Uniforms of World War One: The Clothes That Made the Men

Alex Browne

3 mins

17 Oct 2018

The so-called “Great War” resulted in a strengthening of national sentiment and the idea of the nation state, partly due to what the men who took part were wearing.

Standardised uniforms were used to instil discipline and esprit de corps on the battlefield, with new technology enabling advances in mass production, wear, comfort and suitability to a variety of climates.

Britain

The British wore khaki uniforms throughout World War One. These uniforms had originally been designed and issued in 1902 to replace the traditional red uniform and remained unchanged by 1914.

The tunic had large breast pockets as well as two side pockets for storage. Rank was indicated by badges on the upper arm.

The Rhodesian Platoon of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps is pictured at the KRRC training depot in Sheerness, Kent, in November 1914, before the platoon went to the Western Front. The majority of the men pictured were killed in action, with most of the others severely wounded. Credit: National Archives of Zimbabwe / Commons

Variations on the standard uniform were issued depending on the nationality and role of the soldier.

In warmer climates, soldiers wore similar uniforms though in a lighter colour and made from thinner fabric with few pockets.

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The Scottish uniform featured a shorter tunic which did not hang below the waist, enabling the wearing of a kilt and sporran.

France

Unlike other armies fighting in World War One, the French initially retained their 19th-century uniforms – something that had been a point of political contention before the war. Consisting of bright blue tunics and striking red trousers, some warned of terrible consequences if French forces were to continue wearing these uniforms on the battlefield.

In 1911 soldier and politician Adolphe Messimy cautioned,

“This stupid blind attachment to the most visible of colours will have cruel consequences.”

A group of French infantrymen are seen in front of the entrance to a shelter in a front line trench. Credit: Ministère de la Culture / Commons

After disastrous losses at the Battle of the Frontiers, a significant factor being the high visibility of French uniforms and the propensity for those visible uniforms to attract heavy artillery fire, the decision was made to replace the conspicuous uniforms.

A uniform in a drab blue known as horizon blue had already been approved in June 1914, but was only issued in 1915.

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France was, however, the first nation to introduce helmets and French soldiers were issued with the Adrian helmet from 1915.

Russia

Russians typically wore a brownish khaki uniform, though it could vary depending on where the soldiers were from, where they were serving or even on the materials that were available.

Russian generals in World War One. Sitting (right to left): Yuri Danilov, Alexander Litvinov, Nikolai Ruzsky, Radko Dimitriev and Abram Dragomirov. Standing: Vasily Boldyrev, Ilia Odishelidze, V. V. Belyaev and Evgeny Miller. Credit: hrono / Commons

Cossacks in particular continued their tradition of having a uniform distinct from the majority of the Russian army, wearing traditional Astrakhan hats and long coats.

Germany

At the outbreak of war, Germany was undergoing a thorough review of its army uniforms – something that continued throughout the conflict.

Previously, each German state had maintained its own uniform, leading to a confusing array of colours, styles and badges.

In 1910, the problem was rectified somewhat by the introduction of the feldgrau or field grey uniform. That provided some regularity although the traditional regional uniforms were still worn on ceremonial occasions.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, August von Mackensen and others wearing pickelhauben (spiked helmets) with cloth covers in 1915. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons

In 1915, a new uniform was introduced which further simplified the 1910 feldgrau kit. Details on the cuffs and other elements were removed, making uniforms easier to mass produce.

The expensive practice of maintaining a range of regional uniforms for special occasions was also dispensed with.

In 1916, the iconic spiked helmets were replaced by the stahlhelm which would also provide the model for German helmets in World War Two.

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Austria-Hungary

In 1908, Austria-Hungary replaced its blue uniforms of the 19th century with grey ones similar to those worn in Germany.

The blue uniforms were retained for off-duty and parade wear, however, while those who still had them in 1914 continued to wear them during the war.

Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen (front), was the supreme commander of Austria-Hungarian armed forces in World War Two. Here he is seen visiting the Przemyśl fortress following its recapture in June 1915. Credit: Press Photo / Commons

The Austro-Hungarian army had summer and winter versions of its uniform which differed in material weight and collar style.

The standard headgear, meanwhile, was a cloth cap with a peak, with officers wearing a similar but stiffer hat. Units from Bosnia and Herzegovina wore fezzes instead – grey fezzes when fighting and red ones while off duty.