Nowadays, people are keen on calling out what they believe is discrimination as social injustices, as we should. However, there are also some circumstances when certain traits and qualifications are needed and crucial. For instance, the army has a height requirement so that they won’t have to spend the budget on the customization of the uniforms for each recruit if they would be outside the standard height range. During World War I, the British military imposed height restrictions, too, but for other reasons. This, later on, resulted in the establishment of unique battalions called the Bantam Battalions.

Way Too Many Men

When World War I broke out in 1914, the men of the UK were all eager to serve their country. In fact, three-quarters of a million of them made their way to the recruiting station to enlist, which was way more than what the military could process and didn’t think they would need.

When the war started, they did not really expect that it would be one bloody, agonizing, four-year-long war that would need the help of every single man in the country. And so, they thought they needed a way to lower the number of men enlisting in the war. Who would’ve thought that the European skirmishes would escalate like they did, right?

Height Restrictions Solution

The sneaky solution they came up with to control the number of men at recruiting stations was to change the minimum height limits. From the height limit of 5’3″, it was changed to 5’6″ in September 1914. Apart from that, they also thought that shorter men were physically weak, so they wanted to weed them out.

The solution was effective, as the number of volunteers had started dropping, a bit lower to their liking, so they again changed the minimum height limit to 5’4″ in October. By November, it was back to the original limit of 5’3″. The number of volunteers did not increase, and the war didn’t seem to have an ending yet. By July 1915, they even lowered it down to 5’2″, lower than what it was before the war.

Back in 1914, many of the men who had been turned away for being shorter than the required height were enraged. One of them was a Durham miner who was a single inch too short than the required height. He tried to enlist at other recruiting stations, and he was still turned down for the same reason. On the later stations that he attempted to join, he offered to fight anyone who would think that being an inch too short would make any difference.

A local MP named Alfred Bigland learned about the miner’s story, and he agreed that it was indeed ridiculous to turn someone down just because of a single inch difference. He wrote to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, and asked to create a military unit for these men who were turned down by recruiters, as he believed they were capable of fighting, too.

Bigland’s request was unexpectedly approved. The War Office created battalions for men with a height between 5′ and 5’5″. Thousands of men rushed into these units, referred to as the Bantam Battalions. A total of 29 battalions would be created throughout the war.

Short, Aggressive, Hard Men

The members of the Bantam battalions were known to be short, aggressive, and hard men, totally disproving the assumption that shorter men were weak. In fact, most of their members came from the physically tough industry before their military service, which meant they were better than the others in terms of enduring the gruesome conditions of the trenches.

Bantam battalion poster. (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Their camaraderie with other “regular” units was solid, too, although their treatment of them at that time would be considered condescending if not downright disrespectful by today’s standards. As Alec Thomas from the Guards Division said,

After we finished telling the Bants they had duck’s disease we had to take a lot of very funny insults in turn. Very sharp tongues they have, and we’ve taken to the little chaps right away.

Others were less kind, like Captain Richard Peirson in the Northumberland Fusiliers said,

Sir, them bloody little dwarfs have built up the fire steps so they could see over. Now when my lads stand up, half their bodies are above the parapet.

The Bantam units fought hard, just like what many others did on the front lines of WWI. As the war dragged on, the army slowly realized that being shorter could be advantageous, like crewing tanks and digging tunnels that some of the men from the Bantam battalions were asked to fight among the ranks of regular units.

Memorial plaque to the Birkenhead “Bantam Battalions” (RodhullandemuCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Soon, the Bantam units that were lost could no longer be replaced by shorter men, so the taller soldiers were accepted in the Bantam ranks. After some time, the Bantam battalions slowly turned into regular ones.