Modern War Wiped Out the British Army’s Red Coats

WIB history September 14, 2016 0

Robert Gibb’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ depicts the British 93rd Regiment halting the Russian 12th Ingermanland Hussars at the Battle of Balaclava. Source Endless...
Robert Gibb’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ depicts the British 93rd Regiment halting the Russian 12th Ingermanland Hussars at the Battle of Balaclava. Source

Endless variations on khaki replaced old, colorful uniforms


For centuries the British army was famous for its red coats, which its soldiers had worn since the late 1600s. But by the end of the 19th century, war had evolved and troops now fought with highly accurate, repeating magazine rifles — making red or scarlet an increasingly dangerous color.

In the First Boer War from 1880 to ’81, Boer irregulars armed with modern rifles inflicted heavy casualties on the British. One of the perceived reasons for this was that the British soldiers’ coats made them obvious targets against the brush of the veld.

British troops fought in red for the last time at the Battle of Gennis in 1885, after which khaki field dress was standard for campaigning. Khaki originated in India, where it had been worn since the early 1850s. It was first worn by British troops outside India during the Abyssinian campaign from 1867 to ’68 after which it steadily became more popular.

In 1902, the British Army introduced the khaki field service dress, although the famous scarlet coats remained for parades and home service.

The new uniform was revolutionary in that both the infantry and cavalry now wore the same sort of tunic and caps, with khaki replacing myriad different colors and styles.

By 1914 the differences in uniform between the two major components of the army had all but disappeared, with only small variations in button style and cap badges enduring.

The infantry and cavalry both wore ammunition boots, but the cavalry’s boots had spurs. Rather than the webbing the infantry wore to carry ammunition and equipment, cavalry troopers wore the 1903-pattern leather bandolier, which could carry 90 rounds in nine pouches.

Additionally all cavalrymen wore a cord lanyard on their left shoulder, which attached to a hoof scraping tool they kept in their left breast pockets.

The 1st Life Guards prepare to leave Hyde Park Barracks and head to war on Aug. 15, 1914. Note their 1903-pattern ammunition bandoliers replacing infantry webbing. Source

In 1914 the British Army’s uniform was one of the most advanced and practical of all the combatant nations. The khaki enabled troops to conceal themselves far better than the French blue and red and German field grey did. Britain’s army was a small, well-trained professional force with decades of combat experience. Its uniforms and equipment reflected this.

The typical soldier’s uniform included the 1905-pattern service dress cap, which was a woolen, khaki-colored peaked cap with a oilskin lining — and which had the unpleasant effect of making the soldier’s head sweat. In addition, the cap featured a brown leather chin strap. On each cap was a regimental badge that was unique to the soldier’s unit.

The British trooper wore the 1902 service-dress khaki serge, a woolen tunic that had a falling collar fastened by five buttons and reinforced shoulder straps which included a metal unit title denoting the soldier’s regiment or corps.

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War

The tunic boasted four large pockets with cover flaps and buttons. The soldier kept his paybook and personal items in these pockets. Under the tunic, the man wore a collarless, grey-blue, standard-issue shirt.

He sewed his NCO rank insignia onto the upper arms of the tunic, attaching additional badges and stripes onto the lower sleeves to denote long service, good conduct, a tally of his wounds and any special skills he possessed.

With the tunic, the soldier wore 1902-pattern woolen trousers with either braces or a belt. Khaki cloth puttees — the design of which had originated in India — wrapped the lower trouser legs. The puttees wound counterclockwise from the ankle to just below the knee. They provided support and protection and were relatively inexpensive to manufacture. British industry produced 35 million pairs during World War I.

A soldier often slid his knife and fork into the folds of his puttees for safe-keeping. On his feet, the British serviceman wore a pair of brown leather ammunition boots with hobnail-studded soles.

Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards fill their webbing with their 150 rounds each of ammunition and prepare to leave Wellington Barracks, Westminster on, Aug. 6, 1914. Source

As the war progressed, Tommy’s uniform initially changed little. His tunic got simpler and, during the winter of 1914 and ’15, many men removed the stiffening bands from their caps.

In 1915, the army supplemented the service cap with the winter service cap — a.k.a., the Gorblimey cap — which had folding woolen flaps that tied beneath the chin.

During the summer months, the 1915-pattern trench cap replaced the winter cap. The trench cap was similar in shape to the original service cap but lacked the stiffening and could fold for storage in a pocket while the soldier was wearing his helmet.

With the rate of head wounds from shrapnel rising rapidly, the British Army sought protective headgear that it could issue en masse. The Brodie helmet debuted in the autumn of 1915 and became widely available in early 1916. The helmet was designed by John Brodie and was made from steel with a double liner inside.

Sometimes described as “shrapnel helmets,” these came painted a drab khaki color. Before helmet covers were introduced, soldiers often improvised covers from sandbag canvas in an effort to reduce glare. All troops wore the helmets, regardless of rank. Great Britain churned out some eight million steel helmets by the end of the war.

New Zealanders at the Somme in September 1916. Note their Brodie helmets, webbing and simplified service dress tunics. Source

The Scottish Highland Regiments wore kilts or trews. Each regiment had its own distinctive tartan pattern. In the field, the Highlanders would add a khaki apron over their kilts to protect them and reduce their visibility.

With the onset of gas warfare by 1916, some Highland units began wearing woolen drawers beneath their kilts in an effort to protect their bare skin.

Scottish units also wore the Highland-pattern variation of the 1902 field service tunic, which had an open, rounded front. Headdress also varied, with the Glengarry cap supplanting the standard peaked cap in all Scottish regiments, not just the Highlanders. These were made of dark wool and boasted a tartan band and the regiment’s unique cap badge.

On their feet, the Highlanders wore the same ankle-length ammunition boots as the rest of the British Army, but replaced the socks and puttees with traditional Highland-style hose and gaiters. Some regiments added khaki spats over their hose and boots, but these proved impractical for the conditions on the Western Front.

All British infantry wore 1908-pattern webbing from which to hang their kit. The typical kit included 150 round of ammunition, entrenching tools, a bayonet, a water canteen and a small pack to store clothing and rations.

Soldiers of the Leicestershire Regiment in France in 1915. Note the 1908-pattern webbing, 1915-pattern trench cap and Gorblimey winter caps. Source

The uniforms worn by the British Army’s officers differed in a number of ways from those of private soldiers and NCOs. Officers purchased their own uniforms from established military tailors and outfitters such a Pope & Bradley’s of Bond Street, London, which cut the uniforms to match official patterns.

In 1914, the army introduced a new pattern with a single-breasted jacket, open collar and narrow lapels. It was worn over a light drab-colored shirt and khaki tie. The color of the jacket varied depending on the tailor and material. Like the regular soldier’s tunic, the officer’s jacket had four pockets and closed with five buttons.

Officers wore their rank insignia on their cuffs with a variation of pips and crowns enclosed in lace. They purchased the rest of their uniform and equipment, with many officers favoring breeches over trousers. An officer’s equipment often included field glasses, a compass, a .455-caliber Webley revolver and the 1897-pattern officer’s sword.

These were worn suspended from Sam Browne belts. In August 1914, most regimental officers carried swords in the field.

Officers of Royal Warwickshire Regiment on maneuvers circa 1914. Note their Sam Browne belts and 1897-pattern infantry officer’s swords. Source

At the Aisne in 1914, John Lucy of the Royal Irish Rifles saw nine of his battalion’s officers die in combat in a single day while “waving their naked swords.” Officers quickly realized that their swords marked them as targets for enemy marksmen.

By spring 1915, many battalion commanders left it up to their officers to decide whether to carry swords in the field and, in 1916, a general order directed all officers to send their swords back to Britain.

Most front-line officers took steps to remove elements of their uniform that made them targets. Some adopted the enlisted soldier’s service dress tunic. Others armed themselves with rifles.

In 1916, the attrition of officers resulted in more and more enlisted men earning battlefield commissions. The poorer soldiers lacked the means to purchase their own uniforms and equipment. To the relief of many, the British War Office offered a uniform grant of £50 so that all officers could equip themselves to an acceptable standard.

General officers wore a variation of the standard rank insignia not on their cuffs, but on their shoulder straps. Staff officers stood apart from battalion officers by way of the red tabs or gorget patches they wore on their collars, overlaid with gold chain braid denoting rank and staff affiliation.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig at General Headquarters circa 1917. Note the scarlet gorget patches and shoulder strap insignia. Source

Similarly, administrative officers displayed blue patches, while intelligence officers wore green gorget patches. Division and brigade staff officers wore arm bands — brassards — to denote their service branch and duties.

Mustaches were ubiquitous. Regulation dating to 1860 encouraged this type, and only this type, of facial hair. “The chin and lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip,” the regulation stated. “Whiskers, if worn, will be of moderate length.”

In 1916 one officer was brought before a court-martial for persistently shaving his top lip. Regulations changed, and by 1918 mustaches were far less common at the front.

The British Army also adapted its uniforms to the climates its soldiers found themselves fighting in. The army was engaged around the world, from Flanders to East Africa.

The British warm-weather cotton uniform included both trousers and shorts as options. The shade of khaki was lighter, with colors ranging from true khaki to a light sand pigment. When the climate was extremely hot, as in Palestine and Gallipoli, troops often wore just their grey undershirts.

The Wolseley helmet was popular in warmer climes. Made from cork and covered in cloth, the Wolseley had debuted during the Second Boer War.

The army issued greatcoats for the cold nights in Africa and the Mediterranean. While troops on the Western front did not receive shorts, they often improvised by cutting down their trousers.

British troops on the march in Mesopotamia circa 1917, wearing a mix of Brodie and Wolseley helmets. Source

During the winter of 1914 and ’15, the British Army scrambled to keep its troops warm. The army issued goatskins to be worn over the men’s tunics. Later in the war, the army also offered sheep- and goat-skin fleece jackets. The men nicknamed these garments “wooly bears” or “teddy bears” for their appearance and “stinkers” for the smell they gave off once they got damp.

British infantry pictured in goatskins in late 1914. Source

Leather jerkins were also issued to be worn over the tunic to keep troops warm and provide some protection from rain. These were predominantly sleeveless and lined with the same khaki wool in the army’s blankets. They were first appeared in the winter of 1915 and troops liked them. They remained in the British soldier’s kit through World War II.

Because of the sheer size of the British Empire and the British military, there were a number of uniform variations depending on the origin of the unit. Contingents from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa came from colonies that had previously possessed very small — or no — standing militaries of their own.

As a result, the local uniforms broadly, though not perfectly, followed the British pattern. Australian troops wore slouch hats and darker green tunics while Canadian troops wore the Canadian 1903-pattern tunic with a different cut compared to the British 1902 pattern.

Troops from Britain’s Indian army wore a wide variety of uniforms depending on their unit’s region of origin. Turbans for Sikhs, kulla caps for Muslim troops and long tunics were common throughout the war.

Men of the Leicestershire Regiment wearing Kitchener Blues. Source

The British Army expanded rapidly with Secretary of State for War Herbert Kitchener’s calls for volunteers in 1914. The expansion stretched the army’s supply of uniforms. As a partial solution, the army reissued some older pattern tunics — including a few full-dress parade redcoats — and also introduced the “Kitchener Blues.”

The army drew the first 500,000 of these blue tunics — officially known as “Jacket, Emergency Pattern, Kitchener Blue” — and matching trousers from the Post Office’s stores.

Meanwhile, London ordered more than a million uniform sets from the United States and Canada. A simplified khaki utility tunic that appeared in 1914 also helped ease the uniform shortage. It was cheaper and easier to produce in large numbers. Its major difference compared to earlier patterns — it had much larger front pockets that also lacked pleats, eliminating much stitching.

By the end of 1914, army stores began to run out of the 1908-pattern webbing. The manufacturer, the Mills Equipment Company, struggled to restart production.

So authorities devised a leather version of the 1908 pattern. The 1914-pattern leather equipment was a stopgap. While planners initially intended the 1914 pattern for troops in training and in rear-echelon elements, many soldiers arrived at the front still wearing the leather equipment.

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