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Remembered Today:

Skin colour of WW1 troops?


flers1916
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It may seem a strange question but I would like to know the opinions of the forum on what skin colour did troops have after duty in the trenches on the Western Front. I know they spent a lot of time in the open so did they colour up like agricultural workers? Being covered in mud, were they coloured by the region they fought in: ie white chalk, coal dust, yellow clay, red stain from iron rich soils? The reason I am asking is that I model ceramic heads and having portrayed 'canary girls' and 'indoor' workers it would be interesting to portray the skin colour of front line troops. All your thoughts will be appreciated.

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One could quote Lord Curzon observing troops bathing "I never realised that the working class had such white skin" but I think what you should be asking about is complexion not skin colour. The former you get born with the latter you acquire. Some soldiers would have been workers in the open before they enlisted, other could have worked far from the sun. The amount of time most soldiers actually spent in the front lines was actually relatively limited (horrific though it may have been) I suspect that complexion variations would depend on a] ethnicity b] previous occupation and c] theatre of war in which they served in that order

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I take your correction, I should have said 'complexion' especially remembering it was a 'World War' involving peoples from many nations. "I never realised that the working class had such white skin" presumably their bodies not faces and arms?

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Given that they spent so much time outdoors - marching, doing fatigues or training when not in trenches - I would imagine that, for most of the year apart from the winter months at least, their faces and hands were very tanned indeed (although some of us with Scottish ancestry don't tan much, and the ginger ones burn!), and their bodies very white when bathing - I'm sure that I have seen photos of troops swimming in rivers etc which show this.

William

Edit: I have seen photos of artillery men in action, stripped to the waist and tanned.

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Veterans who had served in India and other Tropical/Hotspots would if they had the right complexion have maintained a tanned look. My father spent four years or so in India in WW2 up to Independence and always had a tanned look on face, arms and lower legs. When I returned from a 6 week exercise in Cyprus my Tan lasted about six months

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More weathered than tanned I suspect (unless of course they were fighting in say Egypt and Palestine for example) but given the time troops actually spent in the trenches and that in the line duties might involve their unit manning a section in the Salient one time and perhaps down near the Somme the next I don't think that the local geological or soil conditions would have a particular effect

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... Edit: I have seen photos of artillery men in action, stripped to the waist and tanned.

Being behind the front line would make that entirely probable.

For what it is worth, being a typical 'pinkish' Englishman, my own experience from several years of field archaeology in Turkey is that I get deeply 'tanned / weathered' forearms during the summer and these will stay 'brown' even into November before fading somewhat, but after so many years here of doing that work I find that there is still a hint of the protected watch-strap line when the next summer comes round again.

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Edit: I have seen photos of artillery men in action, stripped to the waist and tanned.

Men in shorts are well in evidence in the film of the Somme battle

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Men in shorts are well in evidence in the film of the Somme battle

The QM of 1/5th King's Own records cutting down trousers to make shorts while his battalion were there. (Something they'd also done in the Salient in 1915) He complains that this was such a waste of money and that the Army should have issued shorts. (A divisional order banning the practice appeared later in 1916) He maintained that even in their wettest, muddiest days in the Somme, that the men preferred shorts when they were in the line or on working parties, as it was easier to clean them and less weight of mud to carry around.

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One thought - thanks to Thomas Midgley Jr's sterling efforts in depleting the ozone layer it's now much easier to get sun burnt (and skin cancer) than it was back before chlorofluorocarbons were around. Possibly we shouldn't extrapolate from today's conditions too much and assume such a high degree of tanning.

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I just thought I would add the transcript of a letter sent to my Grandmother from my Grandfather's C.O. in the BEF.

Keith.

What a nice letter. Thanks for sharing that with us, Keith.

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What a nice letter. Thanks for sharing that with us, Keith.

It does make one wonder how many officers were as caring about their men and their relatives back home!

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