Human rights campaigners often suggest that child-soldiering is the product of modern, post-colonial conflict, but that’s obviously untrue. Goliath may have fatally underestimated David “for he was but a youth, ruddy and of fair countenance”, but children were a constant presence on the pre-industrial battlefield, serving as spear-carriers, mechanics and messengers for the Greeks and Romans, and using conflict to mark their transition into adulthood in tribal societies from the Native American Cheyenne to the terrifying “fighting girls” of Dahomey (now Benin) in West Africa. One of the few French “bright spots” at the Battle of Agincourt was their counter-attack on the English supply train, where they massacred the massed ranks of youths who’d been posted on guard.
And children weren’t limited to the rank and file; beneath the many grand national myths of military precocity – such as Joan of Arc, the 10th-century Irish king Brian Boru (an axe-wielding prodigy who reputedly hammered the Danish hordes shortly after his 12th birthday), and Olaf II of Viking Norway (whose legend counts nine naval victories before his 17th year) – real youthful commanders litter history. Sweden’s greatest military triumph, the unexpected rout of the Russians at the Battle of Narva in 1700, was under the guidance of an 18-year old, Charles XII, and Horatio Nelson was in the Navy by 12, surveying the Arctic by 15, a commissioned officer by 18 and in command of a ship by 19. (That would make quite a Ucas form…)