George Archer and the Bantams

See also: George Archer at Passchendaele

Cap Badge of the West Yorkshires

A whole generation of young men experienced the war that ‘would be over by Christmas’ but which “dragged on for four long years of bloody stalemate, death, mutilation and destruction”.

My grandfather, George Archer, was born 1895 and brought up at 14 Lacy Street, Dewsbury.

A bright child, he nevertheless had to leave school at the age of 12 and began his work in the woollen blanket industry. George was a very short and slightly built man. When war broke out in 1914, he was 19 years old but he was too short to sign up for the army, being only about 5 ft in height. He continued in the blanket manufacturing industry in Dewsbury. 

The Dewsbury blanket industry was important to support troops at the front, as most army blankets were made in the Heavy Woollen District of Yorkshire, in Batley and Dewsbury. The blankets were usually shades of grey to grey-blue as they were not dyed, but spun from reclaimed woollens (Shoddy and Mungo), which was the local process. (George’s Great-Great-Grandfather has been credited as the person who introduced Shoddy Woollen manufacturing to the USA and the Archer family were prominent in the design of textile machinery in that industry).  All the army blankets were woven with red or black stripes to identify them as War Office supply. These blankets left the mills for storage, until they were needed, at the Army’s main textile storage depot, which was also in Dewsbury.

When it was realised that more men were required to go to the front line, the Member of Parliament for Birkenhead, Alfred Bigland, asked the War Office for permission to form a battalion of men who were under regulation size but otherwise fit for service. These so-called Bantam units were drawn from industrial and coal mining areas where short stature was no sign of weakness and men were used to hard physical labour.

The height of the men had to be between 5 feet and 5 ft 3 inches and their expanded chest must measure at least 34 inches.

The name derives from the town of Bantam in Indonesia, where a small breed of domestic hens were bred and the name was also given to a type of boxer “bantamweight”.

Soon, 3,000 men had volunteered, many of whom had previously been rejected as being too short. The original men were formed into the 1st and 2nd Birkenhead Battalions of the Cheshire regiment. Other regiments soon began to recruit: the Lancashire Fusiliers, West Yorkshires, Royal Scots, and Highland Light Infantry. Many of the recruits were miners and factory workers and eventually these units were formed into the 35th Division.

Formation of the 35th Division

After initial training without equipment or uniform, at billets close to home, the Division was formed up in Yorkshire with HQ at Masham, in June 1915. The 17th West Yorkshires  were billeted at Ilkley from January to May 1915 according to Brig E A James. He wrote/compiled the definitive book on British battalion locations during WW1, an essential reference work.

In August, the troops moved to Salisbury Plain. In late 1915, orders were received to prepare to move to Egypt, but this was soon countermanded (see notes below) and they were sent to France instead in late January and early February 1916. It remained on the Western Front for the remainder of the war and took part in the following battles:

  • Battle of Albert. 1-13 Jul 1916, including the capture of Montauban, Mametz, Fricourt, Contalmaison and La Boisselle.
  • German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. 14 Mar 1917 to 5 Apr 1917.
Grandad Archer
George Archer in West Yorkshire Uniform

George signed up into a Bantam Battalion at Leeds in January 1917 and was placed in the The West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own) 17th Service Battalion (2nd Leeds), which was attached to the 106th Brigade, 35th Division. His army uniform shows the West Yorkshire Cap badge. He was 21 years old. He would have gone to France in the summer of 1917 and he served to the end of the war, including actions at:

  • The Second Battle of Passchendaele. 26 Oct-10 Nov 1917.
  • The First Battle of Bapaume. 24-25 Mar 1918.
  • Battle of Ypres. 28 Sep-2 Oct 1918.
  • Battle of Courtrai. 14-19 Oct 1918.
  • Actions of Tieghem. 31 Oct 1918.

On 9 November 1918, the advanced units of the Division had made a foothold on the far bank of the River Schelde near Berchem. They advanced and had captured Grammont, reaching the River Dendre when the armistice halted the fighting at 11am on 11 November 1918.

The Division was withdrawn towards Ypres and by 2 December 1918 was near St-Omer. Here it began to demobilise. In January 1919, the Division was called upon to control rioting in the camps at Calais. The 35th Division was disbanded at the end of April 1919, having suffered casualties (killed, wounded and missing) of 23,915 during the war.

Notes from the Naval and Military Press:

The History of the 35th Division in the Great War

For the first two years of its existence this was a ‘Bantam’ division. It fought on the Western Front from March 1916, but by early 1917, with the lack of suitable men of the qualifying bantam physique and reinforcements coming from disbanded yeomanry regiments the 35th division could no longer be deemed a Bantam division.

…The last division of Kitchener’s Fourth New Army, the 35th was initially formed in December 1914 as the 42nd Division, but was renumbered when the original Fourth New Army was broken up in April 1915. All the infantry battalions were ‘Bantams’ (height 5ft – 5ft 3 ins) but not the divisional troops (artillery, engineers etc) nor the pioneers. In December 1915 the division was warned for Mesopotamia and tropical clothing and pith helmets were issued and when they paraded on Salisbury Plain wearing their helmets the ‘Bantams’ were said to look like overgrown mushrooms. A month later the destination was changed to the Western Front where the division arrived in February 1916. When it took over the line in March each man took two sandbags so that when filled and placed on the firestep the men could see over the parapet. With replacement problems (weeding out inspections in December resulted in 2,784 men being rejected) and new drafts consisting principally of men from disbanded yeomanry units the division was no longer a bantam formation by the beginning of 1917 and its sign was changed from the Bantam Cock to a circular emblem of seven 5s.

George, after the war

George was wounded twice. He returned home after the war to work in the mill, where he remained until retirement. After his marriage in 1920, he lived at “Percy Villa”, 89 Wakefield Rd, Dewsbury until about 1967, when he and his wife Mary Ann moved to a house off Crackenedge Lane.

In later life, George didn’t talk much about his experiences of the war. He retained a horror of rats, because of memories of rats running over him in the night in his tent in the war.

When I (his grand-daughter) visited Northern France for the first time at the age of 14, I visited the battlefields and told him about it on my return. It brought him to tears.

George died quietly at home, from pneumonia, in 1974, aged 78.

See also: George Archer at Passchendaele

© Christine Widdall 2017