When the Great War began in August of 1914, European armies had not gone to war on the continent since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. For four decades, the Germans grew stronger and the French thought of revenge and watched their former foe to the north warily. The minds of the military leaders remained rooted in the nineteenth century even as the twentieth century came closer. They imagined massed armies lining up opposite each other, marching forward under the orders of their superiors, firing on the enemy across a neat and convenient field. During the American Civil War, this Napoléonic approach, backed by strategically placed artillery, brought casualties so high that to this day they surpass all the deaths of the forces of the United States combined in wars before or since. The Gatling gun, although used in only a limited fashion, was a reliable machine gun mounted on wheels due to its weight. It made its debut during the Civil War and was a harbinger of things to come, but European strategist and generals did not think of war in terms of technology, only in terms of a battlefield that could be manipulated like a chess game.

Because of its Empire, England was the only nation with a continuous experience with small wars, here and there around the world, from South Africa to India and beyond to the Far East. Although the British leaders did not dwell on the implications of smokeless power and the long range of modern guns, they were aware of the advantages of updating the uniforms of their soldiers. In 1902, the British Army switched over to khaki uniforms, which were of lighter fabrics in hot climates. The glorious and glamorous red uniforms were retired to museums and utility and practicality took over. It took over two hundred years for the Army to learn from their experience in the American Revolution that officers perched on horses, riding about in visibly embellished uniforms, were easily picked off by snipers. By the twentieth century, that khaki uniforms identified the officers by discrete strips on the upper arm. By 1915, the uniforms were updated with steel helmets, manufactured in Sheffield. This simple bowl like protective headgear, invented by John L Brodie, was called, the “Brodie” helmet. Rather flat on top and held on with chin strap, this mass produced helmet was almost identical to the American version. The steel helmets were suddenly necessarily in the Great War for two reasons, first, the constant shelling meant that the air was filled with flying shrapnel and second, the metal offered some protection from the hail of bullets from the ever present machine guns. But the innovation of protective headgear, unlike the now standard khaki uniform was not that of the British. The metal helmet came from the fashion conscious French.

The European nations had always loved their colorful military uniforms, with jackets draped with golden braids, feet shod in tall shiny boots, and helmets topped by bobbing feathers, but these traditions had to be sacrificed. The French, for example, had to renounce their beloved bright blue uniforms, designed by the military painter, Édouard Detaille. The French were sentimentally attached to their colorful nineteenth century uniforms and went into the twentieth century wearing Detaille’s blue, thought to blend in with the sky, and red trousers and soft red caps. When the War began, the Battle of the Frontiers was the first lesson in the dangerous and fatal consequences of such clothing. On one day, August 22, 1914 they lost 27,000 soldiers, but not until 1915 was the red discarded and the blue changed to a paler shade. Once the French understood the connection between uniforms and casualties in a modern war, they acted with alacrity and were the first military to issue hard metal helmets to replace cloth hats or kepis (Kèpes). Since the medieval period French knights had worn metal helmets and this custom of dashing calvary officers sporting elegant plume topped headgear, chromium plated and shining in the sun, continued into the Great War. In a modern war, such attire was foolish and lethal to the owner, but the idea of a metal helmet was updated into the famous Adrian helmet. The helmet seems to have begun with General Agust-Louis Adrian who developed a metal skullcap in 1914. This small cap could be worn under the kepi for protection from shrapnel. Using the cap as the base, a front and rear visor was attached. These early helmets were light blue to match the uniforms but later became steel gray. The M15 was comparatively thin and light and by the end of 1915, over three million had been made in factories.

The German Army had switched over the feldgrau (field gray) in 1910 but still wore the leather Pickelhaube with the metal spike mounted on the top. The Pickelhaube was expensive to produce and its metal insignia and spike glinted in the sun, drawing the interest of enemy snipers. A short distance away from the flat farmland in northern France, a German general leading a contingent in the Vosges mountains grew exasperated from the number of head wounds, especially from falling rocks. In 1915, General Hans Emil Alexander Gaede and his men invented a four pound metal close fitting helmet with a nose guard, not unlike an ancient Greek helmet, called the Corinthian. Very few examples of this homemade helmet, briefly produced at an artillery factory in Mühlhausen, exist today as most were melted down when it was replaced by the familiar Stahlhelm, which was lighter and shaped like a coal scuttle. 

The changes in uniforms can be seen as emblematic of the impact of military technology which had advanced between conflicts and had moved much faster than the leaders could understand the import of new weapons. Most famously, land and sea based commanders could not conceive of the airplane being used as a weapon. This incredulity in the face of possibility was understandable–airplanes were fragile projectiles, made of canvas, wires and a small engine, but such a plane could and did cross the English Channel and was quite capable of flying over a battlefield. Despite unbelievers, there were nascent air forces on both sides before the War. The Imperial German Air Service set up the Luftstrteitkrafte in 1910 and became the Luftwaffe or “air weapon.” The Germans were well able to conceive of all kinds of air war possibilities and designed the hydrogen filled Zeppelin, which floated, watched and bombed those on the ground. The French also founded the Armee de l’air n 1910 and two years later, the Royal Flying Corps of Great Britain began. 

As shall be seen in a future chapter, this simple fact led to the invention of camouflage to protect static artillery from observation flights. These flights, taken by pilot and cameraman, produced photographs of the terrain below, now lined and zig-zaged with trenches, that proved so valuable that the observation planes needed to be shot down. At first, the observations planes of opposite sides would pass each other with a friendly wave, which quickly became an unfriendly potshot. by 1916, the fighter plane, complete with machine gun mounted on the front, was developed. During the Great War, wartime design of airplanes was ad hoc, supported by professional industrial designers, such as the Dutch engineer, Anton Herman Gerard Fokker, better known as “Anthony,” who revolutionized aircraft design. Fokker, who first offered his services to the Allies who turned him down, went to the Germans and found an interested client. The key challenge of combat in the air was that of firing a machine gun without slicing off the propellers and Fokker was able design a synchronizer gear. Mounted on bi planes and tri planes and monoplanes these synchronized guns invented ways for opposing pilots to shoot each other down and to rip open the thin sides of a Zeppelin and watch the crumpling craft fall in flames. On a lighter note, speaking of helmets, that same year, even before it entered the War, American inventors developed two-way radio communication for airplane pilots. They created a special helmet that dulled the sound of the plane’s motor and was equipped with earphones and a microphone that, by 1917, allowed the pilot talk to other planes and exchange messages with ground control.

As spectacular as those engineered designs were there were thousands of amateurs who took the old and familiar and, out if necessity, refashioned something new, creating on the fly. The Great War was the first modern technological war, based upon machines and weapons so powerful that human beings were hurled helplessly into what was nothing less than an engine of death. The desperation of the warring nations to break the deadlock of the Western front, meant that modern military needs were so unexpected and so suddenly and technology developed so quickly, that in some case, such as the perfection of the gas mask, a successful model was not completed until after the war was over. In other cases, the soldiers themselves took matters into their own hands and invented the devices they needed, the wrist watch being a case in point. 

Before the war, only women wore wristwatches and men who wore such a timepiece, other than for bicycling or ballooning, were considered “effeminate.” That is until the Great War. The manly pocket watch was too inconvenient in an airplane, too cumbersome in a trench, so the soldiers switched to the easy to use wrist watch. Troop movements and artillery barrages once begun on visual signals were now started on a stipulated time. By 1915, it was possible for an officer to purchase a “trench watch” when on leave. By 1916 the “proper” wristwatch, with an unbreakable crystal and a luminous dial, became indispensable for the smartly turned out officer, who wore these watches when on leave and soon the “effeminate” wrist watch or “wristlet watch,” was suitably masculinized for officers and the enlisted men who copied their superiors through combat. 

The Great War resulted in the repurposing of preexisting objects of apparel for the theater of war. As the wristwatch became an efficient way to coordinate unit actions, the trench itself and the conditions of living in rain and mud and the cold or northern Europe created the need for a new kind of protective covering. The British forces, like those of the French, had overcoats against the cold, but these coasts were long and heavy and wool, which soaked up moisture, housed lice and got coated in mud. The enlisted men, who had to wear what was issued to them, cut off the buttons of these serge garments and hack away at the long hems with their bayonets, but otherwise they had little freedom to optimize their clothing. But the officers, who provided their own custom tailored uniforms, had more leeway. These officers looked towards an old garment that was waterproof and lightweight, a coat that received a modern custom make-over for the sodden situation of the trenches–the iconic “trench coat.” The British Army had long sought waterproof clothing and in 1823, Charles Macintosh invented rubberized cotton and tailored the “Mack,” a smelly and hot garment, worn by civilians and adopted by the military. As early as 1851 an English tailor, John Emary, founded the Aquascutum (“water shield”) company specializing in warm jackets and coats. This Mayfair firm supplied patented waterproof coats to the soldiers of the Crimean War. Emary’s “wrappers” as he coats were called were his improvement upon the smelly Mack. 

But Thomas Burberry manufactured a different kind of waterproof covering for life in the country. In 1888, Burberry also invented a new waterproof cloth called “gaberdine,” which, for the purposes of life in the trenches was light weight. The fabric was made of individual strands of both wool and cotton, each of which were coated with waterproofing. An early version of a military coat, the Tielocken, was used in the Boer War, but became glamorous because of the famous men who wore it: Ernest Shackleton, Lord Kitchner and Lord Baden-Powell. Shackleton even used gaberdine tents in Antarctica. The advertisement for this knee lenght coat described the coat as: “it is secure against all forms of wet, yet faultlessly self-ventilating–excludes downpours of heavy rain, saturating mist, or driving spray, yet is free from rubber, oile-silk, or other unhealthy ,air tight fabrics–light and cool to wear on close days, and yet, owing the dense weaving, snug and warm in cold wind.” In other words, the Tielocken is not a Mackintosh. The name “tielocken” become clearer which it is revealed that the coat is without buttons, allowing for “quick adjustment.” Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, in her Smithsonian article on the trench coat, explained, 

“The terrain that British military outfitters were designing for even early in the war was, essentially, a disgusting hole in the ground. Trenches were networks of narrow, deep ditches, open to the elements; they smelled, of both the unwashed living bodies crammed in there and the dead ones buried close by. They were muddy and filthy, and often flooded with either rain or, when the latrines overflowed, something worse. They were infested with rats, many grown to enormous size, and lice that fed off the close-quartered soldiers. Life in the trench, where soldiers would typically spend several days at a stretch, was periods of intense boredom without even sleep to assuage it, punctuated by moments of extreme and frantic action that required the ability to move quickly.”

As Annette Lynch and Mitchell D. Strauss pointed out in their book on Ethnic Dress in the United States, the “trench coat”came into being as a specific style in 1914 when the manufacturer added epaulettes and D-ring belt fastenings. The D-ring belt has a double half circle to which one end of the strap is fixed and the other end of the strap is looped through the D and is tightened. Today’s Burberry trench coats have conventional belts with holes with conventional buckles which have prongs, but the military version allowed for a quick and efficient fastening. There were other used for D rings and the canvas belt would sprout additional rings for binoculars or map cases. There are the additional details that mark the trench coat as designed by tailors for the upper class country gentlemen and for the officers: a short cape covered the shoulders and back, the pockets are deep and are available for storage, there are straps on the sleeves that can be tightened against the cold wind. The epaulettes carried the rank of the officer. 

These trench coats were so distinctive that German snipers could identify the officers and pick them off from a safe distance, a modern case of the officer uniform causing high casualties among these high ranking men. The death rate ironically resulted in a grudging acceptance of middle or lower class men as officers who also had to provide themselves with the proper “kit” or outfit, suitable for an officer. Burberry did a lively business in supplying the desired trench coat, called the “British warm.” By the end of the war, some half million men had purchased this iconic garment. The trench coat, signifying prestige and rank and class, soon filtered back into the civilian community and tailors were busily making trench coats for men and for women) who would never go near the Western Front. Describing itself as “Waterproof Coat Specialists for over 50 Years,” Aquascutum advertised itself as selling “field and trench coats–waterproof, yet self-ventilating” and “Civil Tailors” for “Ladies and Gentlemen’s Coats” in “Artistic and beautiful colorings, absolute freedom” found in many “Costumes.” In addition to the military outfits, there was the “Aquascutum Country Life Coat” for gentlemen and the “Belmont” for ladies. 

Today the coat, most famously with Burberry, has kept the front flap and the caped back but has added double rows of buttons, now that the coat does not have to be thrown off in the middle of a battle, and the trench coat has retained its whiff of the upper class, embedded in it high price.  

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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