by Mary Reed
Perusing Arthur Guy Empey’s ‘Tommy’s Dictionary of the Trenches’, published in 1917 as part of his memoir From the Fire Step: The Experiences of an American Soldier in the British Army, I was struck by his statement that World War I bantam regiments were made up of men “under the standard army height of 5 ft. 3 in”.
This passing reference brought me up short, no pun intended. Given the standard height for acceptance into the army during the war was 5 ft 3 inches — and that’s five inches shorter than I am — how small could bantam battalion soldiers have been?
That ever helpful Mr Google assisted in pointing me in the right direction and through his good offices I learnt bantam battalions were composed of men between 4 ft 10 in and 5 ft 3 in. Many were former coal miners and agricultural workers with strength noticeably out of proportion to their height due to their strenuous working lives. By all accounts the bantams were a scrappy bunch who according to Empey “although undersized have the opinion that they can lick the whole German Army”. He mentions in passing he was 5 feet 5 inches tall, which I noticed elsewhere was the same height as T. E. Lawrence.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d already had a forceful yet subtle hint of how really short our ancestors were. Some years back when wandering around the Keep, one of the remaining bits of the second castle built in Newcastle, replacing the original Norman structure erected by a son of William the Conqueror. Progressing through its few inner rooms I had to keep ducking to avoid hitting my head on lintels. Given the telling detail this second castle was completed in the late 1170s during the reign of Henry II and bearing in mind the increasing height of subsequent generations in the centuries leading up to 1914, I now begin to wonder just how tall Henry’s forces stationed in Newcastle could have been.
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