A correspondent to the Manchester Courier:
‘Wherever we go we behold the King’s call, “To arms,” “Your King and country need you,” etc. But what a terrible disappointment when a man tries to answer the call, but is rejected because he is only 5ft, 0 ½in., although he is possessed of all his faculties and yearns to do his share.’
The editor’s reply:
‘We advise our correspondent to put on a pair of big boots and try the “Bantams”.’
In August 1914 a Manchester Evening News reporter spent a day at a city recruiting station. He recorded his observations under the heading ‘Manchester Men’s Physique’. The journalist concluded:
‘In view of all that has been said in recent years about the dwindling stature and poor physique of the men of Lancashire, the experience of the doctors at the Dickinson Street recruiting station in this city is reassuring.
The examination each applicant has to pass through before being accepted for either the regular army or the special reserves is of a searching character, lasting from four to six minutes, yet the rejects only number from 25 to 27 per cent.
It is true that all the applicants do not get as far as the doctors owing to their being too obviously short in weight, height, or chest measurement; but, on the other hand, it must be remembered that the bulk of the applicants are of the poorer, unskilled classes who only too often fail to get even the minimum of nourishment necessary for proper development.’[i]
It’s difficult to quantify how many men were being turned down as ‘too obviously short’, but it seems likely to have been a significant percentage. An article from the same newspaper, a couple of weeks later, makes it clear, though, that whatever the rejected men may have lacked in inches, they could make up for it in enthusiasm:
‘The anxiety of the youth of Manchester to respond to the country’s call was strikingly shown in the lining up with the others of young men who must have known that they were below the minimum height of 5ft. 3in. One, a mere boy, was picked out from the crowd by a police officer engaged in marshalling the men. He was taken to an improvised measurement board roughly drawn on the jamb of a doorway, and it was then found that he failed to “pull” the standard height by about two inches. The youth looked very disconsolate when informed that it was no use for him to trouble the doctor’.’[ii]
The newspaper disclosed that the doctors were permitted to use ‘a little elasticity’ in passing men who only just missed the required physical standards, if it was deemed likely that they would develop under training. However, some eager volunteers required more elastic than the doctors could supply and frustration was increasingly being vented on the correspondence pages of the Manchester papers. ‘It is all very well being strict in time of peace,’ ran one such letter to the editor, ‘but in time of stress like this country is in at present I think the height and chest measurements might be reduced a little. What is an inch in a crisis like this?’[iii]
(Poem published in the Manchester Evening News, 27th November 1914.)
By November 1914 this matter had been brought to the attention of the War Office. An article from the Manchester Courier revealed:
‘A feature that has occasioned no little comment has been the fact that many of the men presenting themselves have been slightly under the minimum height standard. In other respects they have been all that could be wished – eyesight good, teeth good, and physical proportions of the best. It has been considered that the War Office, considering the urgent need there is for soldiers, might accept these men and train them for the service of their country. Speaking in Manchester last night, Sir Frederick Smith expressed the opinion that the Government should accept men five feet tall for the Army, as many of the hardiest men were small and thick-set. He himself knew many colliers, for instance, who would make excellent soldiers. A step further was taken by Sir Alfred Hopkinson, who, speaking at a recruiting meeting in Beswick last night, said that every man who was physically fit, no matter what his age, should be allowed to go to the front if he so wished. The Germans were sending every man, and we could surely do as well.’[iv]
It’s generally acknowledged that the story of the Bantam Battalions began in Birkenhead. Lieutenant-Colonel H.M. Davson’s The History of the 35th Division in the Great War recounts a recruiting office scene. Very similar scenarios were playing out in Manchester’s recruiting offices:
‘A fine, sturdy little man walked into Birkenhead Recruiting Office towards the end of September, 1914. He was very angry when rejected, because he was an inch too short. He had tried four of five other recruiting offices, but always with the same result. Mr Alfred Mansfield talked to the man and came to the conclusion that we were losing some of the best manhood of our race. Splendid little men, who were keen and anxious to do their bit, were being rejected daily. He (Mr Mansfield) went to Mr Alfred Bigland, M.P. who was chairman of the Birkenhead Recruiting Committee, and asked him if something could not be done to get these men into the Army. Mr Bigland promptly took the matter up with the War Office next day. He asked permission to form a ‘Bantam Battalion’ at Birkenhead – and got it.’
Apparently the ‘sturdy little man’ offered to fight any man in the room and was only removed from the recruiting office with some difficulty. [v]
On the 20th of November a letter from Alfred Bigland was published in the Manchester Guardian, appealing for recruits for the Birkenhead Bantam Battalion. He wrote:
‘We are now ready to receive the names of men who are willing to join what it has been decided to call the “Bantam Battalion,” believing that a man is as good a soldier and as plucky a fighter at 5ft. 2in. as 5ft. 6in. In proof of this I would point out that if Britain had fixed its standard for officers the same as for privates the Empire would have lost the priceless services of the Field Marshall who was lovingly dubbed by his men “Bobs” and whose death the nation now mourns.’[vi]
Field Marshal Lord Roberts – a popular figure, affectionately nicknamed “Bobs” by the newspapers – had died just days earlier. Bigland now asked Manchester men willing to join the new battalion to send him their names and addresses. Three days after recruiting opened, Birkenhead had over 2,000 Bantams attested and had to form a second battalion. ‘So began’, Davson wrote, ‘the formation of the “Bantam Division.”’
Just below Bigland’s letter, on the correspondence page of the Manchester Guardian, was a letter from D. E. Anderson, Chairman of the National Service League, North Western Area. It wasn’t just Birkenhead that had a mind to raise a Bantam Battalion. Anderson wrote that, in recruiting for the New Army battalions over the past few weeks, it had troubled him to have to reject so many Manchester men who were excellent soldierly specimens in every respect except their want of height. ‘Personally I am firmly convinced that a “little good one” is far preferable to a “poor big one,”’ he reflected. His letter went on:
‘To-day, in London, the greatest soldier of modern times has been laid to rest in St. Paul’s. He was small in size, but what a glorious record he had left. Knowing the high estimation Lord Roberts had for little men, I feel convinced that the present is a most opportune time for ending the injustice of refusing men short in stature the opportunity to fight for King and country. Surely that long-established slight to small men can be removed seeing how greatly changed are the present war conditions from the past.’
With that in mind, Anderson proposed to begin compiling a list of the names of volunteers between 5ft. and 5ft. 3in. Men were invited to register their particulars at the National Service League Offices and, if a sufficient number of names could be collected within the next week, Anderson proposed to submit his list to the War Office. If Manchester could follow Birkenhead in setting up a Bantam battalion, Anderson proposed that it should be called “Bobs’ Own”.
The Manchester Guardian’s editorial of that day was sympathetic to Anderson’s cause. ‘In most modern fighting lack of inches is an actual advantage,’ the paper considered. It went on:
‘It is ridiculous nowadays to make the test of able-bodiedness one of inches. The sole test should be whether a man is in fit physical condition to stand the heat of a battle and the more exhausting fatigue of waiting and preparing for battle, and that is not a question of length or breadth, though it may be of proportion.’
On the 24th of November Anderson wrote to the War Office, drawing attention to the ‘useful material that was being wasted’. That night the Lord Mayor of Manchester received a telegram giving the go-ahead for the city to raise a battalion of below-standard height men. By the time that the battalion was sanctioned, the National Service League had collected the names of 1,208 would-be Bantams.[vii]
(Next: ‘The Race for Recruits’.)
[i] Manchester Evening News, 21st August 1914.
[ii] Manchester Evening News, 7th September 1914.
[iii] Manchester Evening News, 6th November 1914.
[iv] Manchester Courier, 17th November 1914.
[v] H. M. Davson, The History of the 35th Division in the Great War (1926), p. 1.
[vi] Manchester Guardian, 20th November 1914.
[vii] Manchester Evening News, 23rd and 24th November 1914.