A Tall Tale, Sort of

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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Mary Reed is the co-author of the John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in sixth century Byzantium. The current entry is Nine for the Devil.

You can also follow Mary on Twitter.

8 Responses to A Tall Tale, Sort of

  1. I’m behind in reading blogs Mary. But yours is fascinating. I have lost two inches over recent years. Ah, the ills the flesh is heir to, especially as we age!

    Your posting made me remember that my son, who is about 5′ 8” tall, would have loved to be a professional basketball player. I have been told that there are some of his height, but it is hard to believe. I was in a hotel not long ago in which some basketball players were staying, the Minnesota something or other. I got into the elevator and I looked up. Their heads were almost touching the ceiling. Some have said that to keep the game interesting and fair, the basketball hoops should be raised.

    I think that in Beowulf, soldiers rode into the castle on their horses. But I haven’t read it for a long time.

  2. Come on, Mary, we both know the pun was very much intended!

    By the way, did you ever read tell that a possible reason for such undersized WWI regiments was so that the trenches needn’t be dug so deep? Honest, someone actually told me that, but of course I didn’t believe him…as it was said in a bar… way late in a bar.

  3. Mary,

    I remember how surprised I was on my first trip to Europe, exploring 11th and 12th century castles along the Rhine. I’m 5’2″ and had to stoop to get through the entrances. I had no idea about the bantam battalions in WWI. Fascinating.

    • How did you find the inside doors? I imagine the entrances were fairly low to help keep intruders at bay but they would have to be a reasonable height for the inhabitants to get in and out easily, presumably not on horseback!

  4. I believe the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, on average. Actually, I understand that Americans are declining in height. I’m not sure whether it’s nutrition or changing demographics.

    Armored suits are another indication of just how small we were back in the day. I’ve seen some that look like they were intended for children.

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