Throughout the Twentieth Century, the world’s Super Powers have waged war against a sometimes seemingly invisible, highly mobile enemy. An enemy familiar with the lands he defends and what it takes to survive in them. France and later the United States struggled through Viet Nam and the former Soviet Union endured the hardships offered by Afghanistan. At the dawn of the Twentieth Century Britain ventured into South Africa. The campaign that followed was an omen of how war would be waged in the new century. A tree of terms we are all too familiar with now has roots embedded on the Veldt of South Africa… commando, guerilla war, trenches, machine gun, barbed wire, and sadly concentration camps.
Within the British army of the time, there were continuing struggles between traditionalists and reformers. Many officers still believed mass volley fire and the bayonet would carry the day. Kitchener’s re-conquest of the Sudan in 1898, particularly the battle of Omdurman, was a stirring example of Victorian textbook tactics that stood to reinforce popular beliefs in those tactics. The South African war stands as a watershed of those beliefs. Queen Victoria’s soldiers were up against an enemy that had equal, if not superior, firepower. The Boer was highly mobile, skilled at field craft, and an expert marksman. All attributes of a successful hunter. Not just the ability to discharge a weapon at a stationary target, but the skill to single out a moving target at distance and take it out of action. Many British officers fell victim to this accuracy simply because they could be singled out.
Lieutenant Harry Lumsden was the first British officer to provide his men with a practical working garment. In 1846 while on service in India Lt. Lumsden of the Corps of Guides began the process of dyeing the white cotton working garments with mud. When dried they blended in with the surrounding landscape. Men wearing these dust colored garments would fight subsequent campaigns in India, Afghanistan, and the African continent. Dyeing of the fabric took place using various local methods until 1884 when chemist Frederick A. Gatty patented a fast curing dye that would eventually be used in the manufacture of the Uniform for Active Service. “Khaki,” the Hindi word for Dust, would finally be accepted as the color of uniforms for active service in 1896.
The loose fitting khaki frock worn by officers was made of khaki dyed cotton drill or serge material and styled after the blue patrol jacket. (The color of the serge version varies greatly from khaki to a dark drab color with various shades in between). White linen collars were an option for officers and were buttoned into the collar of the frock. The frock had two pleated breast pockets, two shoulder straps, an internal waist belt and two lower pockets in the skirt of the frock. Two diagonal pleats on either side of the collar running diagonally toward the outer edge of the breast pockets and three pleats to the point of each cuff. Five regimental buttons secured the frock. The doublet for highland officers was of the same cotton drill or serge material used for frocks of English officers. Cutaway skirt fronts and gauntlet cuffs being the most notable difference. Many doublets had breast pockets with dual button closure. These buttons were covered in the same cotton or serge material as the doublet. Most highland officers observed in photographs of the 2nd Anglo Boer War have scalloped pocket flaps with single button closure on their breast, and lower pockets on the skirt of their doublet.
(I use the term “drill” throughout this article in reference to the weave of the cotton material used in construction of frocks, doublets, and helmet covers.)
Trousers worn by officers were of khaki cotton or drab serge material with foot straps of black or brown leather. Khaki, whipcord, or serge breeches were also worn, while some highland officers wore kilts.
Footwear varied in the field but typically consisted of brown or black leather ankle boots. For mounted officers knee boots, butcher boots or hunting boots were popular choices. Worn over these would be a variety of lower leg protection. Stohwasser gaiters, cloth puttees, and various other types of leather, cloth, or canvas gaiters. When wearing their kilts highland officers wore ankle boots, khaki canvas spats, hose and garters. Khaki kilt aprons were also provided for officers and men. The kilt aprons were adequate enough for troops on the march but offered minimal concealment to a soldier in the prone position.
Officers on active service were able to purchase the recommended field equipment from various Army & Navy outfitters. This typically consisted of a double braced Sam Browne belt rig with holster, ammunition pouch, and sword frog. Further to this was added a haversack, water bottle, revolver, and sword. The great coat was carried from a khaki webbing sling and held rolled in place by two buff leather straps. Some Sam Browne belts had provision on the back of the shoulder straps to attach the haversack. Although a very practical way for an officer to carry his kit, the Sam Browne was the mark of an officer, on the veldt they became the target of many a Boer marksman.
With the high casualty rate of officers suffered in the early stages of the war, officers started adopting the appearance of the rank and file. Many adopted carbines or rifles, and began wearing the valise equipment of the ranks. The sword, being useless in the type of mobile warfare that prevailed during this campaign, was abandoned and in many cases the revolver was retained. Buttons were “browned” or dulled. Rank insignia was given the same treatment or removed entirely. The foreign service helmet remained the headgear of choice for officers over the increasingly popular Wolseley helmet that was an officer mainstay in the Sudan campaign of 1896-1898. The influx of the Imperial Yeomanry serving in South Africa, along with Colonial units, saw the slouch hat begin its rise in popularity as a very practical piece of headgear in warm climates. Made of felt and well ventilated it could be worn with the brim up or down, and afforded the wearer a most comfortable and lightweight form of headgear.
Officers serving with the Imperial Yeomanry adopted a four pocket frock of khaki or drab serge material. Though two pocket versions are not uncommon. Early war Yeomanry units also wore the foreign service helmet but many more adopted the slouch hat. Rank was worn in the same manner as Regular serving officers, a combination of “stars and crowns” upon the shoulder straps of their service frocks. Accoutrements would be purchased from the same sources as their Regular counterparts, though more variety would be observed within the Yeomanry units themselves. The Queens Westminster Volunteers surrendered much of their equipment to the ranks of the City Imperial Volunteers!
Copyright © 2012 James A. Holt
Many thanks must go to Stuart Bates for his prompting me to prepare this article. His keen advice and academic eye are not to be overlooked either. Your enthusiasm is contagious. And thanks go to Benny Bough without whom this presentation would not have appeared at this time.
- Absent Minded Beggars. Will Bennett
- The Boer War, Uniforms Illustrated No. 19., P.J. Haythornthwaite
- The Boer War. Thomas Pakenham
- British Infantry Uniforms Since 1660. Michael Barthorp illustrated by Pierre Turner
- The Black Angel: The Volunteers of the Border Regiment in the Boer War. By Colin Bardgett
- Dress Regulations for the Officers of the Army 1891
- Dress Regulations for the Army 1900
- The British Army from Old Photographs. Boris Mollo
- Life of an Irish Soldier. General Alexander Godley, G.C.B, K.C.M.G
- Oxfordshire Light Infantry in South Africa. Compiled from various officer accounts and diaries. Eyre & Spottiswoode 1901
- Buttons of the British Army. Howard Ripley
Any use of the photos or their descriptions from the Holt collection, by printed or electronic means, without the express written consent of the author James A. Holt, is prohibited.
James A. Holt.