I came across a great passage in the first volume of Kim Beattie’s history of the 48th Highlanders the other day, and it got me thinking about the uniforms and equipment our soldiers used throughout the war.
This passage sees the Highlanders pulling back from the line in May 1916, for some rest and recuperation:
“The surrounding countryside was green and quiet and the air of freshness everywhere, after the mouldy dugouts, the stench and filth of trenches, started the men on a vigorous clean-up. Some of them slept outside under the stars on cool, dustless grass, wallowing in the cleanliness of it. Others went so far as wash their kilts, an unheard of thing, and then foolishly hung them on the fence to dry overnight. The next morning eight blushing Highlanders fell-in, clad only in shirt-tails, while ladies who lived near Kemmel were busily making themselves Davidson tartan skirts, the material being obtained at a bargain from thirsty men in the night for five francs or a bottle of champagne” (Beattie, p. 124).
My great grandfather served in the Royal Army Service Corps, and told a story of getting into an argument with a mate about who was more lousy. They stripped down and proceeded to rid themselves of lice, keeping a running total as they did so; I forget the number (and it probably increased through the years) but clearly recall him complaining of them ‘being down in the seams.’ Considering the plight of Beattie’s Highlanders, I can only imagine how lousy the pleats of a regimental kilt would be after months at the front.
The uniforms men wore in the First World War, not to mention their equipment, was extremely uncomfortable and impractical by today’s standards. Hobnail boots, wool, leather pouches with brass fittings. Beautiful to look at, but I’m sure it was thoroughly unpleasant kit to don.
If you’re interested in the Great War and Canada’s role, it’ll be worth your time hunting down a copy of Military Antiques and Collectables of The Great War: A Canadian Collection, by Victor Taboika. He’s a private collector, and published this account of his extensive collection in 2007. It’s a 360 page over-sized marvel, printed on glossy paper and weighing at least five pounds. Inside there’s every uniform, every piece of kit you could imagine, thoughtfully annotated and beautifully presented. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say he probably has a better collection than the Canadian War Museum.
Below are four sample pages from the publisher’s website:
The only downside to this treasure is the price: S100.oo plus shipping. I bought mine when it was first published from Aquila Books in Calgary, and they carry signed copies. Their page for the book is here.
There are only five copies of this book available for inter-library loan on Library and Archives Canada’s website. Should you like to request one, the listing is here.