The British Army in World War I fielded entire units of short kings

Team Mighty
Apr 18, 2023 9:16 AM PDT
3 minute read
british army short soldiers

Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum.

SUMMARY

In today’s lingo, “short kings” are an “undertall” gentleman with swag, a man who wouldn’t be considered “tall” but knows…

In today’s lingo, “short kings” are an "undertall" gentleman with swag, a man who wouldn’t be considered “tall” but knows his self-worth isn’t attached to his height and acts appropriately. Boxer Manny Pacquiao and soccer’s GOAT Lionel Messi are all under 5’7”. Finnish soldier and deadliest sniper ever Simo Häyhä stood at 5’3”. All can all be referred to as “Short Kings.” 

Knowing this, it might seem odd that the British Army in World War I would be turning away anyone, let alone the small and mighty. At the time, the minimum height for British troops was 5’3”, which is insane, considering Joan of Arc was about 5 feet tall and she had no problem tearing through enemies. 

Eventually, the need for manpower caught up with Britain, and the country began enlisting its short bantamweights and grouping them together in what appropriately became known as Bantam Battalions.

Early on in the war, a Member of Parliament representing Birkenhead, Alfred Bigland, heard the story of a group of coal miners who came to town looking to enlist in the Army. The miners were rejected at recruiting stations all over Cheshire due to their smaller stature. One of the miners, standing at 5’2”, got frustrated with the effort and for being rejected due to his height, and offered to fight anyone present to prove his mettle as a soldier. 

The story goes that it took six men to restrain the miner. Bigland couldn’t understand why the army would be turning obviously qualified (and powerful) men of industry away from military service. He called on the British War Office to create a unit of these men and put them into the service of their country. 

When word spread that men of shorter stature were being accepted into a fighting unit, short kings from across the country showed up to recruiting offices in droves to sign up. By November 1914, some 3,000 had volunteered to fight. The Bantam Battalions were formed, although they still had height requirements, a minimum of 4’10” and a maximum height of of 5’3”. They could also have a larger chest size. 

World War I recruiting poster.

The newly-formed 1st and 2nd Birkenhead Battalions were hailed as heroes for their determination to fight for Great Britain. After training, they were reformed into the 15th and 16th Battalions, Cheshire Regiment. So many signed up, new battalions were formed and eventually they made up two entire divisions. 

By the war’s end 29 Bantam battalions had been created across three divisions, two British and one Canadian, for an estimated 30,000 men. They were led by men of average size, including one Brigade Major Bernard Montgomery, who would later earn fame and distinction in World War II. 

The battlefield performances of the Bantams were as mixed as any other unit. Author and historian Sidney Allinson wrote about the Bantam Battalions in his book, “The Bantams.”

"Their quarrelsome reputation was legendary," Allinson wrote. "For all their recalcitrance, they had proved to be readily trained into smart soldiers on the barrack square and the assault course." He describes a June 1916 raid on an enemy trench by the 14th Gloucester that ended up being a close quarters fight. In the end, 30 Germans and eight British lay dead and the British captured their Maxim heavy machine gun.

They weren’t without problems. Height differences could cause issues in the trenches, especially when peering over the top. Oxford University also conducted a study that found shorter soldiers were more likely to be killed in the Great War. Still, their performance was a breakthrough that led to the minimum height being dropped to 4’10” for all British Army troops, where it remains today.

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