10 things you (probably) didn’t know about First World War uniforms

The camouflage uniform donned by soldiers during the First World War is, to many, instantly recognisable, but how much do you really know about the garments? Here, Jane Tynan, the author of British Army Uniform and the First World War: Men in Khaki, reveals 10 surprising facts about the wartime apparel…

British soldier during First World War (SSPL/Getty Images)

1) Khaki was first adopted in India

The word ‘khaki’ comes from the Persian portion of the Hindustani language.

The use of khaki for military camouflage is thought to have begun with Harry Lumsden, who raised the Corps of Guides in 1846, a regiment of the British Indian Army. He bought up white cotton cloth at the bazaar at Lahore, which was then taken down to the riverbank, where his troops soaked the cloth in water and rubbed mud into it. Lumsden’s second in command was convinced that khaki would make his men “invisible in a land of dust”.

By the First World War, the British Army had transitioned from red to khaki uniforms in response to new technologies: aerial reconnaissance and smokeless guns were making soldiers’ visibility a real problem on the battlefield.

 

2) British khaki dyes came from Germany

Before the war, Germany was the centre of the synthetic dyestuffs industry. By 1913, it was exporting more than 20 times the volume of dyes coming out of Britain. During the First World War the only khaki dye available for British Army uniforms was manufactured in Germany, which, at first, it secretly imported.

 

3) For a time, khaki was replaced by ‘Kitchener blue’

‘Kitchener blue’ was the collective name given to replacement uniforms used by the British Army when it ran out of khaki in 1914. The War Office had failed to obtain enough khaki uniforms in the opening weeks of the war, and early recruits were forced to wear replacement uniforms.

They were obtained from a range of unlikely sources: 500,000 suits of blue serge uniforms from Post Office stocks, and approximately 500,000 greatcoats purchased from the clothing trade. The War Office also ordered a huge volume of jackets, trousers and greatcoats from Canada and the United States.

Some soldiers were issued with old full-dress parade tunics – scarlet with colourful facings and blue trousers from various reserve stores. A 1914 article in the trade periodical the Tailor and Cutter reported that one of the alternative outfits was “not at all liked, the first men to wear it being mistaken for inmates of an industrial home”.

 

4) Most uniforms were not made by the army

Most were, in fact, made by various civilian tailoring firms. War Office plans for dealing with an outbreak of war were insufficient for the scale of this conflict. In August 1914, reserves were capable of supplying no more than the original expeditionary force and first-line units of the Territorial Force for a few weeks.

Clothing an expanding volunteer army overwhelmed the official army factories. By November 1914 a new director of army contracts had reorganised the system of supply, which led to a boom in ‘khaki contracts’ in the British tailoring trade – a system the war office regulated by public competition. It seems that war was good for business.

 

5) Official knitting patterns were introduced to discourage ‘rogue knitters’

Civilians were busily knitting garments for British soldiers during the First World War. The gloves, socks, mittens, jerseys and balaclavas made by civilians became affectionately known as ‘comforts’.

But what started as a response to small gaps in uniform supply became a mass knitting frenzy, which made the government very nervous about the colourful, quirky garments reaching soldiers at the front. Hence knitting patterns were issued, warning women – thought to be the typical knitters – to narrow the range of garments, and to use only khaki wools.

But the success of the knitting projects often highlighted army failures. The First World War was a step into the unknown – much of the war effort had to be improvised. When the efforts of volunteer knitters threatened to expose official shortcomings, the state intervened; one such gesture was the issue of the official Kitchener stitch, which improved the comfort of knitted socks for men in the trenches!

 

6) Turbans were worn by soldiers on the western front

By November 1914, one third of the British Army on the western front came from India and fought with the Indian Expeditionary Force (serving from September 1914 to December 1915). An official photograph taken in France depicts Indian troops marching along the road while young women rush up to pin flowers on them as they pass. They wear turbans and have long tunics –resembling the Indian Kurta – falling to their knees.

For Sikh soldiers, these distinctive features described their colonial status, but it also became part of war propaganda. In July 1915 The Graphic newspaper ran a feature to celebrate the spectacle of Indian soldiers marching to battle, in which they reported that the Germans “themselves admit their surprise at this rally of India”.

Photographs were a bit more realistic; one from July 1916 shows Indian cyclists – despatch riders – at the crossroads on Fricourt-Mametz Road wearing khaki service dress with traditional Sikh turbans. Unfortunately, rather than reflect a proud military tradition, their distinctive clothing often symbolised their lowly rank on the western front.

 

7) The First World War saw the invention of the trench coat

Well, not really, since this weatherproof sports coat had been around since the late 19th century, but as the name suggests, its re-invention as the trench coat is certainly attributed to its use in the First World War.

It was an optional item of military kit for officers on the western front. Initially, soldiers were kitted out with the greatcoat, which was far too heavy for the rain and mud. When uniform manufacture went out to the trade, a range of civilian outfitters began to supply mass-produced garments to officers. This was how various firms, including Burberry and Aquascutum, began to sell versions of the trench coat.

The coat was a practical garment for British officers enduring the muddy conditions of the trenches, and was a great improvement on the heavy, cumbersome greatcoat. The light fabric gave soldiers mobility, while water-repellent material protected them from wet weather: large pockets kept maps dry, and cleverly placed flaps offered ventilation. Protecting the body, and keeping mobility at a maximum, was vital in trench conditions – this light, weatherproof sports coat was the ideal solution.

 

8) Conscientious Objectors were forced to wear uniforms against their will

Following conscription, COs who were arrested for failing to respond to the call to military duty often refused to wear the uniform. Treated as enlisted soldiers, their disobedience brought the full force of the law upon them, and they could then be sentenced to imprisonment.

COs might refuse to strip for a medical examination or resist having their measurements taken. Often, soldiers would forcibly remove their clothes, or attempt to dress them in military uniform against their will. Fred Murfin recalls his arrival in France, when he defied the authorities by deliberately and mischievously leaving his puttees on the ship. Their refusal to wear khaki was a powerful protest, and the penalty was often violence and humiliation.

 

9) An outfit allowance was introduced for officers who could not afford a uniform

As the war progressed, it became clear to British Army authorities that officers’ uniforms would have to be subsidised. Many new army officers struggled to meet the expense of getting a uniform made. Hence outfit grants were issued to them, so that they could be commissioned from the ranks, without concern as to how they might meet the cost of the uniform.

Heavy losses meant that officers were being recruited from a wider range of social classes than before the war, and many of these men could not afford the traditional trip to the tailor. The introduction of an outfit grant ensured their continued recruitment. This might be why the established officer class were quick to label them ‘improvised officers’ or worse, ‘temporary gentlemen’.

 

10) More than 1 million civilian suits were issued to discharged soldiers at the end of the war

Legally, a man could not wear his uniform more than 28 days after discharge, so upon demobilisation they were supplied with civilian suits by the Royal Army Clothing Department. Before he left his unit, each man was given a plain clothes form and a certificate of employment.

When he went to a dispersal centre he received a protection certificate, a railway ticket to get home, a pay advance, a fortnight’s ration book, and a voucher for the return of his greatcoat. Here he had the option of a clothing allowance or a suit of plain clothes.

The army issued a total of 1,413,760 suits to demobilised men at the end of the war, in dark blue, brown or grey. However, the trade press were quick to criticise the quality of the suits, which were thought to be an insult to returning war heroes.

Jane Tynan is a lecturer in design history at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, and author of British Army Uniform and the First World War: Men in Khaki (Palgrave, 2013). To find out more, click here.

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