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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

British Army Khaki


Chalkhill Blue

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New to the forum so apologies if this has been done to death already.

In the comic books of my youth tommies were depicted in service dress that was between a mid and dark gingery sort of brown. Great War examples in the showcases in the IWM and National Army Museum are a much lighter, almost sandy shade of brown. However, alongside them are other examples that are distinctly green in hue.

I also notice that a few recent books on the Great War have dust-jacket photos which have been artistically coloured and feature tommies in decidedly green uniforms.

Somebody suggested to me that the need to arm and equip a rapidly growing army from the outset of the Great War meant that contracts to produce the large number of uniforms required would have been placed with numerous suppliers and hence the disparities in the shade of the serge cloth. This seems credible enough, although the whole idea of 'uniform' is surely based on uniformity. Surely after some time the army would have got to grips with these inconsistencies?

Of course I may just be colour-blind, but can anyone shed any further light on this?

Bryan

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A veteran told me that in his battalion uniforms ranged from a yellow to milk chocolate. Different makers, washing practice, and poor dyes, all accounted for this. Service dress if left outside for about two years in all weathers will go a blueish grey shade, judging by the one left outside on a mannequin at a local museum.

Gareth

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I once spoke to a company which had produced SD Wool/worsted and Battledress wool/wool serge.

During the period from 1902 to the 1960s they produced some fifty or more diferent shades of khaki, ranging from a distinctly grey tinged version of khaki (which they referred to as 'Guards' khaki) to the green tinged Canadian shade.

(odd the things one remembers)

Tom the Walrus.

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Thanks for that, Tom.

The first I've heard that different units had their own preference or specification for khaki service dress - and that from the people who would know! Do you remember which company this was?

Bryan

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Bryan,

Not off the top of my head, but it was one of the older 'traditional' wool mills -I'll see if I've got a record - unfortunately, I lost a lot of stuff in a domestic flood a couple of years back.

Tom the Walrus

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Hi

Did the use Mulberry Juice in the Khaki dye, I can remember reading somewhere that it was originally, maybe Old Indian Army prior to the Mutiny.

Regards

Mart

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Bryan

There is no significance at all to the colour of the khaki. I have seen hundreds of khaki jackets and quite a few pairs of trousers over the years, of every shade of khaki imaginable. In large collections, some with a couple of dozen jackets, I’ve yet to see an exact colour match. For whatever reason, it seems to have been difficult for the makers to achieve a uniform colour, and whilst certain shades are perhaps typical of certain periods of the war (reddish earlier on, greenish later), this is by no means a hard and fast rule. Basically it’s down to however the dye happened to come out, what dyes were available, what local conditions happened to be present, etc.

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Well, thanks all.

My Chambers dictionary definition of khaki is "dust-coloured, dull brownish or greenish yellow..."

That's quite a wide range and perhaps this ambiguity itself is partly responsible for the many variations to be seen.

I'm reminded of the account of a young French girl when first seeing British soldiers in the Great War; she described them as so many "dusty canaries!" (can't remember which book I read this in)

It still surprises me that the great industrial power of the time turned out an army in such an inadvertantly wide range of "uniform".

Bryan

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Bryan,

Here is an example of two SD jackets issued to the same man in the Gordon's. Note the great colour differences.

scan0001qo3.jpg

This problem persisted until well after the Great War. My parents both served in the US Army through the mid 1950's and both relate stories about exchanging uniforms pieces with others to try and get a close match between trouser and jacket.

The British army actually had pattern sealed the material going into the unifom pieces. In the case of Serge the WO sealed 6 different alternate OR Drab (Khaki) jacket weight serges through-out the war. All in production at the same time and all only differed in weave instructions. All were supposed to be colour standard to a single shade but this was very hard for different mills to adhere to--even the same mill from different lot to different lot. This does not even account for material that was accepted "as is" and was not produced to a war office standard.

I have a few pre-war SD jackets that tend towards a more uniform shade (at least not as wild a difference), like the right hand jacket, but then again pre-war there was far less demand--usually about 250,000 jackets per annum, which is not a great deal so keeping standard was at least a little more feasible.

Joe Sweeney

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An excellent illustration, Joe!

In my mind it's the left-hand, brownish alternative that is 'true' khaki.

Certainly this disparity was also evident in the Second War. I have seen plenty of examples of battledress tunics that are even darker brown than the left-hand example in your picture. But watch any episode of Dad's Army and you'll see Mainwaring and co kitted out in 'green' battledress.

You clearly have some detailed knowleldge of this subject - I'm curious as to its source, if that's okay.

Thanks,

Bryan

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"... But watch any episode of Dad's Army and you'll see Mainwaring and co kitted out in 'green' battledress..."

Bryan,

Just to slip off topic slightly.

I think you'll find that, in 'Dad's Army', "Mainwaring and Co." are kitted out in denims, cut in the Battledress style.

Tom

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The U.S. Army olive drab cotton fatigues I was issued as a private in '77 faded to a nice bluish green color after repeated launderings. Shortly thereafter the army came out with wash and wear OD green fatigues. I promptly bought five sets and after I'd spent about $40 to have U.S. Army tapes and name tapes sewn above the pockets it was pointed out to me that one of the two breast pockets on one of the shirts was two inches higher than the other! It turned out that two of my shirts were like that. I got an exchange on the shirts but the sewing cost was a loss. I was on my way to Officer Candidate School and I couldn't have survived inspections with those defective shirts.

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Bryan,

Just to slip off topic slightly.

I think you'll find that, in 'Dad's Army', "Mainwaring and Co." are kitted out in denims, cut in the Battledress style.

Tom

Actually, you're both right - for the very earliest episodes, Mainwaring et al wear their normal civilian clothes with the LDV armbands. Then they get an issue of the denims, as these were at least vaguely of a more military appearance (they also get issued with 1908 webbing at one point as well). Then finally they get issued with the true BD. These match the rough pattern of equipment issue for the real Home Guard. And indeed, Mainwaring usually has a slightly more green BD than the rest (although it does seem to vary, probably due to costuming differences throughout the series)..

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I am told that even today if you buy knitting wool you have to make sure you have all the same lot no. if you don't it appears to make ladies swear!

So during war time with vast amounts of cloth being made with various quality dyes it is no surprise shades vary.

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An excellent illustration, Joe!

In my mind it's the left-hand, brownish alternative that is 'true' khaki.

Certainly this disparity was also evident in the Second War. I have seen plenty of examples of battledress tunics that are even darker brown than the left-hand example in your picture. But watch any episode of Dad's Army and you'll see Mainwaring and co kitted out in 'green' battledress.

You clearly have some detailed knowleldge of this subject - I'm curious as to its source, if that's okay.

Thanks,

Bryan

Bryan,

Most of my info comes out of the RACD records and records kept by the National Archives.

FYI the one on the right is actually closer to the Drab wool on most of my pre-war Jackets and coats.

Also when P14 leather equipment came out in 1914 it was dyed in a colour called "Service Dress" which had a bit of a greenish grey hue to it.

Joe Sweeney

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Bryan,

Most of my info comes out of the RACD records and records kept by the National Archives.

FYI the one on the right is actually closer to the Drab wool on most of my pre-war Jackets and coats.

Also when P14 leather equipment came out in 1914 it was dyed in a colour called "Service Dress" which had a bit of a greenish grey hue to it.

Joe Sweeney

Thanks once again, Joe.

Ermmm...RACD?

Bryan

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