The Short Soldiers of WWI

I missed getting a post up for Remembrance/Veterans’ Day, but since I’m thankful for the service of our soldiers past and present, this will have to serve for both holidays. But this post will be oddly specific since I’m writing in particular about very short soldiers.

The minimum height for soldiers in the British army during WWI was five-foot-three, with the average being five-five, but many potential recruits were turned away for being too short. I’m five-four and often have to ask for help reaching things on the top shelf at the grocery store, so these fellows who were turned away were pretty short!

Unfortunately, WWI dragged on, and the war machine demanded more men to be fed to the trenches.

In Britain, this led to two things: first, the formation of “Bantam Battalions” (referring to smaller breeds of roosters/chickens) for shorter soldiers, and second, a national push to improve the health care and nutrition of British children so they could grow up tall enough to fight. In fact, some young men grew as much as two inches in training when they had three square meals for perhaps the first time in their lives, which shows just how dire their nutritional situation had been.

I was curious if a similar situation existed in the United States, which entered the war late and never had to dig quite as deeply for recruits. Only about 25 percent of US men entered the military in WWI, and their average height was about 5’7″, which would have been tall for a British soldier. Was this because American men were taller, or because US military recruiters could afford to be more picky? I’m not sure. But it wasn’t until WWII, when a much higher proportion of the male population became involved in the military, that the US government realized that many Americans were suffering from malnutrition (especially following the Great Depression) and took an interest in improving the health of American children for the sake of national defense.

A white WWI solider being measured by a white doctor.
A US WWI recruit being measured. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I wonder if this lag in interest or awareness on the US government’s part is also why our health care coverage and availability lags behind most other wealthy, industrialized nations.

If you’re curious, here are several other statistics about American soldiers in WWI versus WWII:

The average age was 25 versus 26 (the “average” WWII soldier was married with at least one child; I don’t think that was the case for most men serving in WWI).

The average height was 5’7.5″ versus 5’8″

The average weight was 141 pounds versus 144 pounds (both groups tended to gain weight after enlistment and regular meals).

In WWI, 25 to 37 percent of recruits were rejected for being unable to read or write, while in WWII, the illiteracy rates were lower, perhaps 5 to 10 percent, and due to the need for soldiers, the military instituted literacy training for illiterate men.

39 percent of WWI soldiers were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Also, many of the Native Americans who served in WWI were not considered citizens and could not vote. I cannot find an equivalent statistic for WWII, but over a hundred thousand immigrants gained citizenship by serving in the military, and we cannot forget the amazing courage and loyalty of the first-generation Japanese Americans who enlisted to fight, sometimes from the confines of internment camps – the all-Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regiment became one of the most decorated units in US military history.

The WWI armed forces were 10 percent African American versus 11 percent in WWII (Native American, Asian American, and other minority groups/people of color definitely played an important role in both wars, but I don’t have exact statistics).

The life expectancy for men in WWI was 47 years versus 63 years during WWII.

African American soldiers of WWI.
The Harlem Hellfighters from WWI. They would have served in a segregated unit, but unlike many Black soldiers who were stuck doing the most unpleasant menial labor, they fought and were highly decorated, though largely forgotten. Photo from census.gov

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