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British Army uniform and equipment in World War I. According to the British official historian Brigadier James Edward Edmonds recorded in 1925, "The British Army of 1914, was the best trained best equipped and best organized British Army ever sent to war". They were the only army to wear any form of a camouflage uniform; the value of Drab (color) clothing was quickly recognised by the British Army, who introduced Khaki drill for Indian and colonial warfare from the mid-19th century on. As part of a series of reforms following the Second Boer War, a darker khaki serge was adopted in 1902, for service dress in Britain itself. On the whole, the British military authorities showed more foresight than their French counterparts, who retained highly visible blue coats and red trousers for active service until several months into World War I. The soldier was issued with the 1908 Pattern Webbing for carrying personal equipment and he was armed with the Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle.
The British soldier went to war in August 1914, wearing the 1902 Pattern Service Dress tunic and trousers. This was a thick woolen tunic, dyed khaki. There were two breast pockets for personal items and the soldiers AB64 Pay Book, two smaller pockets for other items, and an internal pocket sewn under the right flap of the lower tunic where the First Field Dressing was kept. Rifle patches were sewn above the breast pockets, to prevent wear from the webbing equipment and rifle. Shoulder straps were sewn on and fastened with brass buttons, with enough space for a brass regimental shoulder title. Rank insignia was sewn onto the upper tunic sleeves, while trade badges and Long Service and Good Conduct stripes were placed on the lower sleeves. A stiffened peak cap was worn, made of the same material, with a leather strap, brass fitting and secured with two small brass buttons. Puttees were worn round the ankles and calves, and ammunition boots with hobnail soles on the feet. Normally black (brown for officers), they were made of reversed hide, without toe-caps, and with a steel plate on the heel.
There were also lightweight uniforms for wear in warmer climates, known as Khaki drill. The Officers' uniform was little different in cut, but the Other Ranks' tunic was distinguished from the temperate service dress by having only the breast pockets. Both were made from a lighter cloth (both in weight, and in shade).
Scottish Highland pattern uniforms differed in the design of the tunic and jacket to make them resemble traditional Highland ones—notably in cutting away the skirts at the front of the tunic to allow the wearing of a sporran.
The British were the first European army to replace leather belts and pouches with webbing, a strong material made from woven cotton, which had been pioneered in the United States by the Mills Equipment Company. The 1908 Pattern Webbing equipment comprised a wide belt, left and right ammunition pouches which held 75 rounds each, left and right braces, a bayonet frog[jargon] and attachment for the entrenching tool handle, an entrenching tool head in web cover, water bottle carrier, small haversack and large pack. A mess tin was worn attached to one of the packs, and was contained inside a cloth buff-coloured khaki cover. Inside the haversack were personal items, knife and when on Active Service, unused portions of the daily ration. The large pack could sometimes be used to house some of these items, but was normally kept for carrying the soldier's Greatcoat and or a blanket. The full set of 1908 webbing could weigh over 70 pounds (32 kg).
On the outbreak of war, it became clear that the Mills Equipment Company would be quite unable to keep up with the sudden demand for webbing. Therefore, a version of the 1908 equipment was designed to be made in leather, as both Britain and the USA had large leather working industries with excess capacity. The leather was coloured with either a brown or khaki finish, and the packs and haversacks were made from canvas. It was originally intended that the leather equipment would be used by units in training or on home service, and that it would be exchanged for webbing before going on active service. However in practice, reinforcement drafts and sometimes whole battalions would arrive at the front line still with their leather equipment.
The Pith helmet is a lightweight helmet made of cork or pith, with a cloth cover, designed to shade the wearer's head from the sun. They were widely worn during World War I by British Empire troops fighting in the Middle East and Africa. It also had a wide pocket on the outer helmet.
The first delivery of a protective steel helmet (the Brodie helmet) to the British Army was in 1915. Initially there were far from enough helmets to equip every man, so they were designated as "trench stores", to be kept in the front line and used by each unit that occupied the sector. It was not until the summer of 1916, when the first 1 million helmets had been produced, that they could be generally issued.
The Brodie helmet reduced casualties but was criticized by General Herbert Plumer on the grounds that it was too shallow, too reflective, its rim was too sharp, and its lining was too slippery. These criticisms were addressed in the Mark I model helmet of 1916 which had a separate folded rim, a two-part liner, and matte khaki paint finished with sand, sawdust, or crushed cork to give a dull, non-reflective appearance.
The first use of poison gas on the Western Front was on 22 April 1915, by the Germans at Ypres, against Canadian and French colonial troops. The initial response was to equip troops with cotton mouth pads for protection. Soon afterwards the British introduced the Black Veil Respirator, which consisted of a long cloth which was used to tie chemical-soaked mouth pads into place. Dr. Cluny MacPherson of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment brought the idea of a mask made of chemical absorbing fabric and which fitted over the entire head to England, and this was developed into the British Hypo Helmet of June 1915. This mask offered protection to the eyes as well as to the respiratory system. One British officer described it as a smoke helmet, a greasy grey-felt bag with a tale window certainly ineffective against gas. This helmet had two celluloid eyepieces, but there was no way to expel the carbon dioxide build up inside the mask . This type of mask went through several stages of development before being superseded in 1916 by the canister gas mask the PH helmet. This had a mask connected to a tin can containing the absorbent materials by a hose and an outlet valve to reduce the carbon dioxide build up inside the mask.
This section contains a selection of some of the many weapons used by the British Army during World War I for further information see World War I British weapons
The standard-issue Webley revolver at the outbreak of World War I was the Webley Mk V (adopted 9 December 1913), but there were considerably more Mk IV revolvers in service in 1914, as the initial order for 20,000 Mk V revolvers had not been completed when hostilities began. On 24 May 1915, the Webley Mk VI was adopted as the standard sidearm for British troops and remained so for the duration of World War I, being issued to officers, airmen, naval crews, boarding parties, trench raiders, machine-gun teams, and tank crews. The Mk VI proved to be a very reliable and hardy weapon, well suited to the mud and adverse conditions of trench warfare, and several accessories were developed for the Mk VI, including a bayonet (made from a converted French Pritchard bayonet), a speedloader device ("Prideaux Device"), and a stock allowing for the revolver to be converted into a carbine.
The iconic Lee-Enfield rifle, the SMLE Mk III, was introduced on 26 January 1907, along with a Pattern 1907 (P'07) Sword Bayonet and featured a simplified rear sight arrangement and a fixed, rather than a bolt-head-mounted sliding, charger guide. The fast-operating Lee bolt-action and large magazine capacity enabled a trained rifleman to fire 20 to 30 aimed rounds a minute, making the Lee-Enfield the fastest military bolt-action rifle of the day. World War I accounts tell of British troops repelling German attackers who subsequently reported that they had encountered machine guns, when in fact it was simply a group of trained riflemen armed with SMLE Mk III rifles. During the war, the standard SMLE Mk III was found to be too complicated to manufacture (an SMLE Mk III rifle cost the British Government £3/15/-), and demand was outstripping supply, so in late 1915 the Mk III* was introduced.
The Vickers machine gun accompanied the BEF to France in 1914, and in the years that followed, proved itself to be the most reliable weapon on the battlefield, some of its feats of endurance entering military mythology. Perhaps the most incredible was the action by the 100th Company of the Machine Gun Corps at High Wood on 24 August 1916. This company had 10 Vickers guns, and it was ordered to give sustained covering fire for 12 hours onto a selected area 2,000 yards (1,800 m) away in order to prevent German troops forming up there for a counter-attack while a British attack was in progress. Two companies of infantrymen were allocated as carriers of ammunition, rations and water for the machine-gunners. Two men worked a belt-filling machine non-stop for 12 hours keeping up a supply of 250-round belts. 100 new barrels were used up, and all the water, including the men’s drinking water and contents of the latrine buckets, was used to keep the guns cool. And in that 12 hour period the 10 guns fired a million rounds between them. One team is reported to have fired 120,000 from their gun to win a five franc prize offered to the highest-scoring gun. And at the end of operation, it is alleged that every gun was working perfectly and that not one gun had broken down during the whole period. It was this reliability which endeared the Vickers to the soldiers that used it. It rarely broke down; it just kept on firing. Demand from the British Army for Vickers machine guns was so high that Vickers had to find new ways of increasing production and by 1915 Vickers had supplied the British armed forces with 2,405 guns. These increases continued throughout the war: 7,429 were supplied in 1916, 21,782 in 1917 and 39,473 in 1918.
The British officially adopted the Lewis machine gun in .303 calibre for Land and Aircraft use in October 1915. Despite costing more than a Vickers gun to manufacture (the cost of a Lewis Gun in 1915 was £165, and the Vickers cost about £100), Lewis machine-guns were in high demand with the British military during World War I. The Lewis also had the advantage of being about 80% faster (in both time and component parts) to build than the Vickers gun (and was a lot more portable), and thus orders were placed by the British Government between August 1914 and June 1915 for 3,052 Lewis guns. By the end of World War I over 50,000 Lewis Guns had been produced in the US and UK and they were nearly ubiquitous on the Western Front, outnumbering the Vickers gun by a ratio of about 3:1.
The Lewis Gun utilised two different drum magazines, one holding 47 and the other 97 rounds of ammunition and had a rate of fire of 500 to 600 rounds per minute. The gun weighed 28 pounds (13 kg), only about half as much as a typical medium machine gun of the era, such as the Vickers machine gun, and was chosen in part because, being more portable than a heavy machine gun (such as the Vickers), it could be carried and used by a single soldier.
Mortars are curved trajectory weapons that can lob shells into trenches whose occupants would be unaffected by flat trajectory weapons but, compared to the standard artillery guns, mortars have a relatively short range. During the early years of the war it quickly became clear that some type of weapon was needed to provide artillery like fire support to the infantry. The Army already had rifle grenades, which were useful but they possessed insufficient range and power to serve such purposes. A weapon that was fully man transportable yet could fire reasonably powerful shells at targets beyond the range of rifle grenades was badly needed. The Stokes trench mortar was developed for precisely this purpose.
The Stokes Mortar was a simple weapon, that was easy to manufacture and use. The weapon was broken down into three sections for easy transport, the barrel (tube) which weighed 43 pounds, the base plate weighed 28 pounds (13 kg) and bipod weighed 37 pounds (17 kg) for a total of 108 pounds (49 kg). The Stokes Mortar could fire as many as 25 bombs per minute and had a maximum range of 800 yards (730 m).The first recorded use of Stokes mortars by the British was near Loos, France, in September 1916, where they proved to be very valuable weapons. British Empire units had 1,636 Stokes mortars in service on the Western Front at the Armistice.
The 2-inch Medium Mortar was designed and manufactured by the Royal Ordnance Factories in early 1915 and introduced along with the 1.57 inch mortar in March 1915. It incorporated what was known of the German pre war Krupp mortar. This was the first design to meet all the requirements, after modifications to simplify manufacture, it fired a spherical cast iron bomb of 42 pounds (19 kg) which was considered the largest practical size for use from trenches, at ranges from 100 yards (91 m) to 600 yards (550 m) using a simple 2 inches (51 mm) tube as the mortar body. Drawbacks were that the steel tail was usually projected backwards towards the firer when the bomb detonated, resulting in occasional casualties; and the No. 80 fuze was also required by the 18 pounder field guns which were given priority, limiting mortar ammunition supply to the front until early 1916, when a special cheap trench mortar fuze was developed. The 2-inch mortar served in limited numbers in France in 1915, from March, with early mortars and ammunition made by the Royal Ordnance Factory, mass production finally began with an order in August 1915, for 800 mortars from several railway workshops and agricultural machinery makers, together with an order for 675,000 bombs from numerous small firms.
The ML 9.45-inch (240 mm) mortar was a design based on the French 240 mm Trench Mortar and introduced in 1916, the British version differed from the French LT weapon in that the propellant charge was loaded through the muzzle In June 1916, following unsatisfactory trials with the French model, the army replaced them with 30 of its own model, firing a 150 pound bomb, followed by 200 more in December 1916. The 9.45 inch mortar also known as the Flying Pig was a Corps level weapon.
The advent of World War I generated new demands for strongly armoured self-propelled weapons which could move powerfully on any kind of terrain, leading to the development of the tank. The great weakness of the armoured car was indeed that they required smooth terrain to move upon, and new developments were needed for cross-country capability. The Mark I tank was a British invention; in February 1915, the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill created the Landships Committee to investigate a mechanical solution to the stalemate of trench warfare. The Mark I tanks, were operated by the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps and had a range of 23 miles (37 km) without refuelling and a speed of 3 miles per hour. The Mark I tank first saw service on the Somme in September 1916. The Mark I tank was available in two different formats called: male and female. Male tanks mounted a six pounder gun in each sponson, plus three light Hotchkiss machine guns. Female tanks had two heavy Vickers machine guns in place of the six pounders. The tank evolved during the war and by 1917, the ninth model the Mark IX tank had been designed which was different from its predecessors, in that it could carry thirty infantrymen or ten tons of cargo. The Mark IX was armed with two machine guns and had loopholes for the infantry to fire from.
Another tank in use was the Medium Mark A Whippet, while the Mark I tanks had been designed to attack the German trenches the Tank Corps now wanted a lighter, faster tank to work with the cavalry over open country. The Whippet had a crew of four and was armed with three Hotchkiss Machine Guns, they weighed 14 tons and had a road speed of just over 8 miles (13 km) per hour and a radius of 80 miles (130 km). They were very fast by 1918, standards but tank crews found them difficult to drive and combat experience showed that it was not suitable for working with the cavalry. Whippets first saw service during the German Spring Offensive in 1918, by the end of the war the Whippet was responsible for more German casualties than any other British tank of the war.
At the start of the war the only grenade in service with the army was the No 1 Grenade. Because of the problems associated with it, the Jam Tin Grenade was designed. It contained an inner can of explosive with an outer can of metal fragments or ball bearings. The fuses that were developed for the Jam Tin Grenade were activated by friction or a by lighted taper which was often replaced by a lighted cigarette. This was followed by the highly successful Mills bomb in 1915. It was oval in shape to fit into a clenched fist and time fused. The detonator was activated by a spring driven firing pin which was restrained by a lever that in turn was locked by a safety pin. The Mills bomb was a defensive grenade. After throwing the user had to take cover immediately and a competent thrower could manage 20 yards (18 m) with reasonable accuracy. Adopted as the standard grenade, over 33 million Mills bombs were produced in the final three years of the war.
In 1914, the heaviest artillery gun was the 60 pounder gun, four in each of the heavy batteries. The Royal Horse Artillery had the 13 pounder gun and the Royal Field Artillery the 18 pounder gun. By 1918, the situation had changed and artillery were the dominant force on the battlefield. Between 1914–1918 the heavy and siege artillery of the Royal Garrison Artillery had increased from thirty two heavy and six siege batteries to 117 heavy and 401 siege batteries. With the increase in the number of batteries of heavier guns the armies need to find a more efficient method of moving the heavier guns around, (it was proving difficult to find the number of draught horses required) the War office ordered over one thousand Holt caterpillar tractors, which transformed the mobility of the siege artillery. The army also mounted a variety of surplus naval guns, on various railway platforms to provide mobile long-range heavy artillery on the Western Front.
The 18 pounder gun was the most important field gun of the war, with over 10,000 being manufactured by the end of the war and 113,000,000 rounds of ammunition issued. Some Royal Horse Artillery batteries were also re-equipped with it as their 13 pounders proved unsuited to the prevalent trench warfare.
The 6 inch guns were first sent to France on 5 October 1914 with 7th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, mounted on improvised field carriages. Following its successful employment in the battle of the Somme its role was defined as counter battery fire and also they "were most effective for neutralising defences and for wire cutting with a new fuse which reliably burst instantly above ground on even slight contact, instead of forming craters, they were also employed for long range fire against targets in depth. It was supposed to be replaced by the BL 6 inch Gun Mk XIX, 310 of which were built during the war. This model gun served in all theatres, with 108 being in service on the Western front at the end of World War I.
The 60 pounder guns were formed into "Heavy Batteries" in the First World War operated by the Royal Garrison Artillery and used mainly for counter-battery fire (i.e. suppressing or destroying the enemy's artillery). When World War I began a single four gun battery was attached to each infantry division of the BEF. From early 1915, 60 pounder batteries moved from Division to Army control. From June 1916, the War Office adopted Major-General Birch's recommendations to increase heavy battery sizes to six guns, as more guns with better concentration of firepower were required on the Western Front, while minimising the administrative overhead of more batteries.
Some of the largest guns deployed were the Railway guns, there were sixteen of the smaller BL 9.2 inch Railway Guns in service by the end of the war, which together fired a total of 45,000 rounds. The BL 12 inch Railway Gun, had the ability to send a 850-pound (390 kg) shell 12 miles (19 km) into the German rear area and was used during the battle of Arras. The largest calibre Railway gun used was the BL 14 inch Railway Gun Boche Buster, which fired its first round in the presence of King George V and scored a direct hit on the Douai railway yards 18 miles (29 km) away.