A doughboy’s age

A reader asks how old a man would have had to be to join the Army for WWI.

Reader Kelly Leary has a problem with her American-based research on an immigrant ancestor: “My ancestors don’t go back to far on my father’s side. His mother was 1st born, 1st generation American.” To try to place her recent immigrants more firmly in time, she asks: “how old did you have to be to get into the Army during WWI.”

US soldier, World War I

Great question… and surprisingly NOT an easy one. The hitch is that the laws changed as the United States ramped up for its involvement in various armed conflicts… and Congress muddied up the statutes on the age of enlistment. (Gee, what a surprise, Congress muddying up the waters… but I digress…)

The first statute the Congress passed, in 1802, said you had to be at least five feet, six inches tall, and between the ages of 18 and 35 in order to join the Army. Those under age 21 had to have the consent of parent, guardian or master.1

In 1838, Congress repealed the provision that recruits had to be at least five feet, six inches tall.2 Then the Civil War changed Congress’ mind about the age restrictions. It allowed enlistments at 18 and provided that minors who enlisted at age 18 couldn’t be discharged even if their parents or guardians didn’t consent.3 When the state militias were called out in July 1862, their enrollment was to include “all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of eighteen and forty-five.”4 By 1864, enlistment was barred only for those minors under the age of sixteen years, with or without the consent of parent or guardian.5

In 1872, the law was changed so that parental consent was required for anyone under the age of 216 In 1875, all federal statutes were codified into the Revised Statutes of 1875, and as to the age for military service provided clearly:

Sec. 1116. Recruits enlisting in the Army must be effective and able-bodied men, and between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five years, at the time of their enlistment. This limitation as to age shall not apply to soldiers re-enlisting.
Sec. 1117. No person under the age of twenty-one years shall be enlisted or mustered into the military service of the United States without the written consent of his partents or guardians: Provided, That such minor has such parents or guardians entitled to his custody and control.
Sec. 1118. No minor under the age of sixteen years … shall be enlisted or mustered into the military service.7

Now, of course, Congress couldn’t leave well enough alone, and in 1899 it amended §1116 so that the age for original enlistment was 18, rather than 16.8 But it didn’t change §1118 at the same time. And that’s the way the law read when the Compiled Statutes of 1913 were put together. Section 1884 still said you had to be 18 to join, §1885 said you needed parental consent if you were under 21, and §1886 said nobody under age 16 could join.9

The year before the U.S. entered World War I, Congress passed the National Defense Act10, which lowered the age to join without parental consent to 18.

So the law at the time both did and didn’t allow teenagers between 16 and 18 to enlist. The way the courts interpreted the statutes, if the kids had parental consent, then even if they were under 18, they couldn’t get out of serving. If they were between 16 and 18 and didn’t have parental consent, the parents — but not the kids — could void the enlistment and get the kids home. And if they were under 16, they couldn’t stay in the Army, no matter what they or their parents wanted.11

Leave it to Congress to make a simple situation complicated, but chances are, Kelly, if your ancestor joined the Army around World War I, then unless he lied about his age, he was certainly over age 16, likely over age 18 and not yet age 35 when he enlisted.


  1. Act of 16 March 1802, 2 Stat. 132 at §11; digital images, Library of Congress American Memory Project, A Century of Lawmaking For a New Nation, Statutes at Large database and images (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwsl.html : accessed 21 Jan 2012).
  2. Ibid., Act of 5 July 1838, 3 Stat. 256 at §30.
  3. Ibid., Act of 13 Feb. 1862, 12 Stat. 339 at §2.
  4. Ibid., Act of 17 July 1862, 12 Stat. 597.
  5. Ibid., Act of 4 July 1864, 13 Stat. 379 at §5.
  6. Ibid., Act of 15 May 1872, 17 Stat. 117 at §1.
  7. Ibid., R.S. §§1116-1118 of 1875, 18 Stat. 205.
  8. Act of 2 March 1899, 30 Stat. 977 at §4; digital images, Constitution Society, Complete Collection of United States Statutes at Large (http://constitution.org/uslaw/sal/sal.htm : accessed 21 Jan 2012).
  9. John A. Mallory, compiler, Compiled Statutes of the United States 1913 (St. Paul : West, 1914), §§1884-1886; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 21 Jan 2012).
  10. Act of 3 June 1916, set out in War Department, The National Defense Act approved June 3, 1916 (Washington, D.C. : Govt. Printing Office, 1921), 21; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 21 Jan 2012).
  11. See generally Hoskins v. Pell, 239 F. 279 (5th Cir. 1917).
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8 Responses to A doughboy’s age

  1. Celia Lewis says:

    Last year, in doing research for a client here in Canada, we found that her grandfather had clearly lied about his age on his Attestation papers, most likely so he would be old enough to enlist. For some reason, he also used a different year and date for several other legal papers. So by the end of the research, there were 5 – count’em, 5! – different dates and years for his birthdate. Thanks Judy for all these details about USA enlistment statutes for enlisting in WW1.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Five birthdates! Yikes!!! And yes, lying about your age to be able to enlist is pretty common. As a matter of fact, the last living US veteran of WWI, Frank Buckles of West Virginia, who died last year at the age of 110, was just 16 when he enlisted in the Army in 1917!

  2. Kelly Leary says:

    Thank you so much for your detailed answer!! My Irish great-grandfather Coleman was born in 1893, however for some reason his WWI Draft Registration Card had 1895 as a birth date. He then used 1893 (but not his real birth date)on his Social Security Application. His death record says 1894. He enlisted in the Army at Fort Devens in Massachusetts in 1917, was released in 1918 and was naturalized at the time of discharge.

    I’m not sure the reason for all the birth date changes. Everyone of his twelve siblings used their correct birth dates on all of their records. His brother, Michael, was even declined naturalization his first go round as he claimed “Alienship” at the time of WWI which was legal, but he was declined citizenship because of it. He had to wait five more years before he was finally naturalized.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Sure doesn’t sound like he had any reason to lie deliberately on his draft registration form — even using 1895, he’d have been of age. That definitely poses a mystery, especially when all his siblings used the right birthdates!

      • Kelly Leary says:

        According to my grandmother, her father Coleman was a “true whiskey drinking, cigar smoking Irishman” which continued during prohibition. Even though their house was raided several times no whiskey was ever found. One day while helping her mother cook, she turned on the oven and her mother quickly went over and turned it off without any explanation. When her mother left the kitchen she looked in the oven and found her father’s hiding place – the oven!

        This story obviously has nothing to do with the birth date mystery, however I always loved hearing this and many other colorful stories about my great-grandfather.

  3. valerie kwasigroch says:

    I am trying to figure out why my immigrant ancestor lied about his birthplace, not just on ww1 draft card but on ww2 and at his college–I have record of him arriving in 1886 as a 6 yr old from Poland but he pretends to be from ohio 3x! the census’ are all over the board, Poland, ohio, Illinois–was there a stigma attached to being an immigrant and serving?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There certainly was a stigma to being an immigrant, not particularly with respect to military service, but with respect to job opportunities and the usual kind of anti-immigrant prejudice.

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