From fanfare to footnote

In May 1916 Major Eustace Lockhart Maxwell received a promotion. Having formerly been an officer in the Indian Cavalry, he was now given command (his first) of an infantry battalion in France. After forty-eight hours with his new unit Maxwell wrote to his family, ‘The outstanding characteristic of those who belong to it seems to be their extraordinary self-complacency! Esprit de corps is a fine thing, but the satisfaction with which they regard themselves, their battalion, its internal economy, its gallantry, its discipline, its everything else, is almost indecent! If at the end of a month my opinion of them is half as good as their own, I shall think myself uncommonly lucky.’ That battalion was the 23rd Manchester ‘Bantams’.[i]

It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that they were feeling pleased with themselves. Having been formed in November 1914, being entirely composed of men of a height between 5ft and 5ft 3”, the battalion had spent much of 1915 training in the Lancashire seaside resort of Morecambe. There, billeted in West End boarding houses, they had been petted by landladies, were applauded by crowds as they drilled on the Promenade and had poems and songs composed about them (‘See our squads along the front,/ Hearts aflame to bear the brunt.’) It would be some time before they made it from seafront to front line, but when the Bantams finally left Morecambe, Private Percy Gidley would write to the local paper, ‘The cheerfulness, encouragement, and care of those providing the billets, and the generosity of Morecambe in general, made new men of us.’[ii] Morecambe had made the Manchester men into well-polished exhibition soldiers. They looked the part (if diminutively so) and had all of the right things to say. It was now time to turn their patriotic assertions into actions.

Despite his initial concerns, by the end of that month Maxwell had developed a liking and respect for his new battalion. They were talkative, friendly, funny and bloodthirsty. ‘The murderous little beasts just love their work’ Maxwell wrote.[iii] He was eager, indeed impatient, to take them into the fight. His turn came on the 20th of July 1916. He went over the top with his murderous little beasts in an attack on enemy trenches, south of Guillemont, on the Somme. He was killed within a few yards. Maxwell was one of fifty men of the battalion who died that day; 100 more were wounded, shell-shocked or missing. The bodies of thirty-eight of those killed, Maxwell included, would never be found. Major-General Sir Reginald Pinney, the commanding officer of the Division, would write in his diary at the end of that day that ‘the best type of Bantams’ were ‘done in’.[iv]

Almost half of the men involved in the attack on the 20th of July would eventually be counted as casualties and the 23rd Manchester Battalion would never be the same again. They would never regain the confidence that had so struck Maxwell at their first meeting. That esprit de corps had taken a battering. And it was about to be further tested. It simply wasn’t possible to consistently replace casualties with recruits who had the same physique as the original Bantams, who had had the benefit of the same length of training and, perhaps most importantly, who had the same spirit – that pride to be there and hunger to prove themselves. The gaps left by short, stocky volunteers were now being filled with small, slight conscripts. The fighting quality of the Bantams was observed to be deteriorating.

At the end of 1916 the concept of the Bantam battalions would be examined, found wanting and scrapped as an unsuccessful experiment. The 23rd Manchester Battalion was officially ‘De-Bantamized’ in January 1917. Drafts of six-footers now broke the tidy height uniformity of the ranks as they marched south through icy February landscape. The Bantam battalions, so celebrated in 1915, became an embarrassing mistake. By 1917 the same journalists who had been extolling their virtues a year earlier (‘the Bantams have not been long in proving that you can’t measure a man’s soul with a foot rule’) were ridiculing them (‘poor little men born of diseased civilization!’). The Bantams had become a joke. A bad joke. And something best forgotten.[v]

But the men who had called themselves Bantams remained proud (albeit now quietly so) of their achievements. On Armistice Day, in the decades after the War, they still marched through Manchester behind a banner that said ‘23rd Bantams’. They meant to be remembered. This then, in fond and respectful remembrance, is the story of Manchester’s ‘cock-o-doodle’ Bantams.

‘We are – The Bantams!

The Cock-o-doodle Bantams:

Morecambe breezes suit us grand.

Firm as Heysham rocks we stand,

Grenadiers at heart tho’ small,

Proud to answer country’s call.’[vi]

[i] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-30. Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Army Museum.

[ii] Quotation from ‘The Bantam Soldiers’ Ditty’, a poem published in the Morecambe Visitor, 20th January 1915. Percy Gidley’s letter was published in the Morecambe Visitor on the 13th October 1915. As the Bantams moved on (to Masham, Salisbury Plain and eventually France) Gidley continued to correspond regularly with the paper. All quotations from the Morecambe Visitor are reproduced with the kind permission of The Visitor (Johnston Press plc)

[iii] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-31.

[iv] Diary entries for 20th July 1916 from Major-General Reginald John Pinney’s Army Book, number 3. Diaries and papers, IWM Collection 66/257/1. Extracts from Major-General Pinney’s army diaries are reproduced with the kind permission of Philip Pinney.

[v] Both quotes are from articles written by the journalist Philip Gibbs, who took an on-going interest in the Bantam battalions. See Daily Chronicle, 19th June 1916 and Now It Can Be Told (1920), p. 404.

[vi] Quotation from ‘The Bantam Soldiers’ Ditty’ (as above).

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