This article originally appeared in The Guardian

A charity that campaigns against the recruitment of child soldiers has expressed alarm at the number of 16- and 17-year-olds who applied to join the British armyafter the launch of a controversial advertising campaign.

More than 19,000 under-18s applied to join the army between January, when the glossy This Is Belonging campaign began, and October. Of these just over 500 have begun training.

The campaign attracted criticism when the Guardian revealed it was designed to attract young people from working-class backgrounds, despite defence chiefs insisting that they do not specifically target deprived areas.

New figures obtained by the charity Child Soldiers International reveal that more than 19,041 16- and 17-year-olds applied to join the army after the launch of the advert – an average of about 9,500 per year group.

In comparison, almost 49,000 18- to 24-year-olds applied, an average of about 7,000 for each year group. No comparison figures for previous years were immediately available.

The charity said it was concerned that the campaign had appealed to some of the youngest possible recruits.

Rachel Taylor, the charity’s director of programmes, said the army wanted young people to sign up because they were “more psychologically malleable”.

“They are more likely to submit unquestioningly to what they are told to do. They are in the process of forming their adult identity. Some veterans say the army wants people in that age group because they can be psychologically and emotionally manipulated into unquestioning loyalty. This is an age group that shouldn’t be targeted because of those psychological vulnerabilities,” she said.

“When they leave the armed forces they have no civilian identity to go back to, which makes reintegration very difficult. People who are older when they join up have a much greater sense of self. They can go through that very intense armed forces experience but when it’s time to leave they have something else to go home to.”

A total of 92,000 people across all age groups applied to the army between January and October. Taylor said this showed that in fact there was no need to recruit the youngest applicants at all. “You could take out the under-18s and still have 70,000 applicants.”

The campaign includes beautifully produced 30-second films showing fictional scenes of young soldiers in various training and combat situations helping and supporting each other, facing difficult challenges with camaraderie and good humour. The films were disseminated via social media, television and cinema.

A briefing campaign document seen by the Guardian in the summer spelled out that the key audience was 16- to 24-year-old “C2DEs” – marketing speak for the lowest three social and economic groups.

The document also made it clear that while the campaign was UK-wide, there were “up-weights” to cities in northern England including Manchester and Sheffield, and to Birmingham, Belfast and Cardiff.

Under-18s make up about a quarter of the total untrained intake. The Ministry of Defence argues that soldiers who are under 18 are not deployed on operations that would expose them to hostilities and can choose to leave the army up to their 18th birthdays.

It also insists it aims to attract recruits from across the UK and works hard at recruiting a diverse workforce that reflects all of society.

On the This Is Belonging campaign, an MoD spokesperson said: “This is a national recruitment campaign designed to reach a broad audience, helping to achieve an armed forces which represents the people they serve.”

Image © Gertrud Zach