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Posted on Aug 28, 2008 in War College

Origins of Summer Uniforms

By Peter Suciu

Evolution of Summer Uniforms
Cover of the 1895 book, which was turned into a poster, titled “La Guerre Madagascar” (The War in Madagascar). Note that the French tropical uniform is still dark blue, but the French Marine Infantry soldier is wearing the 1886 pattern sun helmet. (Collection of the author).Another common misconception presented in numerous uniform books is that the armies of Europe were still using outdated uniforms as World War I began. This is only partially true. While the French Army under the Third Republic did closely resemble the fighting force under Napoleon III that met the Prussian army on the French frontier in 1871, this uniform was in the process of transition.

While other nations had begun to modernize with drab field uniforms the French soldiers were wearing the Model 1877 dark blue greatcoat along with an updated version of the Model 1867 bright red trousers. Even before formal hostilities broke out plans were in order for an updated uniform, and yet the French army would march into the slaughter of the First Marne battle (1914) with a uniform more fitting to a bygone age. What is ironic is that the French Army had a lighter weight summer uniform that had been worn throughout the colonies, and was used in such conflicts as the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). But because no one expected a long war, the French used what was readily available to supply to the standing army and more importantly the massive reserve forces that were quickly called up.


Likewise, the M1914 uniform, which was later used throughout the war, was lighter in weight and more practical for trench warfare. The M1914 uniform has come to be recognized for its sky-blue color that would see service for the remainder of the war and in the peace that followed. With the first steel helmet, this silhouette would become the defining symbol of the French army. It is worth noting that the color of the uniform’s cloth came about because planners originally were developing a fabric weave of the “tri-color” flag of France. But the red dyes had previously been imported from Germany and wartime shortages resulted in that color being dropped, thus the result is a mix of just the white and blue threads.

Corporal Harold Bates, RASC, at summer training at Durban, South Africa during World War II. The British Army issued a comfortable summer uniform that included short trousers and the Wolseley pattern sun helmet. (Photo courtesy of Stuart Bates).However, it is only in hindsight with knowledge that the war would be fought in horrific trench conditions that the uniforms could be described as completely lacking for the era. In fact the German, British, Belgian and Ottoman forces were adequately prepared for the conditions in warmer regions – where tropical uniforms were already in use. And even by war’s end the French had provided its soldiers in the Balkan campaign with darker colored tunics and helmets to better blend into the terrain.

Throughout the interwar period many nations, including the British and Italians continued to create more appropriate attire for use in hot weather climates. This is seen with the Italian uniforms used throughout the 1920s in Libya and in the 1930s in Ethiopia.

By the next major war, the British and Commonwealth forces, as well as the Germans, Americans and Japanese, were better suited to hot weather conditions. Sun helmets and bush hats were often used in place of steel helmets, and it was common to see the German Afrika Korps and British 8th Army wearing short trousers! The American USMC would follow suit with looser fitting attire as well, and even Japan with its strict code of discipline provided its soldiers with clothing that would be ideal for the Pacific campaign.

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