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November 1914: The Race for Recruits

Fig 4. Race for recruits

The first recruit for Manchester’s 8th City ‘Bantam’ Battalion was attested on the 25th of November 1914. As the recruiting office was being set up in the Town Hall, word was sent out to the city’s newspapers that enrolment would begin in earnest the next day. With the simultaneous enlistment of the 7th and 8th City Battalions – in the same building, at the same time – the recruiting committee decided to encourage a “race” between the two battalions. ‘This recruiting race should provide an added stimulus to those who are engaged in persuading men to join,’ proposed the Manchester Courier.[i]

Fig 5. Recruiting scenes

(Above: Manchester Courier, 25th November 1914.)

When the doors of the Town Hall opened on the 26th of November over a hundred men were there waiting to enlist. As they queued, the Lord Mayor delivered an address. “It is not bigness that makes a soldier,” he told them, “It is pluck and endurance.” He also touched on the seemingly contentious issue of what the battalion was going to be called:

‘”I understand you object to being called ‘Bantams.’ (Some laughter.) A magistrate suggested to me ‘Fighting Cocks’ was a more fitting name. (More laughter.) It has also been suggested that ‘Bobs’ Own’ is the best name. Lord Roberts was a little man, but he was a very great Field Marshal. (Hear, hear.) I am sure you, too, will do good work. You know, little men can get round corners where big fellows can’t. (Laughter.)”’

Photographers from the Manchester newspapers were there as the men made their attestations. The Lord Mayor himself swore in the first batch. With the flare of a photographer’s flash the Mayor is reported to have quipped, “That’s the first time you have faced fire.”[ii]

Fig 7. Swearing in

(Above: Manchester Evening News, 26th November 1914.) 

The 27th of November saw Manchester Town Hall crowded with ‘sturdy little deep-chested stalwarts’. Prominent citizens addressed speeches to the men as they waited to be sworn in. In the afternoon Sir Henry Mackinnon, the General Commanding the Western Division, attended. ‘During the General’s visit an example of the fine physique of the little men was forthcoming,’ the Manchester Courier recorded, ‘which created no little amusement among those who saw it.’

‘Major Allen, the Assistant Inspector of Recruiting in the Western Division, called out one of the men to see whether the “standard chest measurement of 34½” was being adhered to. On the tape being put round the recruit’s chest, it was found to register 39 inches. This fine physical development has been a feature of those joining the 8th Battalion. Yesterday a large number of colliers from the Pendleton Pits offered themselves. They delighted the hearts of the officials, and though they were but short in height they were almost as broad as they were long, and had chests and arms that many a professional “strong man” might envy.’ [iii]

325 men enlisted over the course of the day. While some of the men joining the battalion evidently were miners, volunteers seem to have come from a wide variety of occupations. The Manchester Battalions Book of Honour gives some clues as to the occupational profile of the battalion; the majority of individuals identified as members of the 23rd Battalion therein work in cotton mills or engineering, but they are also employed in chemical works, iron works and warehouses, for assurance companies and shipping agents, in clothing manufacturing and for Manchester Education Committee. One man worked for Richard Johnson & Nephew’s barbed wire works. As such they really are a cross section of Manchester trades. 

Fig 8. Attestations

(Above: Manchester Evening News, 27th November 1914.)

While some volunteers might have been able to boast a ‘strong man’ physique, a significant percentage of men were being turned away because they couldn’t attain the minimum required chest measurement. This caused ‘a certain amount of murmuring’, the Manchester Guardian recorded. Some scrupulousness was evidently being exercised in the selection of this battalion, its promoters already being well aware that its performance would be subject to particular scrutiny. ‘The 8th Battalion is not designed as a refuge for patriots of a poor physique,’ the Guardian insisted:

‘Its fighting quality will not be one whit less than that of the best of the other city battalions, and the chest measurement, although exacting, is being rigidly enforced in order that at the finish Manchester may have particular pride in the last battalion to complete the second City Brigade… Lieutenant Bartrum, who has the supervision of recruiting at the Town Hall, is taking particular care with this battalion, aiming at a first-rate standard in each individual. He was completely satisfied with yesterday’s recruits, describing them altogether and severally as “topping good chaps”.’[iv]

The 28th of November saw another 265 men signed up, bringing the total to 590. The Manchester papers remarked that some candidates had travelled considerable distances for a chance of joining the unit, as men under the standard height were not yet being accepted in many other localities. Letters of application were received from as far away as Ramsgate, and the recruiting office of the Isle of Man requested permission to enlist men on behalf of the Battalion. Some of the volunteers arriving in Manchester, it was reported, had walked long distances and slept rough en route.

Not every man came forward with absolute confidence and certainty, though. There was evidently some last-minute dithering to be witnessed in Albert Square – but there were parties always ready to usher the men through the door. The Manchester Evening News observed:

‘The “five-foot recruits” visit the Town Hall in batches. They seldom come singly. Frequently one sees a score or more march in to be examined. Some of them are diffident about taking the final plunge, and gather in small knots in Albert Square. They are frequently approached by men who have already joined or by public men who have taken an interest in recruiting, and do not then take long to make up their minds. Mr J. R. Lancashire has done a good deal of work in this direction. He made a haul of no fewer than thirty recruits in this way to-day. He saw the men talking together outside and joined in the conversation. A minute or two later he was escorting the batch upstairs to receive their tickets preliminary to examination.’[v] 

Fig 9. Recruiting off

(Above: A recruiting officer at work in Albert Square. Manchester Evening News, 26th January 1915.)

That day an article – ‘Small Bodies and Big Souls’ – was published in the British Medical Journal, which gave authority to the arguments of those who had proposed the Bantam Battalion. Though the language and logic might seems slightly odd to modern ears, this expert justification boosted the confidence of those involved in the raising of the Battalion. It was reproduced in the Manchester papers. ‘We are glad to see,’ the Journal began, ‘that the War Office has set aside the absurd standard of height so far as regards an East Lancashire battalion, and had given permission for a “midget” battalion to be raised.’ The article went on:

‘Not a little is to be said in favour of short infantry. Short men occupy less room in transport; they find cover more easily, and offer a smaller mark to bullets and shrapnel; they are better sheltered in trenches and require to dig less deep trenches to protect themselves. It takes less khaki to clothe them, and less leather to boot them. The army blanket covers them more amply, and they need less food than tall thin men to keep up their body heat and maintain their marching energy; a smaller service transport, therefore, suffices for their needs. Many short men are tough and wiry, and when sturdily built, like the north country miner, are strong and capable of the greatest endurance. The managers of factories where skilled work is done know that the small man is often a better workman than the big one, who is apt to be clumsy… The cavalry and artilleryman requires to be big and powerful, but as to those who burrow in the trenches, how can it matter whether they are 4ft. 9in. or 5ft. 6in.? We are not out for a show and a parade, but to win  – a war of sieges and attrition. To hang on with tenacity, and use the rifle with skill, to keep warm and healthy in body, and courageous in spirit – these are the qualities, and the short men have them. The brave soul of the little man in the face of the giant is proverbial. The Japanese soldier has earned the highest reputation for endurance, courage, and fighting capacity, and his average height is between 5ft. and 5ft. 3in. There is waiting the call to enlist an army corps of bantam weights – the sturdy, short-limbed men of the North and the short men of the South and of Wales. The difference is in part due to difference of race, but valour and worth must not be valued by the length of a femur.’[vi]

By the 30th of November the total number of recruits in Manchester – those ‘sturdy, short-limbed men of the North’ – had increased to 730. One volunteer, who had just completed his attestation, told the authorities that he had previously been rejected by 34 recruiting depots. The volunteer proudly proclaimed that he ‘felt a man again and no longer a boy, now that he had been accepted as a soldier of the King.’[vii]

The 1st of December saw the 7th Battalion win the “race” to completion. The 8th Battalion’s numbers increased slowly over the next two days, with many men again being turned away on account of insufficient chest inches. After beginning at a rapid pace, recruitment slowed down to a crawl at the finish.[viii]

On the 4th of December, nine days after recruiting had officially opened, the Battalion was complete. With 39 men required at the start of the day, the recruiting officers actually had 100 to choose from. By 2 p.m. the recruiting offices were being dismantled. The Manchester Courier hurrahed: 

‘There is only one thing that is objectionable. He should not be described as a “Bantam”. We appreciate the alliterative allurement of the title “Bigland’s Birkenhead Bantams”, but do not like it. We dread the infection. Fancy “Manchester’s Military Mannikins,” or “Leeds Little ‘Loiners’”. They are not Football League teams; but if we do object to the gallinaceous title we know that they are “game”.’[ix]

On the 4th of December the 8th City Battalion – now designated by the War Office to be the 23rd Manchester Battalion – paraded for the first time at the artillery headquarters in Hyde Road. Journalists were there to watch. ‘The men presented a very smart appearance,’ observed the Manchester Courier.[x] This was the start of a newspaper fascination with the gallinaceous-titled battalion.

[i] Manchester Guardian, 25th November, 1914; Manchester Evening News, 25th November, 1914; Manchester Courier, 25th and 26th November 1914; Manchester Evening News, 5th December 1914.

[ii] Manchester Evening News, 26th November 1914. There are repeated indications in the local press that the men objected to the term ‘Bantam’.

[iii] Manchester Evening News, 27th November 1914, Manchester Courier, 27th November 1914.

[iv] Manchester Guardian, 27th November 1914

[v] Manchester Courier, 28th November 1914; Manchester Evening News, 28th November 1914; Manchester Guardian, 28th November 1914.

[vi] British Medical Journal, 28th November 1914.

[vii] Manchester Courier, 30th November 1914; Manchester Evening News, 30th November 1914.

[viii] Manchester Courier, 2nd December 1914; Manchester Evening News, 1st, 2nd and 3rd December 1914; Manchester Guardian, 3rd December 1914.

[ix] Manchester Courier, 4th December 1914; Manchester Guardian, 4th December 1914. Recruiting was completed for the reserve company of the 8th City Battalion in early January 1915.

[x] Manchester Courier, 5th December 1914.

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‘Bobs’ Own’

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]

Fig 1. Manchester recruiting

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]

Fig 2. Rejected poem

(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.

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