LEP paper boy who found himself on the Somme aged 13

George Maher (War Veteran).
George Maher (War Veteran).
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The horrors of the Somme battlefield have come to typify the awful bloodshed of the First World War - but for George Maher it will always be the scene of his greatest escape.

Having duped recruiting officers back home, the young Preston lad thought his thirst for adventure would finally be quenched.

Unfortunately, as George found out to his everlasting horror, the Somme was no place for a 13-year-old boy.

Bored of his mundane childhood the youngster decided to chance his arm when the Army appealed for new recruits in late 1916.

The horrendous casualties suffered in that summer’s bloody offensive against the German trenches led to a fresh call for recruits.

Dressed in one of his father’s suits, turning the trouser legs up, the Evening Post delivery boy marched on down to the recruiting office in Preston.

Known as “Hefty” to his mates because of his 5ft 8in frame George, still three months shy of his 14th birthday, was confident he could pass for 18 and be accepted.

His plans looked to have been dashed when a police sergeant and friend of his father collared him outside the recruiting office, and sent him away.

Unperturbed, George sneaked on to a train bound for Lancaster.

He takes up the story: “I slept overnight in the cemetery behind the Priory and in the morning found a tap to have a wash. I then joined the queue of men waiting to join up at the town hall.

“I was always a big lad - as well as attending school I’d worked half days at Horrocks’ Mill since I was 11.

“When I told the recruiting sergeant I was 18 he believed me. He never asked for any proof.”

George had run away from the family home in Deepdale the day before and he was not about to have his marvellous adventure stopped by any interfering relatives.

He knew once his mother found out she would contact the authorities. To avoid detection George enlisted under his mother’s maiden name Ashton.

George added: “It worked a treat. When the army came looking for me they found no trace of me under my real name.”

So with the authorities searching for a soldier that technically did not exist the youngest frontline recruit of the Kings Own Royal Lancaster Regiment was free to head to France.

George was sent to Aldershot and then to Salisbury Plain for basic training. In early February of 1917 he was finally ready for combat. Resplendent in his newly-woven khaki uniform as he

stepped on to the boat for the night crossing from Sheerness to Ostend, George Maher, aged 13, was off to serve his country in the final “big push” that he thought would end the Great War.

“I was excited at the time, but I little knew what I was going in to, “ said George. “If I had, I wouldn’t have gone, you can be sure of that!”

On the fatal first day of the Battle of the Somme 20,000 British soldiers were killed and 40,000 wounded. By the end of the battle in November 615,000 allied troops were dead for the gain of just five miles of sodden land.

When George arrived the Germans were retreating to the Hindenberg Line but the war, and the hell of combat, still had two years to run.

It did not take long for George to start wishing he was back behind his desk at St Walburge’s Junior School.

George said: “We were living in Bell tents, sleeping on ground sheets and ankle deep in water. It seemed to rain every day, the ground was heavy and waterlogged and we were lousy and smelly. There was plenty of gunfire in the distance and I saw a lot of ambulances passing the camp bringing back the wounded.

“I had never thought about being killed or wounded, but every so often the camp would be attacked by German aircraft dropping bombs.

“The bloody noise. The explosions shook the floor, I was frightened and all I could think was ‘what had I done to get myself in here’.

“It wasn’t the first time I’d burst into tears, but I hadn’t let anyone else see me other times.

“I wasn’t the only one scared. Men used to mumble in their tents, they were frightened too but if they heard me cry they didn’t worry. In any case I tried to hide it by crying under my blanket.

“I mean you’ve got to try and be brave even if you’re not.”

It was during one of these raids that George was found in tears by one of his comrades.

The teenager could not keep his secret any longer. He told all to the soldier, who reported to his senior officers.

George was placed under arrest for immediate shipment back to Blighty.

But his war was not yet over.

George explained: “There was no punishment for my actions, in fact being musical I was offered the chance of rejoining the regiment as a bandsman and I jumped at it.

“I was given a month’s paid leave and then told to return in November for what was known as boy service. I was to play the bassoon and cello and, thankfully, no further part in the war.”

He spent the next seven years in the Army, travelling all over the world, before in 1924 he jumped on a ship in Rangoon and headed for Australia. He was never to return to Preston.

After landing in Melbourne he worked in a succession of jobs from cleaning printing presses to railway labourer.

But music remained George’s passion and he jumped at the offer to join JC Williamson’s orchestra. Playing bassoon he moved on to the ABC Orchestra and eventually became a founder member of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

For the next quarter of a century the Lancashire lad done good was to star in one of the world’s leading orchestras.

He lived out his retirement near to his family in New South Wales until his death in 1999.