UNIFORM was not the word for it

According to the official military historian Brigadier James Edmonds, “The British Army of 1914, was the best trained best equipped and best organized British Army ever sent to war.”

He was, of course, referring solely to the Regular Army. They were the only army to wear any form of a camouflage uniform; the value of drab or khaki clothing had been extended from its origins in India to include from 1902 a darker khaki serge adopted for service dress at home. In this respect the authorities showed greater foresight than their French allies, who retained their very visible blue coats and red trousers until several months after the outbreak of war. For over 100 years Britain’s role in any conflict would be to provide the means for our allies to fight a continental war. In planning for what became the First World War we expected once again to be “the bank, the larder, the factory and the arsenal of the Entente.”

The modest British regular army, compared to the massive French and German conscripted forces, faceed almost insuperable problems as we prepared to fight a first continental land war. In August 1914, stocks were only capable of supplying the original British Expeditionary Force and first-line units of the Territorial Force for a few weeks.

An army sergeant measures a new recruit. © IWM (Q 30060)

An army sergeant measures a new recruit.
© IWM (Q 30060)

Men came forward faster than uniforms. The response to volunteer recruitment, though a heartening 1.2 million by December 1914, another half million by May 1915 and another 670,000 by the end of the year, meant the government was confronted by the largest, most ambitious clothing manufacturing project ever undertaken. It was an early example of what Total War would mean. As soon as civilians were recruited, they had to be clothed. The official army factories were overwhelmed. The uniforms were dubbed ‘Salvation Army.’ It was clear there was no plan for clothing the new armies. By November 1914 a new director of army contracts had re-organised the supply system. The British tailoring trade enjoyed a boom in ‘khaki contracts.’

The men from Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth, Ludlow, Market Drayton, Oswestry and Wellington who volunteered in 1914 might have been dressed by the Post Office, who supplied 500,000 suits of blue serge uniforms from their stocks. The War Office ordered 1.3m tunics and trousers from North America. These replacement uniforms were dubbed ‘Kitchener blue’ and the men did not like them. An article in The Tailor and Cutter reported the outfits “are not at all liked, the first men to wear them being mistaken for inmates of an industrial home.” At Westminster members of the House were concerned: Consolidate Fund (No. 1) BILL; debate 26 November 1914

“We all of us know that there are camps up and down this country where the men have been a considerable time without uniforms. It does not need any strong imagination to realise that men drilling in all kinds of clothing, some with one kind, some with another, some of them shabby through no fault of their own, cannot tend towards a proper feeling of dignity, respectability, and esprit de corps, and the sooner these men get into uniform the better.

But it seems to be suggested that we cannot produce the clothing … I am certain that if the machinery, the resources, and the energy at the disposition of the mills in Yorkshire were properly organised, not only the whole of the soldiers of this country could be clothed, but the civil population as well; the output of the mills would be so prodigious. I hope the House will forgive my making a little, technical explanation in regard to the manufacture of cloth. Khaki cloth is made of thick yarn, and the more the machinery is put on to thick yarns and plain material the greater the output. … so long as the mills make thick yarn khaki cloth, great quantities can be turned out.”

Until spring 1915 at the very earliest the uniforms, rushed into production as a stop-gap, were typically ill-fitting. They were often shapeless and baggy of blue serge. The men claimed they left them looking more like postmen or train drivers than soldiers. The men were unimpressed “with our eye-arresting checks and imitation velvet collars, caked with mud and wrinkled with rain, we looked like nothing on earth as much as a gang of welshers returning from an unsuccessful day at a suburban race meeting.”

“I do not think that anyone looked even passable in them, as they were invariably of an awful cut, when it rained all the blue dye in the cap came out and ran down the face and neck.”

My great uncle George Parish wrote to his sister and brother in law on his return from Gallipoli “I could not have it (a sepia studio portrait) taken full length because I had no clothes at the time only a lot of rags as I came off the Peninsula with …”

Problems with uniforms were typical of the inadequate response to mass mobilization. One wonders whether kitting men out in a mixture of old full-dress parade tunics or surplus clothing from other sources gave rise to this song. The promise of smart khaki uniforms seemed very remote.

We are Fred Karno’s army,
We are the ragtime infantry.
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot,
What bloody use are we?
And when we get to Berlin
We’ll hear the Kaiser say,
Hoch, hoch! Mein Gott, what a bloody rotten lot,
Are the ragtime infantry.

To the tune of the hymn- ‘The Church’s One Foundation

Come Now Poster © IWM 031

Come Now Poster © IWM 031

The situation cannot have been helped by posters which promised more than could be fulfilled. The quote from Kitchener is from his speech at The Guildhall in July 1915: ‘Be honest with yourself. Be certain that your so-called reason is not a selfish excuse. Enlist Today’. Kitchener somewhat surprisingly took a relaxed view: the improvised outfits would be adequate in the short term as long as men in individual units had the same kit.

How we extracted ourselves from the mess

By a mixture of cloak-and-dagger, bold re-organisation, and aggressive tactics, the Allies pulled themselves out of the crisis. German subsidiaries in France and UK were expropriated, the German staff interned. German patents were suspended, voided or seized. Lord Haldane chaired a committee to ‘advise on the best means of obtaining for the use of British industries, sufficient supplies of chemical products, colours and dyestuffs of kinds largely imported from countries with which we at present at war.’

A sweeping measure was adopted. Lord Moulton was brought in to weld together a number of domestic dyestuff companies in one of the earliest nationalised enterprises: British Dyes Limited. The government supplied £1.5m of the capital and a loan of £100,000 for R&D to be repaid over ten years. It was charged with “three departments of work, each of great importance. The first for carrying out certain work of national importance for the Government; the second for supplying dyes for the benefit of our shareholders and the third the building up of a national industry for the permanent supply of dyes.” Soon the staff of research chemists in Huddersfield had grown to over 100. A new plant in Dalton had teething problems with design and layout. Dr Herbert Levinstein, head of the largest independent dye works, recommended how to sort things out.

At first the affairs of British Dyes Limited were very hush-hush. But by October 1917 the Chairman was able to be a little more expansive. “I am glad tto say we have punctually fulfilled all our obligations and at present we are months ahead of our contract dates. … when you cast your thoughts back to the winter of 1915-16 and realize the extent to which the fate of our armies and our country was dependent upon such supplies … it is a matte rof great satisfaction that we played the part we undertook to do.”

Neutral khaki

The Board of Trade signed an agreement with the two principal Swiss dye manufacturers. The production of synthetic dyestuffs involved transformation of coal tar to the desired end-product through a succession of steps. The substances generated by one step and used for the succeeding step are termed ‘intermediates.’ In return for finished products the British supplied the Swiss with such ‘intermediates.’

German secrets unearthed

In January 1918 the Daily Mail finally had some good news to trumpet. John Leyland and Richard Baldry heard of a Swiss chemist who possessed the secret recipes of BASF for aniline dyes.
On his trip to Switzerland, our agent was dogged by German agents. His baggage was stolen, he was drugged and tossed into the gutter. The pursued him all the way to Le Havre, where he alerted the French police who seized the two German agents.

The tests were satisfactory, after two years effort the samples and 257 secret recipes comprising the German dye monopoly were brought to England. Daily Mail headline read “British Manufacturers Capture German Dye Secrets.

Text and research Keith Pybus