Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, few armies had provision for senior officers to retire. This resulted in a lot of generals and colonels being in their 70’s, 80’s, and even 90’s. For example, John de Barth Walbach was born in Germany around 1764. As a young man he served 14 years in the French Army before migrating to the United States during the French Revolution. In 1799 Walbach received a commission as a lieutenant in the Regular Army. By 1850 he was a colonel, commanding the 4th Artillery, with a brevet for brigadier general. Walbach died, still on active duty, in 1857, at the age of 93.
The glut of superannuated officers in the senior ranks, necessarily resulted in a lot of officers of lower rank serving for many years without hope of promotion. Further complicating matters was the fact that in most armies promotion was usually in the regiment. So if you were unlucky enough to serve in a regiment with a couple of old farts in the senior slots you could look forward to many years in grade; it was not unusual for lieutenants to be in their 40’s in some armies, and captains in their 50’s.
An outstanding example of what could happen when someone finally died can be found when Lt. Col. George Gordon of the 42nd Highlanders, the famous “Black Watch,” crossed the river, on September 30, 1835. Gordon’s death allowed a major with 32 years in the service to rise to lieutenant colonel, a captain of 26 years service to become major, and a lieutenant of 20 years service became a captain.
This was one reason why at gala events, officers often offered toasts to, “A long war and a glorious one,” in the hope that promotions might improve, should casualties occur.
Britain’s “Bantam” Divisions
In August of 1914 Great Britain entered World War I with a very small – albeit superbly trained – army. There were hardly 250,000 men worldwide, and only about 100,000 available for immediate deployment to operations on the Continent; just six of infantry and one of cavalry. At best, the only immediately available reinforcements were two more infantry divisions when all reservists and garrisons in Britain and nearby areas could be called up. Even as the first divisions were embarking for France, Lord Kitchener, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War proposed raising 500,000 volunteers to be enlisted for three years. Once Parliament approved, Kitchener made a personal appeal for the first 100,000 volunteers..
The response was overwhelming. The first 100,000 men came forward in just two weeks. The call for a second batch of 100,000 men was also promptly filled, to be followed by further calls, so that by the Spring of 1915 the British Army had a net gain of 30 divisions (on paper it was more, but some were broken up to provide replacements).
Now the original recruiting regulations were rather stringent. Only men between the ages of 18 and 38 were permitted to enroll, and they had to be in good health and not shorter than 5’4”. By chance – or so the story goes – some miners attempting to enlist at Birkenhead, in Cheshire, were rejected because, although otherwise well qualified, they failed to meet the height requirements. The men protested to their Member of Parliament, one Alfred Bigland. Realizing that the Army’s height requirements excluded a large number of otherwise qualified manpower, Bigland prevailed upon the War Office to form two battalions of short men for service with the Cheshire Regiment. Within days some 3,000 men had offered themselves for service. Inspired by this example, several other regiments began raising battalions from volunteers who, although otherwise physically fit were only between 5’ and 5’3” tall. Soon there were a dozen battalions consisting of shorter men. This was sufficient infantry for a division, and so, with the addition of artillery, engineers, and service troops – composed of men of “normal” height – in June of 1915 the 35th Division was formed, appropriately taking for its formation sign the bantam cock. Meanwhile, even as the 35th Division was in training, the War Office decided to accept still more “bantams” and in September of 1915 formed the 40th Division, in which shorter men comprised about half the infantry.
The two “bantam” divisions proved effective fighting forces, though by the end of the war they had lost their unique attitudinally challenged character through the addition of taller men as replacements. In the course of the war the 35th Division incurred nearly 24,000 casualties, fighting at the Somme, on the Hindenburg Line, Ypres, Paschendael, and during the final German offensive and the final Allied advance, while the 40th Division fought on the Somme, at Cambrai, against the Hindenburg Offensive, and during the final Allied drive, incurring over 19,000 casualties.
The USS Corry Gets an Ice Cream Machine
In April of 1944 the USS Corry (DD-463), a Gleaves Class destroyer originally commissioned in 1940, had just returned to the Boston Navy Yard from a stint of convoy duty in the Atlantic. There, some of the crew were given leave while the ship underwent routine yard work.
By chance, Corry was tied up alongside a cruiser, also in for some routine maintenance.
One day, during his comings and goings from the ship to the dock and back, one of Corry’s crew noticed a large packing crate on the dock, clearly marked as being destined for the cruiser – and just as clearly labeled “Ice Cream Machine.”
Now ice cream was a favorite treat in the Navy during World War II. All the larger ships had ice cream making equipment, and "gedunk bars" where sailors could whip up improbable ice cream concoctions during their off-duty time. Unfortunately, the fleet’s “small boys” had to make do with whatever could be stashed in their refrigerated food lockers or begged from the bigger ships. This wasn’t much, and it didn’t last very long. So one night some enterprising sailors from Corry carefully painted over the cruiser’s designation , changing the crate’s destination to “DD-463.” And thus, a few days later, the men of DD-463 began to enjoy the pleasures of their own “gedunk bar.”
Corry went on to be the first ship to engage the enemy on Omaha Beach on D-Day. While exchanging gunfire with German shore batteries she struck a mine, and sank, the only major American warship lost that day, with the loss of 24 men – nearly 12-percent of her crew.