The Bantam Battalions
The introduction of conscription in January 1916 saw the government’s desperation for soldiers. However, this did not mean that there were stipulations for men to meet. Some specifications were based on health and fitness but one that is overlooked is the physical appearance of the potential conscripts; men had to have a minimum chest size of 34 inches and they were to be 5ft 3in or taller. There were many reasons that men did not meet the height restrictions – some had been brought up in harsh Victorian poverty and some were malnourished. However, the main factor saw that men did not meet the height limit because of their genes. Potential conscripts who were willing and able to fight for their country were not given the chance.
After the rejection at his local recruitment office, one miner from Durham marched 150 miles and went into every recruitment centre just to get declined over and over again. That same miner wrote to Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War and the face of the infamous war recruitment poster ‘Your Country Needs You’ that heads the lead ingot in The London Mint Office and Imperial War Museums’ For King and Country Collection, demanding ‘bantam’ battalions.
The name ‘bantam’ is defined by small domestic fowls that are often miniatures of members of the standard breeds.
The reply stated that the War Office could not afford to supply new uniform to fit the shorter soldiers but they would provide some equipment and some financial support.
The Cheshire Regiment was formed as the founding Bantam Battalion which soon spread across Britain and Canada and saw the emergence of twenty-nine Bantam Battalions by the end of the First World War. Known for their ferocious big hits and mischievous nature some battalions were named the ‘Devil Dwarfs’.
Stories of the Bantam Battalions state that there were many pros and cons of being a short soldier. One of the main positives was that they were always covered by the trenches while the taller soldiers’ heads peaked over the top and made them perfect targets for enemy snipers. A negative aspects saw them struggling when the trenches flooded and became boggy.