Tuesday, June 28, 2011

BC Bantams - Introduction

As many of you may know, I've been working on an article about my Great-Grandfather's WWI battalion.  I'm not finished yet, but I thought I would start sharing parts of it with you.  I find it fascinating, but I don't expect everyone out there to have the same passion I do for it.  Please ... just humour me.  I'm going to do it in short bits so it doesn't take up too much of your day.

"Do Your Little Bit":  The 143rd Battalion C.E.F., or the BC Battling Bantams

“Victoria children yet unborn
Will read a page that we’ll adorn” [1]

I first found out about the BC Bantams (143rd Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Forces, also called “The Battling Bantams”) while researching Jack McCurrach’s (my great-grandfather’s) experience in World War One.  Having ordered his war records from the Canadian Archives, I was able to trace his route from Canada through England, to France and back.  Jack signed up in July of 1916 with the 143rd Battalion C.E.F.  I had assumed that he had chosen not to enlist earlier on in the war because he was recently married and had an infant daughter (my grandmother, Gladys).  But as I started to follow his tracks through the war, I discovered that this was not the case.  Jack may not have been allowed to enlist previously due to his height - he was 5 feet 1½ inches tall.  The B.C. Bantams was a special battalion organized for the main purpose of enlisting men under the standard 5 foot 4 inch height required to become a soldier at the time.[2] 

Conceived by Lord Kitchener, England had organized bantam battalions earlier in the war.  By July, 1916, some 16,000 Bantam-sized British soldiers were in service.[3]  The B.C. Bantams was the first battalion of its kind in Canada[4] – a second was approved soon afterwards in Toronto.[5] 

There is little information to be found about the 143rd battalion in the literature about World War One.  In 1982, Sidney Allinson wrote “The Bantams:  The Untold Story of World War I”, a story recounting the bantam units in England and Canada, and it has several pages of information about the 143rd.  Unfortunately, the book was written based almost solely on interviews with individuals.  As such, sources cannot be reviewed and several details have proven to be incorrect, so this resource is not heavily relied upon here (my apologies to Mr. Allinson as I know he did a lot of work for the book and it’s not a bad read – and it was a great starting point for my research).[6]  A substantial source of information for the current research is the Daily Colonist newspaper from Victoria, BC; because the Bantams trained in Victoria, a great deal was reported on them and the other battalions training there.  The Bantams were “something in the nature of a novelty”[7] and there was a lot of buzz surrounding the unit of short-statured men in the paper - they were mentioned almost daily early on and two or three times a week afterwards.  The Bantam Battalion also produced a newsletter for two months in 1916 – from August 5 until September 30th.  Copies of this newsletter were miraculously found still on file at the B.C. Legislative Library and copies were generously mailed to the author through inter-library loan.  The Trio Collection at the B.C. Archives has some fabulous photographs of the battalion, and the Robert Ely fonds offered some wonderful photographs as well, including not only photographs of the officers, but also of their barracks, and a beautiful battalion Christmas card from 1916 - the only one that would ever be created by the battalion.

Mobilization of the 143rd was authorized in November of 1915[8].  Formation of the battalion was “… in response to the petition of a large number of men … (who) represented that, although under the regulation stature … they were barred from serving their country.  It was their desire to ‘do their bit’, and they asked that some provision be made for them …”.[9]  Names of potential recruits began to be collected immediately with ads in the newspaper as early as November 19, 1915.[10]  A contact, street address and mailing address were announced so men could submit their names and get information.  Those men who signed up this way would be contacted and enlisted the moment recruiting began.

Figure 1:  recruiting ad for the 143rd battalion.

A Bantam rooster – being a small but ornery fellow – was chosen to represent the battalion on its crest.  Along with the bantam was the saying “Multum in Parvo” which meant “much in little” - the men were proud of their stature (or lack thereof) and there is strength in numbers.  The crest was embossed on the battalion Christmas card in 1916 (Figure 2).

Figure 2:  Bantam crest from the 1916 battalion Christmas card

[1] The Daily Colonist December 3, 1916, p.5
[2] The Daily Colonist December 8, 1915, p.5
[3] The Daily Colonist, July 21, 1916, p.5
[4] The Daily Colonist March 7, 1916, p.5; Victoria Daily Times Nov. 22, 1915
[5] The Bantam Review, No. 1, August 5, 1916
[6] for instance, Allinson has the commanding officer as Powey, not Powley, and doesn’t mention their camp at Beacon Hill Park at all – only has them training in Sidney
[7] The Daily Colonist Februrary 5, 1916, p.5
[8] Allinson 1982:182-183
[9] The Daily Colonist April 23, 1916, p.26
[10] The Daily Colonist November 19, 1915, p.5

1 comment:

  1. Would like to hear from you as I and my English cousin are trying to find out more about relative William T. Cox, of the prestigious French award he was given and for what military service. Please contact me at: sharon43a@comcastnet

    Sharon (Cox) Anderson


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