Scraping the Barrel: The Military Use of Substandard Manpower, 1860-1960

Scraping the Barrel: The Military Use of Substandard Manpower, 1860-1960

Scraping the Barrel: The Military Use of Substandard Manpower, 1860-1960

Scraping the Barrel: The Military Use of Substandard Manpower, 1860-1960


It is a truism that history is written by the victors, and perhaps doubly so of military history, where the tendency is to relate the biggest battles, the most victorious and heroic deeds, the very best (or worst) of men. This book stands as a corrective to this belief.

Scraping the Barrel covers ten cases of how armies have used sub-standard manpower in wars from 1860 to the 1960s. Dennis Showalter and André Lambelet look at the changing standards in Germany and France leading up to World War I, while Peter Simkins chronicles what happened with the 'Bantams,' special units of short men used by Britain in WWI.

Often the use of substandard men was to answer the sheer need for manpower in brutal, lasting conflicts, as Paul A. Cimbala writes of the U. S. Veteran Reserve Corps in the Civil War, or to keep war-damaged men active; sometimes this ethos was used to include men who wanted to fight but who otherwise would have been excluded, as Steven W. Short writes of the U. S. Colored troops in WWI.

In WWII it was to answer more dire exigencies, as David Glantz relates how the USSR, having suffered enormous losses, threw away many pre-war standards, reaching for women, ethnic/national minorities, and political prisoners alike to fill units. Likewise, Nazi Germany, facing many fronts and a finite manpower pool, was compelled to relax both physical and racial standards, and Walter Dunn and Valdis Lumans look at these changing policies as well as the battlefield performance of these men.

In relating the stories of the sub-standard (for the military), Scraping the Barrel is also a humanist history of the military, of the more average men who have served their country and how they were put to use. It throws light on how militaries' ideas of fitness reflect the underlying views of their societies. The idea of "disability" has been constructed based on a variety of physical, yes, but also social standards: as a value judgment on groups viewed as lesserthe aged, the lower classes, and those of different races and ethnic identities.

From the American Civil War, through World Wars I and II, through the U. S. Project 100,000 in the Cold War, sub-standard men have been mobilized, served, and fought for their countries. These men are the inverse of the elites that get the lion's share of our attention. This is their untold history.


Sanders Marble

Using less-able men in the military is an ancient tradition, but it is one almost ignored by scholars. a Roman law of A.D. 372 provided that men who were too short or weak for service with field armies should be assigned to auxiliary military units, such as river patrol troops. Clearly, the Romans saw some military utility in weaker men, yet their definition of weaker was purely physical and did not involve age or race.

This book is both military history and disability history. It is obviously military history, since it comprises case studies of how armies have used various groups of servicemen to accomplish broader military aims. But it is also disability history. Since militaries reflect the views of their underlying societies, they construct disability both in physical and in social terms: “substandard” is a value judgment. While it is relatively straightforward to say that someone missing a foot has a disability, there are also groups (typically racial or ethnic ones) that societies view as lesser. and for the military, the normal reduced physical ability from increasing age can render someone substandard.

The people who make up armies are products of their societies, largely sharing their society’s ideas about disabilities, but armies also have a separate and unique requirement. Fighting wars requires things not generally necessary in civilian life: military-specific training, order and discipline, and physical fitness for the demands of battle. Thus armies have imposed physical standards that have excluded a fair proportion of their societies, but the standards themselves have fluctuated, especially during longer wars. the changing face of armies in the twentieth century (with the shift in emphasis to more technical specialists instead of infantry) has further altered the requirements, as it became accepted that soldiers be able to do their job but not all of the jobs in the army. Furthermore, if an army . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.