Dressed to kill - Uniform

The uniform and accoutrements of the British soldier on the Western Front in the Great War

Thanks to the harsh lessons learned on the South African veldt in the Boer War, and the many local wars of the Indian plains and highlands, in 1914 the basic British Army Service Dress of khaki (from Hindustani = dust), adopted in 1902, was reasonably well suited to the warfare of the Western Front: Both above and below ground. In 1914, French infantrymen still sported the red trousers and blue frock coat of their forebears, whilst the French cavalryman went into the charge in his burnished breastplate and helmet. On their part, the Germans had their feldgrau introduced in 1910, and improved as the war progressed, and the Russians their drab olive green uniform with a shirt-like tunic.

Head Gear

The majority of the British Expeditionary Force went to France in 1914 wearing the soft peaked khaki cloth cap. The exception was the men of the Scottish regiments who wore the Glengarry. (Later, a more practical blue, or khaki, Balmoral bonnet was standard issue for the Scottish regiments). The khaki soft peaked cloth cap is the one we see in innumerable soldier's photos of the time. The rim of the cap was stiffened by a wire and, as this was removed on active service, the older (or erstwhile older) soldiers had a cap with a more crushed appearance. It was known as a 'Gorblimey'. The distinctive metal regimental badge was located on the hatband and centred on the forehead. Two small metal buttons supported an adjustable leather chinstrap that circled around the front of the hatband and was lowered below the chin when required. Some caps also had ear- and neck-flaps. Obviously, this cloth cap offered no effective protection to projectiles of any kind and many of the casualties in 1914-15 were due to head wounds. In 1917 a completely 'soft' version was introduced which could be rolled up or worn under a steel helmet.

Although the French were first to provide more head protection with the introduction in mid-1915 of the Adrian steel helmet (casque Adrian), the British were not far behind (early 1916). The German M16 'coal-scuttle' followed in late 1916.

The process by which the British had such a good steel-helmet as soon as they did was quite unusual at the time. In June 1915, the War Office, increasingly concerned at the enormous numbers of casualties caused by shell splinters and other debris derived from artillery fire, had received a submission from a J.L. Brodie for a forged steel helmet. It was the classic 'British bowler' type and was specifically designed to give some protection from these projectiles. After trials, the Type A (rimless) steel helmet, in green, or grey, gloss paint went into production that year. A leather liner and a felt pad further protected the wearer's head. The helmet was firmly located on the head by a leather chinstrap fastened to the rim of the helmet by two riveted squared metal loops. The liner and pad were also attached to the helmet by a metal rivet giving the well-known rounded button effect on the crown. By June 1916, one million steel helmets had been delivered to the British, Dominion and Colonial front-line troops. However, many photos of the time show some British troops at the First Battle of the Somme still wearing the soft peaked cap whilst in the battle zone.

The A Type steel helmet was soon (1916) superceded by the Mark 1. Improvements included a welded rim, which gave much more rigidity, a less revealing non-reflective khaki sand paint and a more comfortable draw- string liner giving a better universal fit.

Further improvements came in 1917 when a rubber cushion was incorporated into the helmet liner. Another development was the introduction of painted unit badges (battle-insignia) on the sides of the helmet. These matched those already worn on the upper sleeve of the Service Dress and gave a further boost to the unit identification psychology.

Clothing for the Torso, Legs and Feet

The Scottish Highland Regiments (and the Edinburgh Territorials), wore the standard Service Dress tunic, or a slightly modified 'doublet' version of it, a Regimental tartan kilt - with canvas protector (apron) - socks, canvas gaiters and ammunition boots. All other British, Dominion and Colonial troops wore a form of the standard khaki Service Dress: shirt; metal-buttoned single-breasted tunic with large patch pockets and shoulder flaps; trousers (or jodhpur type breeches for mounted troops); cloth puttees and black (ammunition) ankle boots. The puttees were about 6 feet long and 4inches wide and tied with tapes: They were wound in a spiral up the calf to ensure a secure and neat seal between the boots and the trouser-legs. Both shoulder flaps bore the name of the parent regiment/corps, etc. in curved brass shoulder titles.

The rank (appointment) of a NCO was worn on the sleeves of both arms in the form of chevrons and crowns. As the war progressed, all ranks wore coloured formation badges known as 'battle insignia', in the form of pictorials or geometric shapes on the upper sleeve, back of the collar and sides of the steel helmet. These identified the soldier's parent unit from battalion to division.

A waist belt in webbing (1908-pattern), or leather (1914-pattern), with shoulder-braces and brass fixtures, provided for the attachment of ammunition pouches, haversack, knapsack, bayonet scabbard, entrenching tool pouch and water bottle holder. Each soldier had a single-breasted khaki greatcoat and woollen cap. These were carried into action in the knapsack along with spare clothing of which dry, clean socks were an essential part in the perpetual battle against trench foot and the serious and incapacitating infections it engendered in the muddy trenches.

In an effort to reduce exposure in very cold weather, tanned leather and sheep- and goatskin jerkins were supplied. However, when they became wet they tended to stink and were often discarded on that accord. In addition to the standard issues of woollen winter clothing, large quantities of hand-knitted gloves, socks, scarves, pullovers and balaclavas, were sent to the Front by men's families and volunteers acting alone, or in groups.

Accoutrements

In a short article like this it is impossible to list all the other equipment which were carried by the wide range of specialists such as, tank-crew, sappers, machine -gunners, bombers etc. However, most ordinary infantrymen carried, in addition to the above mentioned belts and webbing: either the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) 0.303 rifle, or its 1914 Pattern (P14) replacement, and bayonet; 150 rounds of 0.303 ammunition; an entrenching tool; a water-bottle; mess tins and eating utensils; washing and shaving equipment; waterproof ground sheet (which also served as a cape in inclement weather), emergency rations and a small and a large (shell) wound dressing. He might also be expected to carry a small supply of hessian bags for the emergency preparation of sandbags, several hand-grenades (from 1915 onwards the Mills grenade, or bomb) and additional bandoliers of 0.303 ammunition. After mid-1915 he would also carry a chest mounted gas mask of the current operational type.

Officers

In the early days of the war, most army officers had private incomes which they used to equip themselves with well tailored khaki Service Dress uniforms (open collar, shirt and tie, and jodhpur-type cord breeches) knee-high leather trench boots, gaiters or puttees, leather gloves and better quality accoutrements. Of particular note were the superb officer's belted waterproof double-breasted trenchcoat and the double-breasted heavy woollen greatcoat - the British Warm. Most officers carried a compass, binoculars and a map-case. A high quality leather waist and shoulder belt - called a Sam Browne - provided suspension points for a pistol holster (most commonly for a Webley Mark 1V) and a sword scabbard. Personal items were carried in a leather, or canvas, haversack, which was slung across one shoulder. Officer's ranks were prominently displayed on large cuff-flaps as stars or crowns with 1 to 4 braid hoops. But from 1915, less conspicuous insignia were permitted on shoulder flaps. Senior officers wore red bands around their hats and gold braid on the peak. Staff officers had variously coloured 'gorget tabs' on the tunic collar and wore coloured brassards.

Later on in the war many officers in the battle zone discarded, or disguised, the more obvious signs of being an officer and some openly wore standard Service Dress when in the battle zone.

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