Big and tall soldiers are more likely to survive battle: a possible explanation for the 'returning soldier effect' on the secondary sex ratio

Hum Reprod. 2007 Nov;22(11):3002-8. doi: 10.1093/humrep/dem239. Epub 2007 Sep 20.


Background: It is widely known that more boys are born during and immediately after wars, but there has not been any ultimate (evolutionary) explanation for this 'returning soldier effect'. Here, I suggest that the higher sex ratios during and immediately after wars might be a byproduct of the fact that taller soldiers are more likely to survive battle and that taller parents are more likely to have sons.

Methods: I analyze a large sample of British Army service records during World War I.

Results: Surviving soldiers were on average more than one inch (3.33 cm) taller than fallen soldiers.

Conclusions: Conservative estimates suggest that the one-inch height advantage alone is more than twice as sufficient to account for all the excess boys born in the UK during and after World War I. While it remains unclear why taller soldiers are more likely to survive battle, I predict that the returning soldier effect will not happen in more recent and future wars.

MeSH terms

  • Body Height*
  • Female
  • Forecasting
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Military Personnel
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Odds Ratio
  • Sex Ratio
  • Survivors
  • United Kingdom
  • Warfare
  • World War I