5 things you didn’t know about First World War

The camouflage uniform donned by soldiers during the First World War is, to many, instantly recognizable, but how much do you really know about the garments?

World War

Here, Jane Tynan, the author of British Army Uniform and the First World War: Men in Khaki, reveals 10 surprising facts about the wartime appare.

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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.

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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!