DRESSING AN ARMY: How slouch hats became legendary

A soldier of the Australian Imperial Force calls for reinforcements. He is wearing the brown leather bandolier of a mounted soldier.
A soldier of the Australian Imperial Force calls for reinforcements. He is wearing the brown leather bandolier of a mounted soldier. Courtesy of the National Library

A MOUNTED soldier, resplendent in fresh and clean khaki complete with slouch hat and the rising sun on his lapels, cooees for reinforcements.

He stands on two European nations - they are nothing more to him than blocks of dirt. The image remains a powerful piece of war propaganda.

On April 25, 1915, the soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force landed at what would become known as Anzac Cove and made their way up the steep slopes of the Turkish coastline.

They took their place in trenches.

They fought. And they died, in their thousands, along with other Aussie men battling across the Western Front in Belgium and France.

Australia was a country with a population of five million when the First World War began in August 1914.

Of that population, 416,809 men enlisted. More than 60,000 died. They never saw home again.

The reality of life on the front line was starkly different to that of the war posters calling for enlistment.


Frank Hurley photographs an artillery crew in the First World War.
Frank Hurley photographs an artillery crew in the First World War. Frank Hurley, courtesy of the National Library of Australia

In his book, Badge, Boot, Button: The Story of Australian Uniforms, author Craig Wilcox assessed the likelihood of a soldier keeping his whole uniform together as the war raged around him.

Many soldiers fought shirtless in Gallipoli, either because it was too hot or they lost them. And despite its legendary status, the slouch hat was rarely worn on the Turkish coastline. Sheepskin vests and scarves were common in trenches in France and Belgium.

"When soldiers get to war, most of the uniform disappears," Mr Wilcox said.

"They often end up wearing, particularly when you've got several allied armies together, you end up wearing whatever clothing you can get."

The Commonwealth Clothing Factory dressed most of the AIF. Mr Wilcox said that by 1917, the cost of clothing the army was high. For instance, 50,000 pairs of boots were needed every month in that year.

"The federal government reluctantly placed additional orders with private firms such as Vicars, Blundstone and Akubra, for whom the war proved a bonanza," Mr Wilcox said.

But the genesis of the now legendary khakis of the First World War began before 1914.

The author, 57, who has written several books on military history, said that at the end of the nineteenth century the "mostly part-timers" of the Australian citizen army were wearing red or blue uniforms, and sometimes khaki.

"Australia federates during the Boer War (1899-1902) when khaki is being worn at the front," Mr Wilcox said.


Badge, Boot, Button: The Story of Australian Uniforms by Craig Wilcox is out now through NLA Publishing, RRP $44.99.
Badge, Boot, Button: The Story of Australian Uniforms by Craig Wilcox is out now through NLA Publishing, RRP $44.99.

"We get a British general officer commanding, and he's a fan of khaki so it gets introduced. But in the beginning, people really don't like it."

Mr Wilcox said the popular belief at the time of the move to khaki was that it gave the wrong impression.

"It makes it look like war is murder rather than war is a fight with rules," he said.

And in Australia, the colour was a practical solution when the government could only afford one uniform for soldiers on and off the battlefield.

The sole colouring would also provide a unifying effect for the soldiers within the AIF, and was intended to intimidate the enemy as thousands of soldiers marched together.

Parts of that uniform, so unpopular in the beginning, would also become a symbol of the Anzac spirit for generations following the Great War.

"For example, during the First World War, the man who becomes prime minister from 1915, Billy Hughes, when he travels overseas he wears a slouch hat. He's mobbed by Australians overseas and they stick a slouch hat on his head and carry him on their shoulders," Mr Wilcox said.

"He helps make it part of the Australian identity by doing that."

Nuances in the way soldiers wore the hat also melded it with our nation's fledgling identity.

"A few armies go to war wearing the felt hats, but there's slight differences in how Australians mould the crown and turn up one of the sides of the brim," Mr Wilcox said.

"The New Zealanders have very similar hats, but they look a little different.

"Tiny differences are really important to people. When you're grabbing onto what reminds you of home and what reminds you of your family and what's distinctive and nice and quaint and good about the world you've left behind, anything that brings that back to mind is valuable.

"The uniform can help to do that."

And for former servicemen and women who have served more recently, the uniforms still stir much pride and love for the armed forces.

Maroochydore RSL president Michael Liddelow joined the Australian Army in 1974, aged 18. He spent nearly 28 years in the regular army and another 13 years in the Army Reserve before retiring in 2014.

The Sunshine Coast resident was stationed in a number of postings along the Australian eastern seaboard. He toured East Timor with the International Force for East Timor in a peacekeeping role in late 1999 and early 2000 before serving as a captain in Iraq for seven months during 2007 and 2008.

Mr Liddelow, 61, said the pride in the uniform developed more over the years.

"Once you've made the transition from civilian life to military life, there's a discipline involved in being a defence member," he said.

"You are growing up in uniform. As you progress through the ranks you develop more understanding of the pride of the uniform."

Mr Liddelow said Australians were known across the world not only for their exploits in the khaki but also the elements of mateship and commitment Aussie soldiers had cultivated in numerous conflicts and in peacekeeping roles.

"The role we play is very important and it puts Australia on the map as a country that cares," he said.

Coolum Peregian RSL sub-branch president Mark Payne said the army uniform symbolised mateship and pride.

Mr Payne, 48, joined the army in 1988, at 18, and was medically discharged with a knee injury after four years.


Coolum Peregian RSL sub-branch president Mark Payne at the Coolum cenotaph.
Coolum Peregian RSL sub-branch president Mark Payne at the Coolum cenotaph. Warren Lynam

"The uniform for me is pride, is ownership and something I enjoyed wearing," he said.

"You were always immaculate."

His grandfathers on both sides of the family served in Gallipoli, his mother's brothers all served - one in Papua New Guinea - and his father was in the national service.

"My grandfathers wore it, my dad wore it so I wore it," he said.

Mr Payne said he felt incredible pride seeing the cadets in uniform on Anzac Day.

"I love the military, I love the army," he said.

Badge, Boot, Button: The Story of Australian Uniforms by Craig Wilcox is out now through NLA Publishing, RRP $44.99.

Topics:  anzac 2017 anzac day anzacs armed services army editors picks khaki slouch hat uniform

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