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A British soldier’s kit in the First World War


The British Expeditionary Force that went to war in 1914 was arguably the best equipped and trained force in Europe. The khaki serge uniforms adopted in 1902 and worn by officers and men were the first real example of camouflaged combat clothing. Men wore a soft peaked cap with the regimental cap badge; officer’s headgear from London hatters was of a superior quality.

Only the British had adopted webbing load carrying equipment in 1908 and this consisted of a wide belt, left and right ammunition pouches which held seventy-five rounds each, left and right braces, a bayonet frog (leather sheath) 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 inside a khaki cloth cover was worn attached to one of the packs. Inside the haversack were personal items, knife and when on Active Service, unused portions of the daily ration. Some personal kit was carried in the large pack but was normally kept for carrying the soldier’s greatcoat and or a blanket – in the field the greatcoat or blanket would be used as bedding at night. The full set of 1908 webbing could weigh over 70lb (32kg), however the equipment was well designed and the weight evenly distributed. Due to manufacturing problems, however, pattern ’08 webbing could not be produced in the quantity required. The volunteers of Kitchener’s Army had to make do with leather equipment for load carrying.

In 1915 Fusilier Victor Packer of the Royal Irish Fusiliers recalled bitterly that a battalion coming out of the line at Ypres could march up to 12 miles (20km) to a base camp:

“You still had in those days, a full pack, 250 rounds of ammunition, water bottle, haversack, rifle, bayonet, and often you carried a bit of something extra as well. We were daft enough to carry souvenirs in those days like nose caps of shells and things or a Uhlan’s helmet, whatever we could get like that we prized, but not long afterwards we threw them over a hedge or somewhere.” (from Forgotten Voices of the Great War by Max Arthur)

The Imperial German Army feldgrau – field grey serge uniform – was also an effective neutral colour. German soldiers had leather load carrying equipment with a large pack constructed from cow hide with the fur retained on the outside flap to give extra waterproofing. Like all the combatants the Germans later adopted a steel helmet to replace the distinctive spiked helmets (Pickelhauben) – head gear that was much prized as a trophy by British soldiers. Incredibly the French went to war in uniforms that would have been better suited to the Napoleonic Wars – blue tunics and even red trousers and kepis (the distinctive French headgear). Officers armed with pistol and sword went into action in white gloves. Later in the war the French would adopt a blue-grey uniform known as horizon blue – the theory being that a man standing against the sky in a blue uniform would be harder to spot. Like the Germans they retained leather load carrying equipment, but followed the British practice of wearing short ankle boots with cloth puttees wrapped around the calf to give support and keep out dirt and small stones.

Ypres was a medieval town known for its textiles; however, it became infamous during the Great War with trench warfare, poison gas and many thousands of casualties. As the German Army advanced through Belgium, it failed to take the Ypres Salient. On 13 October 1914, German troops entered Ypres. On looting the city, the Germans retreated as the British Expeditionary Force advanced. On 22 November 1914, the Germans commenced a huge artillery barrage killing many civilians. Today the battlefields of Ypres contain the resting place of thousands of German and British soldiers. 

Extracted from Battle Story: Ypres by William Fowler

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