By Matthew Banks, Department of History & Archaeology, University of Chester
To be a soldier in The Great War was to be one of 8,654,467 men who fought and often died for king and country. Unfortunately, due to the rigid Edwardian structure of the pre-Great War army, and even through the early years of the war, it was the officers who were recorded, not the men who fought in the trenches. Of the millions of men that made up the British army, around 1.7 million men came from minorities. Yet it is quite likely these men came from the Commonwealth, as the Canadian soldiers or the Indian Scouts did, who were often attached to English regiments to bolster numbers and to provide skills which may have been otherwise absent. Whilst not an obvious minority, there is one group which suffered from the social divisions and prejudiced opinions often magnified within the army – men of small stature from a working class background. Originally rejected from service by the army because of circumstances they had no personal control over, such as their height, these men proved that they were worth just as much as every other soldier and often invaluable in the fight. These men were known as the Birkenhead Bantams.
The term ‘Bantam’ originates in a small Indonesian village in which small domesticated fowl, known as Bantams, were bred. To be called a ‘Bantam’ is to be a small yet tenacious and determined individual. However, historically the short have never been as valued as the tall were. Frederick I of Prussia formed his Potsdam Grenadiers using only the tallest of men. Height was previously an indication of strength whereas to be short was to be weak – this changed after The Great War. Whilst members of the white British majority, the Bantam battalions can be considered to be a unique minority because of one trait they all shared; their height. The British attitude towards minority groups during the Great War was totally different and extreme by today’s standard. British citizens who shared German names, or were of German decent could often find themselves interned simply because of their surname or heritage. So it should not surprise us that people were discriminated against because of their physical attributes.
The beginning of the British Bantam battalions was as unique as the men themselves, however, most modern historians argue the story is very hard to verify and currently no one has been successful in doing so. The story as presently known, is as follows:
“A fine sturdy man walked into the 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 or five recruiting offices, but always with the same result.”
The man mentioned in this extract from Lieutenant Colonel Harrison Johnston’s diary was allegedly a miner from Durham. This miner measured 5ft 2in in height and as stated he was only one inch below the minimum recruitment height of 5ft 3in. He had been reported to have visited every recruitment office between Durham and Birkenhead, but this varies as different accounts record different things. No one has discovered the identity of the miner in question, but apparently he challenged men to fights to prove that the one inch he was missing meant nothing. Upon hearing of this the MP for Birkenhead, Mr Alfred Bigland, set about persuading the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, to allow short men to sign up for service. Bigland was successful in doing so, but this did not mean the Bantams had an easy ride. Some even argued that Bigland was trying to raise an army of decrepit men – a strong accusation. Bigland had to publicise the ‘Bantam’ initiative through press interviews in which he compared these new battalions to that of the Gurkhas; a group of men who today are still valued highly by the armed forces. Newspaper articles were even incorporated to show the spirit of these men:
“Where are you going to, my little man?”
“I’m going to France to fight, if I can!”
“But you are too small to fight Germans!” I said
“Just take of your coat and I’ll fight you instead”
“But what is your regiment, if I may enquire?”
“The first Biglands Bantams – a name to inspire those men who are longing to prove to the foe that their spirits are right, if their stature is low. My eyes are keen and my limbs are strong, as all your crack Tommies with bodies so long. I’m quick and I’m slim, and an excellent shot, for all the world knows a small man’s on the spot”.
“But what are you giving up if I may ask?”
“Ah! Now you have set me quite an easy task! I am giving up all, my Country to serve, as many men would had they only the nerve”.
“Your girl! What will she say when you come back?”
“Why of course she will marry me: I did not slack! Now, no time to waste, I must get on my way, and when your at luncheon, just drink to ‘Our Day’”
(Extract from Cheshire Observer Saturday 5th December 1914 “Bigland Bantams”)
Now that short men were allowed to enlist the army had a new rush of recruits with around 3,000 men being recruited in Cheshire during the first few months. These 3,000 men became the first ‘Bantam’ Battalions, but they were basically independent of the army. Bigland had to finance their training as well as find them uniforms as the army would not provide them. It fell to Bigland, Fred Parsons, Thomas McAurthur and Theodore Hunter McAurthur to find and pay for the battalion’s uniform. This led to many men wearing mismatched clothes, some uniforms from the Boer War and some even had to wear their own clothes whilst on parade.
Although the ‘Bantams’ had no real administrative connection to the War Office, they had a strange relationship with the troops. Some accepted them as brothers in arms whilst others viewed them with contempt. The ‘Bantams’, previously being labourers such as coal miners, proved invaluable to the army. Most notably during the Battle of the Somme in which the ‘Bantams’ were used to reconnect and repair damaged trenches, ensuring the British could continue fighting. These men were quite often complimented by other battalions, such as the 2nd Devons for their efficiency and discipline in relief efforts. Many high ranking officers such as General Hakings and Prince Arthur of Connaught had high hopes for the ‘Bantams’ and believed they were equal to the regular troops. Also, on many occasions the ‘Bantams’ proved eager to engage the foe, so eager in fact that they did not require rousing speeches unlike other men may have needed.
The height difference between the ‘Bantams’ and the regular troops did lead to some problems. In order to see over the parapets, the ‘Bantams’ had to build steps. This led to the other soldiers being exposed and in danger of being shot, much to the annoyance to a number of officers. Some battalions openly disliked the ‘Bantams’. On one occasion “Z” company refused to allow the ‘Bantams’ onto the same transport lorry as them, simply because they were ‘Bantams’. There was obviously a level of friction within the ranks. Isacc Rosenberg, a ‘Bantam’ in the 12th Suffolk Regiment received abuse not only because he was short, but because he was Jewish. In 1916, 26 ‘Bantams’ from the 26th Durhams were sentenced to execution for cowardice, however only three were executed. Historians have said this lack of morale was a result of the casualties of the Battle of the Somme and a lack of suitable reinforcements, two factors which essentially led to the end of the ‘Bantam’ battalions.
To be part of a minority during the Great War is to be part of a forgotten group. The history of Britain presents a generic image of this time; it presents a unified state with everyone being equal in their social classes. This lack of history could be seen as a positive as minorities were seen as equal and included in the history of a country as a whole. However this is not always the case. The historical sources which preserve the experiences of minority groups are few and far between, or non-existent in some cases. During war the idea that actions could be justified by the Edwardian mentality was largely shared by the majority of society. Soldiers occasionally treated each other as an officer might treat a member of a lower class; they would victimise people because of their religion and, in the case of the ‘Bantam’ Battalions, they would be called an “experiment” and looked on with disdain by some members of the armed forces. It is true that the Bantams did have good relationships with many other battalions and enjoyed the support of a number of officers, but this was only after these small men threw themselves into gunfire to prove they were equal.
Further Reading and Bibliography
Allinson, S., The Bantams, The Untold Story of World War I (London: Howard Bacher, 1981).
DeGroot, G. J., Blighty, British Society In The Ear of The Great War (London: Longman, 1996).
McGreal, S., The Cheshire Bantams (Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2006).
Panayi, P. (ed.), Minorities in Wartime Europe (Oxford: Berg Publishing, 1993).
Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, 203941 Extracts From and Officers Diary.
Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, 200649 The Chester Volunteers with Special Reference to “A” Company.
Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, 200386 The War Record of 1/5th (Earl of Chester’s) Battalion.
Cheshire Observer, Biglands ‘Bantams’ Saturday 5th December 1914, p.6.
Cheshire Observer, More ‘Bantams’ Wanted, Saturday 19th June 1915, p.3.