Episode 102 - A Little Claggy Lump of Independence (Small Week)
I’ve been listening to a new CD that I found a few days ago in a telephone box. It was one of those community ‘share shit CDs’ telephone boxes. Like the mini libraries where the only rule is that you have to replace the book you take with another book, and within a few weeks the quality of the books available has degenerated to biographies of 90s C-list celebrities who once spent a few weeks on Big Brother.
Well it turns out the CD is quite good! It’s a little known collection of Michael Jackson songs from when he was going through his vegetable stage.
It opens with the very catchy song ‘Beetroot’:
Beetroot, beetroot, beetroot, beetroot, I think pickled beetroot is very nice, I also like them roasted, or with pilau rice, in fact it doesn’t matter, just give me a slice of beetroot.
Then there’s this one:
I’m talking with a man at the grocers
I’m asking him for a bag of kale
No spinach, potatoes or lettuce
I just want to make a smoothie tonight
And I need some kale to make it right
I also like this powerful number:
What about carrots?
What about leeks?
What about all the things
That you said you’d stock last week?
And it finishes with Smoothie criminal
Was listening to your episode 100 and thoroughly enjoyed it! For a while I attended the US Military Academy (our version of Sandhurst) and a punishment there was “walking hours” where in dress uniform you’d walk back and forth for hours at a time, if you walked 100 hours you could earn an unofficial award called “a century man,” We have a similar thing in the UK, it’s called Captain Tom Moore. one of my biggest regrets is by the time I left I had walked 97 hours, 3 short of becoming a century man! There’s a semi interesting story around 100 for you I thought I’d pass along.
I recently learned about the heist to steal silk worms from China back in ye olde times, and thought I’d recommend “historical heists” as a topic. STEALING WORMS, AT A TIME WHEN EVERYONE HAD THEM. HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET THESE BACK? PUT THEM WITH THE OTHERS. OWP!
As usual, I’m having a pint while typing this out. Sadly my partner is in fact sitting across from me and I’m not drinking alone while sending you a message, I know that will disappoint Sam, keep up the good work lads!
Cheers from Seattle,
We also had some hate mail from a chap called Petr. Petr who is one of those people who just can’t help but air his views. Rather than just not listen any further, like 99% of people who try to listen to our podcast, Petr felt like telling us that it was impossible to listen to us idiots. Well thank you for trying Petr.
On to my piece…
I began my research by looking at strange deities from Ancient Egypt but I thought that I needed to be allowed to expand the topic beyond just small people to do it justice. So I’ll keep that one for another time.
Instead, I started researching small military units from history. Much like I did in our episode about left-handed people (Episode 73 - A Cack-Handed Tossing of Children and Females). As with that episode, it was difficult to find much, but what I did find, was very well documented. It’s probably reasonably well-known and more importantly, I’m not going to be mocking people with disabilities like dwarfism – just people with runty genetics. I’m talking about the British Bantam units from WW1.
So the word ‘bantam’ is fairly well known from combat sports – bantamweight being a weight category for smaller fighters. It actually comes originally from a port in Indonesia called Bantam where a Europeans would stock up on the local, small chickens.
It wasn’t until January 1916 that Britain introduced conscription:
“You must fight!”
“Because I said so.”
“But what’s this war all about anyway?”
“Nobody really knows. Something to do with the assassination of an Archduke. But you must fight!”
At the outbreak of WW1 in July 1914, Britain had a minimum height requirement for joining the army. However, the army, led by Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, was completely overwhelmed with people enlisting. The number of recruits was totally unexpected and there were major logistical issues processing these recruits. One way of reducing the supply of men was to change the height requirements. So, in the first few months of the war, the height requirement was changed on a number of occasions. By November 1914, the minimum height was 5ft 3inches, or 160cms. This sounds very short today, but in the 1910s, the average height of a British male was around 5ft 6 inches, or 171cms. Today, the average height of a male is 5ft 9inches, or 175cms. So, the minimum height was the equivalent to about 5ft 6inches or 171cms today.
There are many reasons why British men over 100 years ago were much shorter today. For a start, they ate far more boiled vegetables – almost with every meal. Not only does this cooking technique make food smaller, it makes men smaller too. Houses were smaller also, so it was an evolutionary disadvantage to be tall. Then there was rickets – many men were actually taller but due to the excessive bowing of their legs, they weren’t really making the most of their legs. This was however an advantage when riding stray dogs, a common way of that poor people commuted to their workplace before cars became affordable for commoners.
Anyway, the minimum height standard was for obvious reasons. Being in the army is a physical job and this height minimum was a crude way of ensuring that runty men didn’t sign up. The government also couldn’t be bothered sewing up the trousers on their mass produced uniforms. That was a genuine concern.
At the end of 1914, a group of miners from Cheshire got pissed off with this minimum height requirement. They wished to join the army, they were bloody fit because of their job but they were being dismissed because of their height. However, at every recruitment office they attended, they were turned away. One of the miners was apparently so pissed off that he walked around Birkenhead challenging anyone and everyone to a fight. Nothing came of this though, because all the other men of Birkenhead couldn’t see where the voice was coming from.
Local MP, and no I’m not making this up, Alfred Bigland, stepped in and argued the miners’ case to the War Office.
“Good afternoon, Alfred Bigland here, representing people from Littleland. Now I hear that Littlelanders are being discriminated against by Biglanders, not me though, I’m a Biglander who supports Littlelanders. But you Biglanders are stopping Littlelanders from signing up!”
Anyway, Alfred “oooh look at me I’m” Bigland, was successful. His argument was really rather simple – these men were exceptionally fit. As opposed to 6ft 6 Lord Clemence Parpington-Bottom-Burp who doesn’t even know how to tie up his shoe laces but wasn’t malnourished as he grew up.
The War Office agreed to allow Alfred Bigland to create two Birkenhead Battalion for littluns. From November 1914, special ‘Bantam Battalions’ were created for recruits who were between the heights of 5ft and 5ft 3. Lord Kitchener liked this idea because it shifted responsibility for processing these new recruits to local committees. It meant that the army didn’t get overrun again. The War Office would then take the new recruits once they’d been processed and kitted out.
Those wanting to join these battalions were given a medical once over and were required to have a larger chest measurement that their taller comrades. Because why have midgets in your army if they don’t have nice boobs?
To begin with, the Bantams joined two Divisions, the 35th and 40th. I get very confused when talking about military structures, whether it be units or the hierarchy of titles, but I understand that a Division is the largest unit of men, divided into brigades, then battalions. It would appear, from what I could fathom, that the two Divisions, the 35th and 40th, had 3 Brigades, each made up of 6-12 battalions. Also in these Divisions, the infantry battalions were supported by artillery, engineer, medical and other slight more specialist battalions. These Divisions are designed to be able to operate completely independently and are under the command lieutenant Generals or major generals. During the wars, they consisted of around 16,000 men and in WW1 there were 76 infantry Divisions plus 8 cavalry Divisions. Now, the British army has 2 divisions. So, to return to the start, to have managed to form two whole Divisions almost entirely of bantams was quite something! In total, there were an estimated 30,000 bantams in the British forces.
One such battalion was the Highland Light Infantry's 18th Battalion. They developed a reputation for starting fights in Glasgow bars and were nicknamed the Devils Dwarves. Just couldn’t handle their drink.
A contemporary, anonymous poem:
Each one a pocket Hercules
five feet and a bit,
a kind of Bovril essence
of six feet British grit.
At the start of the war, the bantams were mostly good recruits, although in the words of a Glaswegian bantam, George Cunningham, ‘we had a lot of wee lads who never should have been accepted…I was fair disgusted at the medics for taking them in at all. We youngsters with a bit of heft to us could see there wasn’t much chance for a fighting battalion until they got rid of the runts’. Another battalion was 1000 strong when it arrived for basic training but ended up being reduced to just 200 men after medical assessments. It would appear that these were the exception though, and the majority were good quality and a significant number were as strong as any other man in the army.
Around 3,000 men quickly signed up to join these battalions. The idea was popular in other areas too and by the end of the war, 29 bantam battalions had been created, including a few Canadian battalions.
Anyway, things started off reasonably well for the bantams. On a rather funny note, there were problems however with the fire steps in the trenches. These steps were where infantrymen would stand to shoot above the parapet. When the bantams turned up, the steps needed raising, but then anyone of a normal height couldn’t shoot safely. Captain Richard Pierson; “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.”
There was plenty of banter in the trenches directed at the bantams but they gave as good as they got. Even the Germans apparently joined in and all shouted ‘cock-a-doodle-do’ when they saw them arriving in the trench.
In the first few years of the war, the performance of the bantams appears mixed. There were successes and failures, good reports and bad reports. It is difficult to get a very clear idea of how good they were relative to other divisions because your success as a battalion seems to have been very dependent on how good the bloke in charge was. So if your battalion was constantly being sent over the top, badly resourced and attacking a strong German position, you are likely to get a higher number of deserters, deaths and lower morale. What we do know is that the bantams batallions were given plenty of action. They were not given favourable treatment and so they fought in some of the most famous and brutal battles of the First World War like the Somme.
Here’s an example of a success:
Capt Angus McKenzie Forsyth earned himself a Military Cross for displaying 'a disregard for his own personal safety' when he led a group of bantams to capture another German position. They captured the position, then beat off 4 counter-offensives.
Here’s an example of a failure:
In December 1916, 26 Bantams were sentenced to death for cowardice because they abandoned their posts. Only 3 of them were actually executed - the other 23 just had their hats shot off.
This from the Division Commander:
“There are, however, some 400 men in the Division of whom 334 are in the Durham L.I. who are recommended for transfer as being unsuitable mentally and physically for Infantry Soldiers and it is possible that any of them would have behaved similarly under the circumstances described….In view of the mental and physical degeneracy of these men I consider that although the sentence passed on all six is a proper one, the extreme penalty might be carried out in the case of the two NCOs only and the sentence of the four privates be commuted to a long term of penal servitude, and this I recommend.”
This event highlighted a trend - as the war wore on, and remember it was supposed to be over by Christmas, the bantam battalions, like all battalions, suffered huge casualties. Unfortunately for the bantam battalions, it was far harder to replace those who’d been killed. Those littluns who turned up in the second half of the war were of questionable quality. Rather than being tough littler miners and shipbuilders, they were just runty cretins, literally, they were short because they were undernourished. Many were also underage.
Not long after the desertion incident described, the bantams of the 35th Division were inspected for their suitability to fight and almost 2800 men were moved away from fighting roles. These Bantams were replaced with normal height soldiers and the Division logo was changed from a chicken (bantam) to 7 interconnected 5’s.
By the end of the war, the bantams had been merged with taller soldiers. A large number of them fought all the way through the war, including a chap called Lance-Corporal Michael Dempsey, who was involved in the farce that led to 26 bantams being tried for cowardice (he was unable to complete a raid on a German position for various reason, so not one of those tried for cowardice) actually won the Military Medal in 1918. His case nicely highlighted what I mentioned before about the performance of the bantams being difficult to assess due to the fact that the success of a battalion was largely down to the decision making of the tall people in charge.
On the subject of tall people in charge, one notable Bantam was Henry Thridgould, who at 4ft 9in tall was the shortest corporal in the British Army.
Field Marshal Montgomery, was a Brigade Major of the 104th (Bantam) Brigade during WWI and Billy Butlin, of shitty holiday venue fame, was a bantam.