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At the outbreak of war volunteers had to be 5 feet 8 inches tall. By October 1914, after the battle of the Marne, volunteers needed only to be 5 feet 5 inches. Following the second battle of Ypres in May 1915, which killed another 30,000 British men, the required height went down to 5 feet 3 inches.
A check on the health of conscripts in 1916 found that, of every nine men examined, only three were completely (A 1) fit. Two out of the nine were of poor health, three were ‘incapable’, and one was a permanent invalid. Overall, 41% of young men were given the lowest health classification: C 3.

All this reflected a state of affairs which a hundred years of health legislation and prosperity was supposed to have changed. Part of the problem was malnutrition. A diet of bread and margarine, tea and condensed milk meant that state-educated children were on average 5 inches shorter than their public-school peers. A survey in Leeds in 1904 found that 50% of schoolchildren were suffering from rickets (a disease caused by malnutrition). Squalid living conditions reinforced the effects of poor diet. 20% of babies in Cornwall in 1914 died in their first year of life; in Hackney in the same year 119 died of scarlet fever, 53 of diphtheria and 69 of tuberculosis. All these diseases were the result of poverty.

The School Meals Act in 1906 had done something to address nutrition of the children of poorer communities. By 1914 some 200,000 children were benefiting from the scheme. The appalling state of the country’s poor can be gleaned from the problems the army had in recruitment. In Glasgow, for example, it was unable to recruit a sufficient number of men who met its normal health criteria. The gap was eventually filled in Glasgow by the recruitment of ‘bantam’ regiments made up of men between 5 feet and 5 feet 3 inches.

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