During the Great War the issue of cold weather gear for troops in the front line was limited. In the British Army soldiers had a leather jerkin and greatcoat but as the Northern French winters got colder – it dropped to more than -20 on the Somme during the winter of 1916/17 – a great deal of improvisation took place.
This photograph, dating from 1916, was taken in a French photographer’s studio in a back area on the Somme front. It shows a typical animal fur jacket worn by British troops; in this case with a separate over jacket and arm pieces. It was likely made from sheep or goat fur. While these were warm, they were also breeding grounds for body lice and while extensively used in the early war period, they were less common as the conflict progressed. The soldier also wears a British steel helmet, standard issue by this time, and the strap across his fur jacket is from the small haversack which contained his gas mask, likely to be a PH Helmet at this stage. His Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) Rifle has a cover over the main working parts to protect it from the elements. Images like this are rare, especially those taken in studios, and it gives as an insight into what British troops wore during some of the winter periods.
This photograph is from the same gunners photo album that yesterdays came from; the owner was an officer in the 218th Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery on the Hindenburg Line in 1918.
The image of ‘The Major’ who is not named, gives a good insight into the way officers dressed in the last phase of the war. The old ‘cuff-rank tunic‘ with the officer’s rank on the cuff, which had cost some many young officers their lives in 1914 and 1915 had seen a resurgence and the Major is wearing his here. He has a sandbag covered helmet to reduce the shine in bright conditions, and straps indicate a map case on one side. Nearest the camera the Major has the container tin of a French gas mask held in a leather sling, with a first field dressing attached to it. The British gas mask could not fit in this tin, so we can only speculate what might be in it – perhaps a whisky flask?!