In 1914 Great Britain went to war, the uniform that our army would wear had already undergone a number of changes and modifications in the years shortly before the outbreak of war, most importantly the use of khaki cloth for the standard issue Service Dress.
The Great Coat formed part of the Service Dress issued to men as they entered the War in Europe. The Great Coat came in variations of below the knee in length and single breasted for dismounted troops, whereas for mounted troops, they were issued with a shorter, knee length version that was double breasted.
The coat was woven of a drab melton like cloth that was supposedly waterproof, the men were quick to learn that this was not the case. Once wet the unlined heavy duty coat stayed wet, it would easily collect mud which would dry and cake onto the surface adding to its, already heavy, weight.
Any alterations made to ones uniform would be met with suitable punishment as one solider realised when he cut the mud soaked bottom off from his Great Coat to ease the weight.
“I had cut my overcoat, greatcoat, at the bottom because it was all a foot soaked in mud and hard and was rubbing against my leg and I cut it off. That was a crime, interfering with Military property.”
Harold Joseph Taylor; IWM 9422
In November 2016 I visited the Imperial War Museum at Duxford to see for myself a World War 1 Great Coat.
The Coat was concealed in a zipped up dress/coat carrier, I felt a tingle of anticipation, it brought to mind the question of how the men must of felt receiving their khaki uniform for the first time. Many men had been made to wait due to the pressures placed upon uniform manufacture and in the mean time had been forced to wear the much less desirable ‘Kitchener Blue’s”.
As soon as the coat became visible as the bag was undone I took a sharp intake of breath, a swathe of khaki lay before me. Even after 100 years the coat still held an air of authority.
We placed the coat on a mannequin and straight away I understood why men would complain about it’s weight. Stood in the warmth and stillness of a back room of the museum the coat was hard to handle, it was heavy and quite honestly, I think it could probably stand up by itself it was that stiff. So think of the men, marching for miles, in the rain, in the wind and then trudging through trenches only wide enough for one man to pass through at a time. I was silent for a few moments.
Then I was taken it by its full glory, the beauty of its construction, its craftmanship. At the time Britain went to war, English tailoring was at the forefront of menswear, admired by the likes of men in Paris who appreciated the excellent cut and workmanship employed by the English tailors of Saville Row. Therefore it made sense to me that the Great Coat embodied a sense of sartorial finesse.
The collar is rounded and tall to offer protection around the neck with a wide tab buttoning across the throat.
Five General Service brass buttons fasten down the front. The same buttons repeated in the centre back tab used to draw the coat in at the back.
The centre back falls away from the neck into a long inward pleat.
The coat, for me, stood for the message that whilst we go to war and fight to defend our country, we will do so in the finest way possible.
The coat in front of me, I felt proud, I understand how the coat along with the rest of the service uniform would have an initial impact of pride and strength. The uniform made soldiers of men.
As the War came to an end, the men spread across the globe were slowly demobilised.
It was at this point the Great Coat would have its lasting moment. The uniforms that the men had lived in, slept in, breathed in, fought in would now be handed back to the authorities in exchange for a civilian suit of clothing. The Great Coat had been issued under the title of ‘Public Property’ unlike the Service Dress uniform and so had to be returned but in the case of the Great Coat there was the option to keep ones Great Coat, for a £1 fee.
As demobilisation took place as we neared the winter season, many men took the option to keep their Great Coat. This may have been wise as it was a strong, durable coat, one of which may have been the best quality of coat many men could ever hope to own. Could it also be that the Great Coat held just a few memories too? Many memories of the First World War were harrowing and difficult for many but their were also the memories of brotherhood, belonging to a cause, doing ones ‘bit’. The Great Coat now acts a visual memory of a War that has had a long and lasting impact upon our Nation.