KHAKI -THE DUSTY ANSWER Part One
The Minister of War dismissing an appeal to return our troops to ‘coloured magnificence’, replied “the uniform outlook gets drabber and drabber and will continue to do so.”
It had all begun in India on the North West Frontier. The Second-in-Command of the first unit to opt for the drab look claimed the uniform would ‘make (the troops) invisible in a land of dust.’ This became the official service dress throughout our troops in India. Thus, the 2nd Battalion, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry which served in India from 1903 to the outbreak of war in 1914, would have been familiar with khaki drill. ‘Khakee’ or vulgarly ‘kharki’ or kharkee’ is, according to my much loved Hobson-Jobson The Anglo-Indian Dictionary, derived from the Persian meaning ‘earth’ or ‘dust.’ The Oxford English Dictionary has a first mention in the Cornhill Magazine January issue of 1863,
The dust colour was first adopted in 1848 by the Corps of Guides (later the Queen’s Own Corps of Guides) – a regiment raised by later Lt Gen Sir Harry Lumsden. The Corps, comprised of cavalry and camel-mounted infantry, was to act as guides and intelligence gatherers. The colour was best suited to the barren rocky plains and mountains of the North West Frontier.
To blend in better with the locals, the troops were ‘loosely, comfortably and suitably clad.’ The white cotton cloth was taken down to the riverbank; there, being soaked in water, mud was rubbed into it, which had the effect of making the cloth very much the colour of the plains around. The material was then dried, ironed, and cut into loose blouses and pants as a uniform for the Guides. The resultant cloth was a muddy tan colour and made the wearers less conspicuous. Soon, the other British units began calling the Guides ‘the Mudlarks’
Forty shades of khaki
Eventually khaki became the official service dress in India. However, each regiment was free to develop its own recipe. All kinds of pigments were used – tea, coffee, mud, curry-powder and even tobacco juice. However, in 1884, the first patent for a khaki dye was granted in UK.
A British Breakthrough but we are hit for six by the Germans
Almost 30 years before the khaki patent, a teenage chemist had discovered the world’s first synthetic dye. It all sounded delightfully amateur. His ‘lab’ was on the top floor of his parents’ house. There in Cable Street William Henry Perkin discovered the world’s first ‘aniline dyestuff.’
However, it was to be AGFA, BASF, Bayer and Hoechst, who exploited the discovery. By the 1900s Germany had replaced natural or vegetable dyes with those derived from coal tar – a by-product of coke or coal gas production. Germany’s ‘Big Six’ (later to become the notorious IG Farben) were providing most of the world’s supply of synthetic dyes. By 1913 Germany was exporting 135,000 tonnes compared with the UK’s puny 5,000 tonnes. The German chemical cartels enjoyed 88% of world trade in dyestuffs. A German blockade “seriously threatened to stop dyeing operations in these industries, especially for the much needed khaki colours.”
The British Army was wholly reliant on Germany for khaki dye.