WWI uniforms explained

Doug Bekke, collector and former curator of the Minnesota Military Museum, brought in examples of World War I uniforms from several nations (above) and explained the background and significance of each piece, Thursday, at the Brown County Museum Annex.

NEW ULM — The Brown County Museum hosted a Lunch and a Bite of History event on “Military Uniforms of World War I.”

Doug Bekke, collector and former curator of the Minnesota Military Museum, brought in examples of uniforms from several nations and explained the background and significance of each piece.

“These all have a story,” Bekke said. “An artifact transports you back to the past.”

The presentation included discussions on uniforms from Belgium, Britain, Scotland, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States.

Overcoats were a common piece of military apparel. Bekke said the weather in parts of Europe was cold and damp for much of the year. Most of the uniforms were made from wool. The material kept soldiers warm during the rain. The overcoats only became a problem during the warm months. A French mutiny in 1917 led to reforms in the military, including the overcoat requirement.

Often military uniforms were made from recycled material as resources were limited. Bekke said it was cheaper to dissemble a coat and reverse it to put the inside lining on the outside.

As the war dragged on, wool material became scarce and some countries began using corduroy.

The uniforms were often designed to carry additional tools such ammunition cartridges, trench spades and ration containers. Some British soldiers carried silverware in their leggings. Nearly all soldiers in the war wore leg wrappings. The leg wrappings were wound around the pant legs to keep them in place and prevent them from getting damp and dragging on the ground.

The color of military uniforms changed. Both Britain and the United States adopted brown or tan uniforms prior to the war. Britain switched from red and white uniforms during the Boer War. American soliders began wearing tan uniforms during the Spanish-American War. These uniforms offered greater camouflage than previous designs.

British uniforms were light on insignia. Service bars were not authorized until the last year of the war. The British soldiers in the Horse Artillery were given riding pants reinforced for horseback riding.

The French had the most variation in uniforms. The uniforms came in dozens of styles depending on the branch or position in the military, but most uniforms were blue. France began the war with a dark blue uniform and switched to a light blue by the end.

WWI was the first conflict to see wide spread use of protective helmets. The German, British and U.S. helmets offered best protection, but the French Adrian design was used by the most countries.

“It had the ballistic protection a little better than a Campbell soup can,” Bekke said “but it was better than the soft hats they wore before 1915.”

Gas masks were one of the most unique tools to a WWI soldiers. Bekke had an early 1915 gas mask, which was more of a hood. These early gas hoods were a simple design and are hard to find today.

German gas masks held up better. The masks were made of leather and many are still in good condition 100 years later. Bekke said he has never found a leather German gas mask that was not in good condition. There is some debate over what type of leather the mask is made from. It could be goat, boar or dog.

Bekke closed the presentation with a female Marine Corps uniform. Only 305 women served in the Marine Corps during WWI and received full veterans benefits after the war. Bekke was able to display one of the uniforms. The uniform is similar in color to the male equivalent but cut for a woman’s figure.

The final presentation in the WWI Speaker Series will be at noon Thursday, July 13, at the Museum Annex. Katheryn Goetz will speaking on “Women on the Home Front” during the war.


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