During the First World War, the British Army raised battalions in which the normal minimum height requirement for recruits was reduced from 5 ft 3 in (160 cm) to 5 ft (150 cm). This enabled otherwise healthy young men to enlist. The British and Canadian armies recruited over 50,000 short men to serve as front-line soldiers.
|A Wounded Bantam Soldier Accompanying a German Prisoner|
Alfred Bigland, MP for Birkenhead, pressed the War Office in 1914 for permission to form a “bantam” battalion of men who failed to reach the British Army's normal height requirement (5ft 3in) but who were otherwise perfectly capable of serving. About 3,000 men – many of them previously rejected – rushed to volunteer. These first bantams were formed into the 1st and 2nd Birkenhead battalions of The Cheshire Regiment (later redesignated the 15th and 16th battalions). Bantams had to be not less than 5ft (1.5m) tall and no more than 5ft 3in (1.6m).
Men of the 16th (Bantams) Battalion, Cheshire Regiment in training, 1915. (Neg Q 53724)
Other regiments began to follow Bigland’s lead – for example, The 20th Battalion of The Lancashire Fusiliers, raised at Salford in March 1915 through recruiting efforts by local MP Montague Barlow and the Salford Brigade Committee.
The West Yorkshire Regiment, The Royal Scots, and The Highland Light Infantry all had bantams. Many bantam recruits were miners, and some of the units were formed into The British 35th Infantry Division. The 40th Division had a mixture of bantam and regulation units, although it is generally considered to have been a bantam division. The bantams were very popular at home, and were often featured in the press.
They also had a reputation for feistiness. Author Sidney Allison wrote, "Their quarrelsome reputation was legendary." After frequent bar brawls they became known around Glasgow as the Devil Dwarfs.
By the end of 1916, however, the general fitness and condition of men volunteering as bantams was no longer up to the standard required. Brigades were informed that no more undersized men would be accepted, and the divisions lost their bantam status as replacements diluted the number of small men in the mix.
Sources: BBC, Amazon.com, Imperial War Museum