Tag Archives: writing history

Q&A: British Military Recruitment Physicals

I’m planning a story with an English character who joined the army during WW1 (because he didn’t want to be considered cowardly) but eventually became disillusioned with war and with the British Empire. He was born physically disabled but managed to conceal the disability in order to enlist. Are there any disabilities for which this would be plausible?

No. It would be difficult to hide any serious disability during the recruitment medical examination. In 1914, the sheer volume of recruits meant that examinations were fairly cursory, but, anything significant would have gotten washed out. Also, he wouldn’t be alone in that respect, somewhere between 40% and 60% of volunteers were turned away for being medically unfit.

There two major exceptions, that were sometimes, “overlooked,” by the recruiters.

The first was height, a British Soldier was required to be at least 5’3″ (later revised up to 5’6″ to reduce the number of recruits that were being processed), though this was not always strictly adhered to.

The second was age, the British military required recruits to be 19 or older, though estimates put the number of underage British soldiers who served in World War I at around a 250,000.

It is important to understand, “fear of being viewed as a coward,” was not a leading cause to join up. Certainly not for someone who had a disability that they would need to work to conceal. Peer pressure was a factor among underage recruits. For adults the leading factors were patriotic impulses, or an opportunity to adventure.

Worth remembering, World War I was a significant turning point for the perception of warfare in Europe. It was brutal, and destructive on an incomprehensible scale. Twenty million people died from 1914-1918. Another twenty million were seriously injured.

That last part is important for reference. There were a lot of soldiers that went to war with the idea that it would be a grand adventure. They swore to protect king and country, but returned horrifically maimed, after receiving front row seats to industrialized warfare’s opening act.

War has a long history of taking young, healthy individuals and returning them in much less intact conditions. Even if your character left for war in good shape, it’s entirely plausible they wouldn’t return that way.

Even though the characters are German, not British, All Quiet on the Western Front is probably something you’ll want to read. You may also want to check The Great War channel on YouTube.

-Starke

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The country in my fantasy novel is mostly inspired by Moorish Spain. I was wondering, would scimitars make sense to give to the basic low-level infantrymen in the army or would only the more wealthy/higher ranked people have those?

The cavalry have those. The scimitar is a blade specifically designed to be used from horseback. It’s the grandfather of most cavalry blades, including those used in Europe down through the centuries. The curved design and single edge meant it could slash enemies with less risk of losing the blade as you traveled past at high speeds. A stabbing weapon that buries itself in an enemy and you’re at risk of it getting stuck as the horse races past, then you lose your weapon. It was so successful a design that it traveled throughout the world.
The scimitar is a very visually distinctive weapon which is why you see
it everywhere, but it’s not an infantry sidearm. It also wasn’t the only sword in use.

Javelins rather than swords, apparently, were a symbol of rank.

The basic rule of thumb
for swords in the (mostly) western world is curved for cavalry and
straight for infantry.

The curved, single edged sword like a saber is also the weapon of choice for boarding actions in naval combat. The reason being that the single edged blade can’t be forced back into you when in tight quarters. (I know someone out there is crying, but katana. The Japanese thought that too about British/Naval sabers, they were wrong.)

It’s probably worth remembering as you begin your investigation that “Moor” was the European term for Muslim, and that covers a vast variety of different ethnicities and cultures from Persia to North Africa; many of whom practiced distinct variations of their religion. Because these cultures are so different, it’s important that you narrow your search down to specified groups. This will help you when it comes to determining weapons, troop movements, battle strategies, and tactics.

Some things to remember, the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula was one of the (many) factors that kicked off the Crusades. The Muslims of the period were more scientifically advanced than the Europeans. If you wanted to see a doctor in the Middle Ages, and wanted to live, you went to see a Muslim. It’s one of the many inventions we can thank the Middle East for, including our numerical system and the survival of Aristotle. You know, an interesting period in history.

However, in the beginning, at least, the conquered Spain was part of a larger empire that spanned the Middle East and North Africa. So, if you really want to know what weapons were carried then its important to look to the invaders and their culture. Whether the scimitar was even in use really depends on the period you want to reference. 711 A.D? 1011 A.D? 1212 A.D? Or when the last Muslim foothold on the Iberian Peninsula finally came to an end in 1492, around the same time Columbus sailed the ocean blue?

It’s a huge period in history that covers a lot of ground. Try to remember that military evolution happens very quickly, and is influenced heavily by the enemies engaged.

When it comes to Moorish battle tactics, I know very little about them. I can tell you they tended to favor lighter armaments and light horses/coursers rather than the heavy. Here’s an overview of the Umayyad conquest that includes troop movements.

The answer to your question, though, of what did the infantry use is spears.

Here’s Wikipedia on Medieval Warfare.

Here’s Wikipedia on the Moors.

Wikipedia on the Umayadd conquest.

Wikipedia on Al-Adulus (Andalusia).

The tactics used in La Reconquista in 1347.

Watch some history nerds go at it (with references) on the Historum forums.

Warfare and Firearms in Fifteenth Century, Morrocco 1400-1492.

The Culture and Civilization of the Umayyads.

Swords and Sabers During the Early Islamic Period.

Islamic Arms and Armor.

An Overview of the Umayyad Caliphate.

More nerds discussing Medieval Arab warfare, strategy, and tactics on the Historum forums. (Love your nerds.)

Always remember: Wikipedia is a jumping off point for research, it is not the end. It’s a decent overview that will give you a grounding to start from but, as any good college professor will tell you, you want the citations at the bottom not the article header or the words in the middle.

The subject of warfare is complicated, to say the least, and covers a vast array of
cultures across both Europe, the Middle East, Eastern
Europe/Byzantine/Ottomans, and, occasionally, Central Asia.

Hopefully though, this gives you a jumping off point for more specified research into the time period and the armor worn/weapons wielded/tactics used.

-Michi

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