 7 Rosebery Crescent, Old Woking. During the Second World War he was employed in bomb disposal. With the war over, in May 1945 he moved to the Police Station, New Zealand Avenue, Walton on Thames, and he died in 1969 aged 63.
In November 2013, his story was featured in the Daily Mail.