BRITISH INFANTRYMAN 1914-15
2nd Bn Royal Sussex Regiment, France 1915 (ŠPaul Reed)
The British soldier on the outbreak of the Great War was part of the arguably the best trained, and among the best equipped soldiers of any European nation. He was the only one to wear any form of a camouflage uniform (the green khaki Service Dress); his load was carried in the best set of individual equipment (1908 pattern webbing) and he was armed with the best rifle in the world (Short Magazine Lee Enfield). The British Army was made up entirely of volunteers, it was highly trained, with most men able to fire fifteen to twenty-five rounds a minute from their rifles and hit a target every time. It also contained a wealth of military experience, most recently with the Boer War of 1899-1902 and conflict on the North West Frontier of India in 1908. One of its drawbacks was the size of the army; only 274,000 by 1914.
In the years prior to the Great War a plan had been developed to take a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to a European conflict. This plan was put into operation the day war was declared, 4th August 1914, and British troops began to arrive on the soil of France as early as the next day. By the time of the BEF's first engagement at Mons on 23rd August, six infantry divisions were overseas, together with Cavalry, artillery, engineers and all the support troops necessary to keep them in the field.
By the close of 1914, the British Army had suffered 89,864 casualties since Mons. The 'Old Contemptibles' as they had become known, had been all but wiped out with some regiments losing more than 90% of their original strength. However, three other regular divisions arrived during the Winter of 1914/15, and the Spring saw the first British offensive of the war at Neuve-Chapelle in March 1915.
The British soldier went to war in August 1914 wearing the 1902 Pattern Service Dress tunic and trousers. This was a thick woolen tunic, died khaki green (not the brown khaki of WW2 battledress fame). There were two breast pockets for personal items and the soldier's 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 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. The stiffener was often removed on active service, during the Winter of 1914/15.
Puttees were worn round the ankles,
and B5 ammunition boots with hobnail soles on the feet. Normally black, they
were made of reversed hide and had steel toe-caps, and a steel plate on the
The 1908 Pattern webbing equipment was largely made by the Mills Equipment Company (marked 'M. E. Co' on the webbing itself). It comprised a wide belt, left and right ammunition pouches which held 75 rounds each, left and right braces, a bayonet frog 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, fork and spoon set, housewife, washing and shaving kit, 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 blanket.
A full set of 1908 webbing could
weight 70lbs (32kg), but if worn correctly would distribute the load evenly. It
was comfortable to wear, easy to maintain and adapt, and while on the march
could be worn with the main belt undone while still evenly distributing the
The main rifle carried by British soldiers in 1914 was the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE). Introduced in 1903, the .303 inch calibre weapon had a magazine of ten rounds. While it packed a heavy recoil when fired, regular soldiers before the war were trained to fire a minimum of fifteen aimed rounds per minute, and be able to hit a target every time. This rate of fire was well above any other army in the world, and most soldiers were also trained to engage targets at distances up to 1000 yards. The SMLE had a high stopping power, being able to penetrate eighteen inches of oak, thirty-six inches of sandbags and two house bricks at up to 200 yards range.
For close quarter fighting, an
seventeen inch 1907 Pattern Wilkinson Sword bayonet was attached to the end of
the rifle, and soldiers were trained in bayonet fighting. While the rifle could
be fired with the bayonet attached, it reduced the accuracy.
WAR CONDITIONS 1914-15
The standard uniform and equipment
that the British soldier went to war with in August 1914 changed little in the
early phase of the war, aside from the commonplace removal of the stiffener in
the Service Cap. During the cold winter of 1914/15 a variety of cold weather
gear, almost entirely non-official, was worn by troops in France and Flanders,
and a new trench cap was introduced known as the 'Gor Blimey' because of its
ungainly appearance. This had ear muffs tied to the crest of the cap with flaps,
which would come down when un-fastened and was worn well into 1916. While the
SMLE remained in standard use, some Territorial battalions, and New Army units
were equipped with the old Long Lee Enfield, which dated back to pre-Boer War
A Private of the Coldstream Guards, August 1914. He wears standard Service Dress and the early version of the 1908 webbing, including large pack. He is armed with the 1903 SMLE with 'long range sights' and a 1907 Pattern bayonet with the hook quillon; this had largely been removed from such bayonets by 1914, but some remained in issue. (ŠPaul Reed)
A Sergeant of the 2nd Bn Essex Regiment in a front-line trench, Winter 1914. This photo shows a typical uniform worn by soldiers of this period, including a woolen cap comforter, probably knitted by his family back home. (ŠPaul Reed)
A Private of the 1/14th Londons (London Scottish) in France, Winter 1914. He wears a light green rubberised waterproof, and home-made sheep-skin (or goat skin) gloves. Sheep-skin jerkins were also worn by troops in the front line during this period, but it was soon found they were easily infected with lice and were rarely, if ever, worn after 1915. (ŠPaul Reed)
A Corporal of the Rifle Brigade, early 1915. He wears standard Service Dress with a 'Gor Blimey' hat. He also has the later issue 1908 pattern webbing, the standard issue during the Great War, and a Long Lee Enfield rifle. (ŠPaul Reed)
ŠPAUL REED 2002-2007