More than 30 nations declared war between 1914 and 1918. Their uniforms were a sartorial feast for the eyes—splashes of red, blue, white and gold. There were capes and greatcoats; kilts and kepis; busbies, bearskins and patent leather boots.
“This stupid blind attachment to the most visible of colours will have cruel consequences,” declared French politician and general Adolphe Messimy, who commanded a brigade at the Somme, and later a division.
Colonial units, especially, came to the continent dressed to impress—cascading robes, baggy pantaloons known as seroual or shalwār, brilliantly coloured accoutrements, and variants of the inordinately tall red fez present-day North Americans tend to associate with parading Shriners. They were traditionally worn by wealthy Arab traders as a sign of status, its red dyes vivid and expensive.The Russian army had more than 1,000 uniform variations, counterintuitive to the concept of “uniform.” Cossacks clung to their traditional Astrakhan hats and long coats. The Russians’ quality black leather boots were coveted by German troops, who would replace their own with them at every opportunity.
Belgian reservists defended their homeland in 1914 wearing top hats. While the British entered the war decked in drab khaki adapted from lessons learned in colonial India, the French sported long blue coats and rich red pants, for which the troops had been known as the pantalon rouge since the 1870s.The synthetic dye alizarin used to colour their legwear had been imported from Germany since the turn of the century. Armed with a pistol and sword, French officers would often go into action wearing white gloves.
The Germans wore a more appropriate dull grey uniform, topped by the spiked German pickelhaube helmet made of leather and designed to deflect sabre blows to the head, not shrapnel or bullets. The Austro-Hungarians retained their peaked cloth caps and had summer and winter versions of their uniforms with differing material weight and collar styles.
The British were still wearing soft caps, animal fur and ostrich feathers when the war broke out, while some European armies clung to the ornate tall hats that they had worn in the days of musket balls and cavalry sabres.“Both sides were quite unprepared for the brutalities of modern warfare,” said Simon Augustyn, historian and research officer at the Passchendaele Museum in Flanders, Belgium. “In 1914, 19th century armies went to war facing 20th century weaponry.
“Looking at the uniforms, one can see that they were designed more to look smart than to protect or camouflage. Bear in mind that, apart from the fighting in the colonies, Balkans and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, most European powers had not experienced a large-scale conventional war since the Franco-German war of 1870.”
The woolen material of the British fatigues wasn’t ideal, and it had one major flaw.
Commanders stubbornly, often disastrously, clung to 19th century strategy and tactics, ordering mass attacks across open terrain in the face of gas, artillery, machine guns and, later, tanks. Yet armies adapted quickly to more practical wear.
The 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada) wore regimental tartan kilts and the highly visible red-checkered Glengarry cap during the Second Battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915. After paying a high price in helping stop the German race to the sea in west Belgium, it was khaki Balmoral bonnets—a floppy beret with a pompom on top—and plain khaki apron over the kilt for the rest of the war.
The French abandoned the red pants and long coat for a dull blue-grey (they called it horizon blue) uniform in 1915 on the assumption that a man in blue silhouetted against the sky would be harder to spot. The dye was also cheap and already in stock. After the war, the battered French army would turn to “American khaki.”Like the Germans, they retained leather load-carrying equipment, but adopted the British-styled short ankle boots with cloth puttees wrapped around the calf to give support and keep out dirt and small stones.
In 1915, the Germans simplified their 1910 feldgrau kit, removing details on the cuffs and other elements, making them easier to mass produce. They dispensed with the expensive practice of maintaining an array of regional uniforms for special occasions, a remnant of earlier times when German states each had their own uniform, creating a confusing array of colours, styles and badges.
“British khaki was perhaps ahead of its time,” said Augustyn. “It was not as conspicuous as the French uniforms, although the Germans were also not that visible in their grey feldgrau uniforms.”