BRITISH INFANTRYMAN 1916-18
2nd Bn Hampshire Regiment, France 1918 (©Paul Reed)
By 1916 the Great War had become a total war. The British Army had expanded from a handful of regular and territorial divisions to more than 74 infantry divisions by 1918. The Battle of the Somme 1916, in which nearly 450,000 British soldiers became casualties, marked the start of some of the momentous battles of the war, and changes in technology and the introduction of new weapons created a new era of warfare and an ever changing life for the infantryman.
BASIC UNIFORM & EQUIPMENT 1916-18
The basic uniform and equipment worn by the British soldier during the 1916-18 period differed little from the Infantryman of 1914-15. Service Dress and 1908 webbing equipment were commonplace, although the large pack was normally only worn on the march, and rarely in the trenches themselves. It was never worn in battle, or carried into an attack. The Service Dress peaked cap was still worn, and as since the Winter of 1914/15 the internal stiffener had been taken out and it was usually worn ‘floppy’ (much to the chagrin of RSMs!)
CHANGES IN UNIFORM & EQUIPMENT 1916-18
While the basic uniform and equipment had not changed, many new pieces of equipment had been introduced and were commonplace by 1916.
In the early period of the war, it proved impossible to keep up the production of the 1908 webbing equipment, and so the War Office produced a set of leather equipment, known as the 1914 Pattern. This differed substantially in design to the webbing, and had two cartridge pouches, instead of smaller web ones. It had a narrow leather belt with a brass, ‘snake’ buckle, left and right braces, a water bottle carrier, bayonet frog with entrenching tool handle attachment, and entrenching tool blade in a leather cover.
The haversack and large pack were in khaki material, but with leather fittings. It was issued to most Kitchener’s Army units from early 1915, and remained in use in the field right up until the end of the war. Unpopular with soldiers, as it did not distribute the weight correctly and pulled on the base of the spine, veteran campaigners normally exchanged theirs for webbing as soon as was possible.
The 1902 Service Dress tunic and trousers remained in widespread use, but from 1914 a ‘Utility Tunic’ was produced, which was a simplified version of the original; both cheaper and easier to produce in large numbers. It differed in that the breast pockets were much larger and had no pleats.
The arrival of gas on the battlefield, following the Second Battle of Ypres (April-May 1915), saw the introduction of Gas Masks. The first ones were very primitive designs, often a face mask with goggles.
By the time of the Battle of Loos (September-October 1915) the PH Helmet was in widespread use, which was a large cloth hood with two eye pieces and a filter through which the soldier breathed. It was uncomfortable and difficult to use, the eye pieces normally misted up, but it stayed in use well into 1917. At the close of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 the Box Respirator, the first proper gas mask issued to British troops, appeared and all soldiers had one by the Spring of 1917. However, many continued to carry the older PH Helmet as a back-up.
While it was first introduced in late 1915, the Steel Helmet, or Shrapnel Helmet, was only in widespread use from the Spring of 1916. Indeed, the Battle of St Eloi (April 1916) was the first time that it had been worn in battle. The ‘soup-bowl’ design had a leather liner, with a leather chin-strap.
More than 7.5 million were made by 1918, and as it was constructed of tough steel, it offered greater protection that other designs. Some soldiers welded their regimental badges to the front of the helmet, but this was found to weaken the steel and German snipers often used them as an aiming point! More common was to find a regimental design painted on, as well as a battalion, brigade or divisional battle flash. Some soldiers wore khaki covers on the helmets, to stop them reflecting the light, and sometimes these were improvised from sandbag material.
A whole host of new weapons appeared in this period, and they will be dealt with in detail elsewhere on this part of the Old Front Line. However, they included hand grenades, light machine guns, flare pistols, trench weapons, and trench mortars.
A Lance Corporal of the Essex Regiment in April 1915. It clearly shows the 1914 Pattern Leather equipment which remained in use throughout the 1916-18 period. (©Paul Reed)
Corporal W.G.Clive of the 1/15th Londons (Civil Service Rifles) in France 1916. Clive wears the 1914 Utility Tunic, with simplified design: including larger and pleat-less breast pockets. Clive was killed at High Wood in September 1916. (©Paul Reed)
Private soldier of the Rifle Brigade in 1916 showing the 1914 Pattern Leather equipment. This soldier also had two gas masks in the small canvas bags, and a SMLE rifle with webbing action cover. He is clearly dressed for the trenches. (©Paul Reed)
A Private of the Royal Fusiliers 1916, showing a typical soldier of the period with steel Shrapnel Helmet, SMLE and 1908 Pattern webbing. (©Paul Reed)
British Sergeant in a front line trench at Boesinghe (Ypres) mid-1917. He wears the Shrapnel Helmet, and the small bag on his chest contains the Box Respirator. He also wears trousers cut down to shorts, which were often worn during the summer, although not by every unit. (©Paul Reed)
©Paul Reed 2002-2007
Link to page
This WW1 British Infantryman soldier from 1914 is issued with the 1908 webbing which is set up in the “Marching Order”. The 1908 Marching Order webbing set consisted of the following:
1908 Ammunition pouches
1908 Shoulder straps
1908 Cross straps
1908 Water bottle carrier
1908 Water bottle
1908 Bayonet frog
1907 Enfield bayonet
1908 Helve carrier
1908 Helve (wooden handle for E tool- shovel)
1908 Entrenching tool (shovel head) carrier
1908 Entrenching tool head
1908 1908 Small pack
1908 Large pack
The British WW1 1908 webbing equipment carried all the soldiers kit that he would need in the field or trenches. The 1908 webbing system carried his 303 rifle ammunition, Enfield 303 bayonet, entrenching tool, food rations, mess tins, knife fork and spoon, water bottle, drinking cup, spare clothing, wash kit, housewife sewing kit etc.
The British Small Box Respirator (SBR) was designed in 1916 and began service by the end of the year.
A canvas covered rubber hose attached the mask to the canister. The mask was made of thinly rubberised canvas. The whole lot was contained in the canvas bag. The bag is hung from an adjustable strap.
Here are two informative videos to watch.
Next week personal weapons of the British army Infantry of WW1.