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Remembered Today:

Issuing of Rifles to British Officers


CambraiComrade
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Hello,

A friend of mine would like to know how an officer would have been issued a rifle over a sidearm.

How did they get one, how common was this (I realise it wasn't at all but how popular throughout each year) and did they carry them for long?

Many thanks,

William

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Officers quite quickly realised that no rifle marked a man out on the battlefield so many would carry a rifle as part of this when they went over the top to try and blend in a little bit better..

Craig

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I thought so. Does anyone have any photos of this?

William

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Officers quite quickly realised that no rifle marked a man out on the battlefield so many would carry a rifle as part of this when they went over the top to try and blend in a little bit better..

Craig

This started in the South African War for much the same reason

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  • 2 weeks later...

Unfortunately there are very few “battle field” photos of British & Dominion troops on the Western Front other than “Official” photographs due to the severe censorship restrictions prohibiting the possession or use of cameras by other than designated official photographers.

With “Official” photographs, these were still subject to censorship and unacceptable concepts like officers wearing service dress tunics, wearing web equipment and carrying a rifle did not get past the censor.

Cheers

Ross T

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There are certainly very few photos. However, there is a well known painting by the artist James Prinsep Beadle, showing Lt Francis Bodenham Thornley leading his men during the 36th Ulster Division attack. The painting depicts the

Men of B Company, 5th (North Belfast) Battalion, 5th Royal Irish Rifles.

Lt.Thornley was wounded during the Battle of the Somme and whilst in hospital assisted JP Beadle with the uniform details for the painting, so we can be assured of its accuracy.

Lt. Thornley (the figure with his arm raised) is dressed and equipped in a similar way to his men, complete with SMLE and fixed bayonet, though with the addition of a pistol case and lanyard and a pair of binoculars it would seem.

post-7141-0-82169100-1414409538_thumb.jp

Though in some ways a traditional heroic scene, it does have an unusual degree of accuracy and atmosphere for the time. Certainly one of my favourite Great War paintings, though I am a little biased as a collector of uniform and equipment and having been a military illustrator for many years! This painting has always been an inspiration to me.

post-7141-0-43632500-1414409747_thumb.jp

Regards

Tocemma

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There is also his work 'Zero Hour' which also depicts a figure which I have always believed to be an Officer dressed as a Tommy, once again complete with rifle and bayonet.

I don't have decent image of this painting to hand, but here is a poor quality version.

post-7141-0-25227900-1414410459_thumb.jp

Once again good attention to detail and great atmosphere.

Regards

Tocemma

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Very nice image posted in #6. Not seen before. Thanks for posting. I note the object of the painting and the 2 troops to the left of frame are wearing what appears to be "shorts". Not familiar with this dress mode in the trenches of the Western Front. Tocemma can you provide any additional info re same please. Rod

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Very nice image posted in #6. Not seen before. Thanks for posting. I note the object of the painting and the 2 troops to the left of frame are wearing what appears to be "shorts". Not familiar with this dress mode in the trenches of the Western Front. Tocemma can you provide any additional info re same please. Rod

See Graves' 'Goodbye to All That'. Graves has just joined the Second Battalion, RWF and is hearing from a fellow officer. It is July 1915:

"...you notice everybody's wearing shorts? It's a regimental order. The battalion thinks it's still in India..."

On his first night with the Battalion, Graves is "asked whether I would like to go out on patrol...Sergeant Townsend and I went out from Red Light Corner at about ten o'clock; both carrying revolvers. We had pulled socks, with the toes cut off, over our bare knees, to prevent them showing up in the dark and to make crawling easier."

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Rod,

They are cut down Service Dress trousers, though of course damaged SD trousers were also probably used. Though seen in some units, not all Battalions allowed such use. Several General Routine Orders were issued prohibiting the practice on grounds of cost/damage to Government property etc.

Regards

Tocemma

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Unfortunately there are very few “battle field” photos of British & Dominion troops on the Western Front other than “Official” photographs due to the severe censorship restrictions prohibiting the possession or use of cameras by other than designated official photographers.

With “Official” photographs, these were still subject to censorship and unacceptable concepts like officers wearing service dress tunics, wearing web equipment and carrying a rifle did not get past the censor.

Cheers

Ross T

Would it perhaps not be true to say that many photographs may exist, but that it is impossible to identify officers ? I was about to post a photo of a private and a lieutenant from the Anglo-Boer War which shows that even then it was all but impossible to distinguish officers from men, except if you were close enough to distinguish between rank stars and shoulder titles.

It also shows how the principle was widespread fifteen years before the Great War started, so why wasn't it immediately adopted in 1914, I wonder ?

I have been deterred from posting the pic due to an unusually strict copyright warning, but it appears in "To The Bitter End" by Emanoel Lee

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Sometime in Jul-Aug 1915 Officers at Gallipoli were instructed to dress and arm themselves as soldiers. There is a photo of two Yeomanry Officers advancing across Suvla Plain both with slung rifles on 21st Aug 1915. It was reproduced in a national newspaper. I think GWF member Andrew French has a copy. It is on a Gallipoli thread somewhere but for the life of me I can't find it. The order was not adhered to in the strictest sense. Capt Wedgwood Benn (Middlesex Hussars) went into action without a weapon that day.

Slightly related to the OP question is when exactly did infantry Officers abandon their swords. Montgomery allegedly tripped over his during the retreat from Mons (at Le Cateau I think) and this may well have saved his life as fire from the Germans killed a number of men he was with at the time.

There is also a thread with pictures of British Troops marching through a village in France or Flanders clearly showing Officers with webbing equipment in 1916.

MG

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There is a photograph in Martin Middlebook's 'The First Day on the Somme' of "A platoon of D Company, 7th Bedfords" marching "through a French village on its way to the trenches." The photo shows the officer wearing an officer's uniform, but the caption reads "...The platoon commander, Lieut Douglas Keep, will go into action in Service Dress..." I can find no further mention in the book's text.

I remember reading in an officer's memoirs that he and his fellow officers had taken to wearIng the uniform of the private soldier because German snipers had learned to recognise officers' "thin knees". But I can't find it or remember any other details.

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It's hard to find things sometimes ! It is often said that "the Boers taught us no end of a lesson" and that the efficiency and tactics of the 1914 regular army had benefitted enormously from the ABW experience. And yet it seems that the experience of serious junior officer casualties which had been addressed by a General Order of November 1899 (to wear rankers' rig) was forgotten in August 1914, and had to be re-learned.

Was there some sort of bravado involved ? Graves mentions being castigated for wearing shoulder rank when he joined 2/RWF, which were derisively called "Wind-up pips" (short "i" meaning fear.)

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This thread here covered some of the ground. The last post is interesting which mentions the 1899 order that officers will not carry swords and must carry a rifle and bayonet as alluded to by others on this thread.

"Juvenis" aka Lt O G E McWilliam, 5th (Service) Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusilers - Action on 15th Aug 1915:

"In a few minutes all was ready for the move. Two ammunition boxes of water were to be carried behind each platoon (we had seen the result of the lack of it a few days before). The canvas bandoliers were slung on, chin-straps drawn down to keep the helmets on, etc. I secured a casualty's rifle and bayonet, and made a brief exhortation to the section commanders. It would have been much longer, but was unfortunately cut short by orders to lead on my platoon, down back along the little path past the battalion headquarters and the doctor's little dug-out......We crossed their trench and advanced into the low scrub to a little hollow where the company commander was waiting for us. Just as I was jumping across the trench one of the gunner officers advised me to take off my collar and tie if I wanted to return, so as to be more like the men; so I unfastened them as we went on, and put them in my pocket....

7th Northants Battalion Orders for 27 August 1915 , I came across this item:


1. Officers' Dress.As the Brigade will shortly be going abroad, the Brig. Gen wishes to call attention to a lecture delivered at Portslade by General Pilcher last winter advising officers to dress like their men. He recommends all Regimental Officers to have one service jacket and one pair of trousers the same pattern as that of their men, to wear in the trenches, and also the same pattern great-coat.
(Bde lr no 2470 dated 28.8.15)"

Maj Rettie, "With the Field Artillery at Suvla Bay"

We had an FOO at Sulajik who was relived every 24 hours. These Officers quickly tumbled to the fact that they received far more attention from the snipers than their accompanying signallers, so they took to leaving off their belts, turning up the collars of their coats and carrying rifles, and so became less attractive.

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It is one of those lessons that doesn't seem to have been remembered for long before it went back out of the window - officers have always been targeted (quite wisely from the enemy point of view) to some extent. I've seen it said that some of the officers in the American War of Independence started carrying muskets and trying to blend in with the men specifically because they were being targeted.

Craig

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It is worth considering that the British Army's widespread adoption of khaki had been within living memory and that junior officers were expected to lead from the front. They did this with reckless abandon in 1914 and later in 1915. Junior officer casualty rates for 1914 are simply horrendous reading. Similarly junior Officer casualty rates as late as August 1915 at Gallipoli are some of the worst of the whole war.

Despite the strong evidence that napoleonic tactics were not a good response to industrial warfare, the lessons of 1899 took rather too long to be re-learned. Even within theatres the necessary tactical adjustments were not always passed on to newly arriving troops. MG

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I remember reading in an officer's memoirs that he and his fellow officers had taken to wearIng the uniform of the private soldier because German snipers had learned to recognise officers' "thin knees". But I can't find it or remember any other details.

I've certainly translated German action reports referring to the shooting down of officers recognised by their 'skinny legs'. Reference was also made to men who carried pistols and turned side-on or completely around to exhort their men onwards. Some of these may perhaps have been officers in OR uniforms, but the Germans supposed them to be senior NCOs and picked them off anyway on the principle of taking out anyone who seemed to be a 'leader'.

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Tocemma & Uncle george, thanks for the explanation. Learn something new every day. Rod

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Thanks for all the information chaps! So it would be risky to re-enact but acceptable for certain engagements I suppose.

The swords question was also a helpful answer.

Many thanks

William

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  • 3 weeks later...

There are certainly very few photos. However, there is a well known painting by the artist James Prinsep Beadle, showing Lt Francis Bodenham Thornley leading his men during the 36th Ulster Division attack. The painting depicts the

Men of B Company, 5th (North Belfast) Battalion, 5th Royal Irish Rifles.

Lt.Thornley was wounded during the Battle of the Somme and whilst in hospital assisted JP Beadle with the uniform details for the painting, so we can be assured of its accuracy.

Lt. Thornley (the figure with his arm raised) is dressed and equipped in a similar way to his men, complete with SMLE and fixed bayonet, though with the addition of a pistol case and lanyard and a pair of binoculars it would seem.

attachicon.gifimage.jpg

Though in some ways a traditional heroic scene, it does have an unusual degree of accuracy and atmosphere for the time. Certainly one of my favourite Great War paintings, though I am a little biased as a collector of uniform and equipment and having been a military illustrator for many years! This painting has always been an inspiration to me.

attachicon.gifimage.jpg

Regards

Tocemma

There are a number of posts on the internet stating that this painting depicts the 5th Royal Irish Rifles attacking at the Somme, the 5th R.I.R. were an Extra Reserve Battalion and were based in Ireland at the time of the Somme. From memory I am fairly sure that Thornley was in the 11th Battalion (South Antrim) R.I.R. They were the right of 108th Brigade's attack that day and the painting depicts the area just to the west of where the Ulster Tower now stands. Fantastic painting, a copy hangs in my house.

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Hi W Don,

Many thanks for the clarification about the unit, I looked it up at the time of posting and as you say it is identified, incorrectly it seems, in a number of places. I've also got a copy of this hanging in my office, it's an excellent piece of work.

Regards

Tocemma

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