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The Great War By John French

You might also be interested in reading this article on German Cavalry by John French and Kevin Dallimore.

The popular image of World War One is of trenches and suicidal infantry charges over ground swept by machine- gun fire. Whilst these obviously occurred the wargamer can use these models for tabletop actions on a much smaller scale. The retreat from Mons was littered with delaying actions, such as the Middlesex and 4/Fusiliers holding the Nimy section of the Mons- Conde Canal 23 August 1914. At 1st Ypres the 2nd Battalion of the Worcestershires, only 500 strong counter-attacked at the Chateau of Gheluvelt on 31 October 1914 and linking with the remnants of the South Wales Borderers managed to halt the German advance. By plugging the gap in the British line Ypres was held and the Channel Ports were saved. These models can also be used for trench raids by either side when small numbers of men were sent out on aggressive patrols often to gain intelligence reports, capture prisoners, or destroy a machine gun position or observation post. Of course the models can be used for a section of the Somme offensive in July 1916, or the massed tank formations that were launched at Cambrai in November 1917. Tanks which had been knocked out were also used as cover for machine-gun parties and temporary shelter for wounded or prisoners.

The British in effect had no less than 4 armies during W.W.I. The regular professional army (volunteers) had almost ceased to exist by the end of 1914 as its casualties were so high. The territorial reservists formed the second and by end of 1914 they too were fighting in the front line. The third army was comprised of Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ of volunteers, the ‘Pals’ battalions that were so badly mauled on 1 July 1916, on the opening day of the Somme. These were the Service Battalions of existing regiments. Lastly there were the troops raised by conscription. A total of 82 Divisions were raised of various types from Regular Cavalry to a Royal Naval Division. Each Infantry Division was made up of three brigades, which were numbered consecutively through the divisions. A brigade was made of 4 battalions initially, reduced to three in 1918. Battalions were the basic infantry unit and were titled and numbered according to existing regiments. A regiment usually had its 1st and 2nd Battalion composed of regulars. The 3rd, was usually the reserve battalion, whilst 4th or 5th Battalions were of ‘Territorials’, part-time soldiers at the outset. Any further battalions were designated ‘Service Battalions’, who were enlisted for the duration of the war. There were also ‘second line’ territorial units which were duplicates of the original Territorial Force battalions. They would be numbered 2nd/4th Battalion &c. Although many regiments raised numerous battalions they were seldom numbered above 20. A battalion was composed of around 1,000 men made of 4 rifle companies (nominally 227 each), plus headquarters company (nominally 99). In practice these numbers were rarely attained. Before an action it was usual to withdraw some men so that some remained even if the regiment took heavy casualties. A company had 4 platoons each of 4 sections. By the end of the war each platoon had a Lewis Gun section. 

 

British Infantry in Service Dress

Although dressed in ‘khaki’, the shades could vary from greenish-brown to brown-yellow. Peaked cloth service cap had a crown that was stiffened by wire hoops. The men soon removed these giving them a floppy appearance. Men also had a woollen cap comforter. Tunic, trousers and puttees were all khaki and boots were brown leather. The men also had a second pair of boots polished black, originally intended for parade wear.

There no doubt quickly came a point where either were worn. Regimental distinctions were confined to badges on the collar or metal titles fixed to the shoulder straps. Equipment was the 1908 webbing equipment, although some service battalions were issued with older leather equipment polished black. Rifle regiments had their bronze buttons painted in black. Officers had jacket with rank markings outlined on the cuffs in white NCO’s braid. This often marked officers as targets for snipers so officers sometimes took to wearing other ranks tunics.

British Infantry in Helmets

Issued late 1915, the helmets were covered with sandbag material cut and sewn to shape. Covers were later supplied made of the same material. They were either left the light tawny/sandy brown or dyed brown, green or a mixture of both. The uniform was almost the same throughout the course of the war with only small modifications. The use of formation patches became more common from 1916, until they were universal in 1918. They could be worn on the shoulder, helmet cover, on the back of the collar or just below the collar. They varied considerably and there seemed to be no regulations to cover their usage. They could be geometric shapes or symbols in a variety of sizes and colours. A good selection of these are shown in Osprey MAA 182 & 245 (‘British Territorial Units 1914-18’ and ‘British Battle Insignia 1914-18’). Proficiency badges, rank markings, service stripes and wound stripes are all items which space does not permit to go into detail. Troops that advanced on the first day of the Somme had small triangles of tin plate on their packs so that spotter planes could monitor their progress.

British Trench Raiders

Intended to be used on aggressive patrols either as a raid or more likely to snatch prisoners for interrogation. One has a goatskin jacket, one of the items issued in early 1915, along with leather jerkins and other coats as it became obvious that the clothing required in trench warfare in winter was somewhat deficient. He also wears a knitted hat (a variety of shades of dark / drab colours). Another wears the trench cap with earflaps and canvas bag for carrying Mills bombs. Officers sometimes had custom made coats, he is also with a shotgun for close quarters fighting. Many men improvised weapons - knives, knuckle-dusters, clubs and sharpened entrenching tools amongst others. Other models in light equipment could also be used / converted from the stretcher bearers which are open-handed, and there is also a ‘raider’ in the interrogation set, wearing simple armour and leather patches on knees.

British Artillery

Royal Horse Artillery Limber


British Artillery in Service Dress Cap

British Artillery in Helmets

Originally 6-gun batteries (exception being the heaviest guns which were in 4-gun batteries), but Territorial & ‘New Army’ batteries were initially 4-gun batteries, until 1916 when the 6-gun battery was made universal. Three batteries made a brigade. Divisional artillery consisted of 3 Brigades of field Artillery (9x6), 1 Brigade of Howitzers(3x6), and one Battery of heavy guns (1x4) - total 76 guns. The main gun was the 18- pounder, with the 13-pounder used for horse artillery. The uniform was the same as the infantry, the only distinctions being the corps badges & insignia.

British Machine Gun Crews. Uniforms as for infantry.

 

British Interrogation Group

Stretcher-bearers 

Helmeted stretcher-bearer wears leather jerkin and scarf to keep out the cold. Both have ‘red cross’ brassards on left arm, or they could be painted white with red lettering ‘SB’ for stretcher-bearer.

British Mark IV Tanks

The Mark IV was delivered to the Army towards the end of April 1917. The male tanks had short 6-pounder guns and secondary armament of machine guns. Although the Hotchkiss guns of the Mark I were replaced by Lewis guns in the Mark IV this was deemed a retrograde step as they were more prone to damage and the housing offered less protection to the firer. Some crews replaced that in the front plate for the older weapon. Later tanks had modified Hotchkiss guns to replace all the Lewis guns. The shorter barrels of the 6-pounders meant they were less liable to damage when the tank ditched than guns used on earlier tanks. The female tanks had machine guns only. There were 1015 tanks built but this may have included some 200 supply tenders. Each company originally had 24 tanks plus 1 reserve. They were organised into 4 sections of 6, each with 3 male & 3 female.

At Cambrai 20 November 1917 the first massed tank attack, there were 378 tanks plus a reserve of 58. Tanks included wire cutters (marked with ‘WC’ on a white rear panel), supply carriers and wireless vehicles. These were usually converted Mk. I tanks with modified sponsons. Tanks were given names to match their squadron letter e.g. ‘H’ squadron included tanks called ‘Hilda’ (general’s flag tank) ‘Hadrian’ ‘Havoc’ ‘Hyacinth’ ‘Hermosa’ ‘Hong Kong’ ‘Hydra’ ‘Harlequin’. Serial numbers ranged from at least 2324 to 2836 with others numbered 4000 series. ‘Hilda’ had no known number. Tanks at Cambrai painted in olive drab.

Some Mark IV tanks were in use until the end of the war. During the Spring Offensive of 1918, many tanks were captured, refurbished at Charleroi in Belgium before being used against their former owners. As a result the British started using the ‘white-red-white’ vertical lined markings on their vehicles.

Royal Marines

During the defence of Antwerp the Marines wore the ‘Service dress, home service’ uniform as the infantry. The only distinctions being the bronze cap badge of laurel & globe, and the naval webbing gaiters. Equipment was the 1908 pattern.

Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve

During initial operations they were dressed in their naval uniforms of dark blue and white trimmed collar. They were treated more or less like landing parties. After returning to England they were re-clothed in khaki. As a Naval Division, later in the war they wore uniform similar to the infantry, but officers retained their naval caps, worn under a khaki cover. Arm badges for Petty Officers and junior ranks remained in naval-style red.

British Scots Guard

A glengarry bonnet (blue-black with red, white, blue dicing) or “tam o’ shanter” were worn. This was blue with khaki cover, and khaki from 1915, with a red tourrie (pom-pom), or hackle, whichever was appropriate to regiment. The steel helmet was available from late 1915. Many men also used balaclavas or cap comforters. A leather apron was worn over the kilt. Hose (red & white dicing) and white gaiters were initially worn but changed to khaki or Atholl grey hose with red ties / garters. Another alternative leg wear was short khaki puttees. Equipment was the same as the other British regiments. Highland Light Infantry and Lowland Regiments wore similar dress apart from trousers replaced kilts. Cameronian Scottish Rifles had black buttons.

Initial French infantry organisation

A division comprised two brigades, each of two regiments of three battalions. Divisions were later reduced (starting late 1916) to three regiments to allow for an increase in artillery. A squadron of cavalry was attached to the division. Initially some divisions had one or two chasseur battalions but these had been removed by 1916. There was a trench artillery battery added. Also in support were engineers and signallers.

French Infantry

From late 1914 the horizon-blue (shades of grey-blue) uniform was introduced, for side cap, tunic, trousers, greatcoats and puttees, with black leather equipment & strapping, canvas haversack, brown tent section. Gas-mask tins grey-green with canvas strap. By 1916 many units had natural leather equipment. Horizon-blue was made of a mixture of red, white & blue threads. Models such as GW86, 87 have rolled greatcoats, by 1917 this was more common as packs were left in the trench and necessities only rolled in tent section, blanket or greatcoat. Collar patches on greatcoats were initially yellow with dark blue numerals and double chevrons (point towards rear) for infantry and iron-grey with yellow numbers for light infantry. They were soon changed to horizon-blue patches. Trouser piping for line infantry & chasseurs in yellow. These models can also be adapted to ‘Tirailleurs Algeriens’ by painting them with khaki uniforms, including steel helmets (although these had originally been horizon-blue). They had yellow trouser stripes and light blue collar numbers / chevrons.

French Infantry in Kepi

In the early months of the war the French still had their distinctive red and blue uniforms, similar to those of the Franco-Prussian War more than 40 years earlier. The kepis had a light blue and the epaulettes had been removed otherwise they were virtually the same. Sometimes the skirts of the dark grey-blue greatcoat were left loose in an effort to hide the red trousers. Sometimes blue overalls were issued to cover the trousers, and some even had dark blue trousers piped red which had been commandeered from the fire services. Officers black tunic and black stripe on trousers. These models can also be used as 1915 troops with horizon-blue uniforms as in above section, by altering the gaiters to puttees.

French Artillery in Helmets

A field regiment had three or four groups of three 4-gun batteries, i.e. a regiment would have 36 or 48 guns. Trouser piping scarlet. Scarlet collar patch - light blue numbers & chevrons for field artillery, and green for foot artillery.

 

French Machine Gun Crews. As infantry uniforms of the appropriate period.

Also note that in the early weeks of the war that Zouaves were used who were again changed very little from earlier wars. They sometimes had a light blue cover for their ‘chechia’ (cap). As early as November 1914 items started to be replaced in khaki. See Franco-Prussian War section for possible models to use.

Australians

After the fighting in Gallipoli, the Australians (& New Zealanders) were withdrawn to Egypt. By the spring of 1916 they had been transferred to the Western Front. Uniforms in khaki of a different cut to British uniforms. When they arrived in France they were issued with strapping of hide, which stretched when wet. This they abandoned and replaced with British 1908 webbing wherever possible. By 1918 they acquired items of British equipment. Noted for items of unofficial issue or disregard for dress regulations. Officers more in British style of open neck jacket with collar & tie.

Initial German infantry organisation.

German infantry regiments (see below for strengths) were placed in pairs to form brigades. Two brigades made a division and two divisions made an army corps. A corps therefore was theoretically around 24,000 men. During the course of the war there was some alteration to this when divisions were cut from 4 to 3 regiments around mid-1915.

German Infantry.

Regiments were made up of 3 Battalions. Each Battalion had 4 companies plus a machine-gun company. Companies were split into 3 platoons which were divided into four sections. Sections comprised two squads each with 8 men and a lance-corporal. It was estimated that battalion strengths were around 750 (March 1917), 800 (end 1917), 850 (1918). These numbers were for other ranks, and did not include machine-gun companies. Nominal war time establishment for a regiment was 3,307 all ranks with 59 wagons. Field grey uniforms had been introduced in 1910 and was lighter and less green than that which became common during the war. By 1915 a simplified version was issued, basically the same cut but distinctive cuff styles were replaced by simple turnback versions, and some of the piping was omitted. Regimental distinctions for these and the plain blouse (‘bluse’) were mainly through the regimental shoulder straps. 

German Infantry In Pickelhaube

 

Examples of uniforms: Models in Pickelhaube helmets - cover on helmet rush green (pale grey-green) with regimental number on the front in red. Tunic field grey with red piping, trousers same colour again with red piping. Brown leather equipment and boots. Officer red band on cap. This could be covered with detachable grey band. By September 1915 spikes on helmets were removed officially although many had done so earlier, once trench warfare had set in. The red numbers were ordered to be changed to green early in the war but the troops often had no means of doing this, so increasingly they were omitted altogether. Brown hide knapsack. Brown tent section strapped around pack. Beards were worn by some men in first winter after which it was supposedly discontinued.

German Infantry In Helmets

Models in steel helmets: Steel helmets introduced in 1916, originally for fighting at Verdun. By end of year most units had been issued with them. Supposedly new tunics were introduced in 1915, but some old 1910 tunics still being used in 1918 as well as hybrid variations of tunics and blouses. Shoulder straps were usually piped in white although there were some exceptions - 2nd Guards Inf., 2nd Guards Grenadiers & 8th Grenadiers had scarlet: 3rd Guards Inf., 3rd Guards Gren., Guards Fusiliers and 7th & 11th Grenadiers had lemon yellow: 4th Guards Inf., 4th Guards Gren. & 145th Royal Inf. had light blue: 114th Infantry had light green. For machine-gunners, jagers &c. see appropriate section. The marching boots were gradually replaced by ankle boots and puttees as supplies of raw materials became harder to obtain. The quality of clothing and equipment generally also suffered as the Allied blockade took effect. Up until 1915 soldiers also wore a bayonet knot (next to the entrenching tool on the models GW11 to 15) which indicated the wearers company within the regiment, see illus.

Stormtroopers

Originally used at Verdun, the stormtroopers were initially unofficial and the organisation and usage varied greatly. By late 1916 ‘Sturmkompanien’ were added to many divisions. They usually comprised around 120 men split into 3 platoons. They were used for offensive patrols and trench raids and as the spearheads in attack or counter-attack. Uniforms were often reinforced on elbows & knees with leather patches. Boots or more frequently puttees were worn. Equipment was often reduced to greatcoat rolled around mess-tin. Much of the piping was removed on the 1915 field-grey blouse, trousers were same colour. Shoulder straps for infantry were usually white with red numerals. Helmets could be painted with disruptive camouflage of angular designs, in greens and browns. Many weapons were adapted for close quarter fighting and trench raids - sharpened entrenching tools, knives, grenades (or rather ‘heads’ of grenades) clumped together on a single stick. These multi-grenades were also used to damage tank tracks. Although there was some use of shields, made from machine-gun shields, body armour was usually found too cumbersome for the mobile tactics required. Model GW46 would represent a man on guard duty in a front-line position. GW45 had grenades in a bag made from sacking or sandbags. Several models from the above section of German Infantry could also be used.

German Artillery in Helmets

Field grey uniform, black leather boots & equipment. The 1915 shoulder straps were red for field artillery deployed at divisional level), and yellow for foot artillery, the heavier guns deployed at corps and army level. Guards Regiments 1, 2 and 4 with white, yellow and blue piping respectively. Field caps for anyone contemplating conversions were with black bands and red piping, and Pickelhaube helmets had ball tops instead of spikes. Initially 6-gun batteries, by 1915 the standard size for a battery was 4 guns. By 1917 field & foot artillery had been combined so that all guns were controlled within a divisional sector. Grey greatcoats.

German Jagers

Light infantry by tradition, and were used in this role in early part of the war. Each battalion had 4 rifle companies (each around 175), a machine gun company (75) and cycle company (116). Later the battalions were either grouped into larger units or were sent to mountainous regions. Cyclists were withdrawn when trench warfare became the norm. Cycle battalions (3) were formed into a brigade in 1917, although not all were jagers. Uniforms were green-grey with green piping on tunic front top & bottom of collar, shoulder straps. Battalion number on latter in red. Black leather shako usually worn with pale green-grey cover, again with red number. By 1918, the jager on the Western Front usually wore steel helmets. Jagers bayonet knot was all green.

German cavalry organisation: Regiments comprised 4 active squadrons (total of 724 all ranks) and one reserve or depot squadron. Upon mobilisation much of the cavalry were formed into 11 divisions - numbered 1 to 9, Guards and Bavarian. A division comprised three brigades of two regiments each. Two or three divisions were sometimes formed into a corps. The remaining cavalry was attached to the infantry. Initially 2 or 3 squadrons, later reduced to 1. Although that attached to the infantry remained mounted, most cavalry (around 80%) were dismounted as the war progressed, and became one of 12 rifle or 1 machine-gun squadrons. When cavalry were fighting in an infantry role they retained their own uniform but used infantry equipment. There were several reasons why so many were dismounted - the obvious ones were the lack of use in trench warfare and the number of fighting men who would have been kept out of the front line. Added to these reasons were shortages of horses and fodder in the later stages of the war. Each cavalry division had attached to it various support units such as a jager battalion, machine- gun detachment, 3 horse batteries, pioneers, signals and train units.

Lance pennons: In use in the early stages of the war each state had its own colours as follows - Baden yellow over red; Bavaria white over light blue; Hesse & Mecklenburg both white over red; Prussia white over black; Oldenburg red over blue; Saxony white over light green; Wurtemberg black over red. Lance pennons were discarded after 1914. Horse furniture generally brown.

German Hussar Cavalry

The fur busby was worn with a grey service cover. Jacket (‘Attila’) and breeches field grey with similar colour used for braiding and piping, although the lace often appeared as a darker shade of grey. Brown leather equipment, and boots. The boots had lace stitched around the upper edges. Shoulder straps of plaited braid used the full dress regimental colour woven with a thread of white or yellow according to button colour. There were 21 Hussar Regiments, numbered 1 to 20 plus the Life Guard (‘Lieb Garde’). Regiments 1 & 2 were styled ‘Liebhussars’. Colours of straps were as follows: red - ‘Lieb Garde’, 3rd 5th; black - 1st, 2nd (the two ‘Liebhussars’), 17th; green - 6th, 10th; blue - 7th to 9th, 12th to 16th, 18th to 20th; dark blue - 11th. Buttons (and therefore second thread colour) were yellow for Guard, 3rd to 7th, 9th to 11th, 17th, 18th. Remainder were white. An alternative to the busby was the field cap (grey). This had a band or ‘Mutze’ of the regimental colour (that of 11th was green) which was piped in button colour except 3rd, 5th, 11th piped white.

German Dragoon Cavalry

There were 28 regiments of dragoons, the 3rd was known as ‘Grenadier zu Pferd’ (Grenadiers on horseback). Drab linen cover on Pickelhaube. The tunic (Waffenrock) was field grey with regimental colour piping. Regimental colours: red - 1st & 2nd Guard, 1st, 5th, 13th, 17th, 20th, 23rd; black - 2nd, 6th, 14th, 18th, 19th, 22nd; pink - 3rd, 7th, 15th; yellow- 4th, 8th, 16th, 21st, 26th; white - 9th, 10th, 24th, 25th; crimson - 11th, 12th. Shoulder straps were also piped in regimental colours except 22nd had red piping although the shoulder strap was edged in regimental black. Collars & cuffs for regiments 13 to 16 were piped white. When 1915 uniform was introduced the shoulder straps were changed to light blue, piped in regimental colours with red numerals / cyphers (except 3rd, 7th, 15th pink). Trousers were plain grey (no piping). Brown boots & leather equipment.

German Uhlan (Lancer) Cavalry

There were 26 lancer regiments, including 2 Bavarian. The lancer cap was worn with a grey cover with or without red regimental number. The tunic (‘Ulanka’) was field grey with piping in the regimental colour around edges of plastron, tunic bottom edge, collar, cuffs, rear seams and pockets, shoulder straps. From 1915 they were changed to red with similar piping and yellow numbers. Regimental colours for piping: white - 1st Guard, 1st, 5th, 9th, 13th, 17th, 1st & 2nd Bavarian; red - 2nd Guard, 2nd, 6th, 18th, 19th; yellow - 3rd Guard, 3rd, 7th, 11th, 15th, 20th, 21st; light blue - 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th; carmine - 10th, 14th.

German Trench Mortar Crew

Trench mortars were introduced in 1917, each battalion having a detachment of 4 mortars. Uniforms similar to artillery. Field caps had a state cockade at the front below the national cockade of black, white & red (red being centre colour). Examples of state cockades being - Brunswick blue, yellow, blue; Prussia black, white, black; Oldenburg blue, red, blue.

German Machine Gun Crews.

In 1914 each infantry regiment and jager battalion had a machine-gun company of 6 guns. 1916 saw the introduction of light-machine detachments, and by end of 1917 each company had 3 guns with some having 6. In 1914 piping was red as with rest of infantry although Prussian Guard machine gun units had green, although permitted to retain black piping for collar & cuffs. Uniform generally the same as the other companies in the battalions.

All the above uniforms are as a guide only, space does not permit more detailed examination of variations of uniforms or troop types.

Suggested Reading:

  • Barthorp, Michael “The Old Contemptibles” (Osprey Elite Series, No.24. 1989).
  • Fletcher, David (editor) “Tanks & Trenches” (Grange Books. London. 1994). First hand accounts of tank warfare.
  • Fletcher, David “Landships” (H.M.S.O. London. 1984).
  • Fosten, D.S.V. & Marrion, R.J. “The German Army 1914-18” & “The BritishArmy1914-18” (OspreyMAANo.80.&81.1978).
  • Mollo, Andrew “Army Uniforms of World War I” (Blanford Press. Dorset. 1977).
  • Nash, David “German Infantry 1914-18” (Almark Pub. 1971).
  • Sumner, Ian “The French Army 1914-18” (Osprey MAA No.286. 1995).
  • Westlake, Ray “British Territorial Units 1914-18” (Osprey MAA No.245. 1991).

The above books deal mainly with uniform information and tank warfare. Whilst there are hundreds of books on the various campaigns the “Official Histories” published mainly in the 1920s & 1930s have been re- printed in recent years by the Imperial War Museum. Although fairly expensive they have a wealth of detail for the wargamer and historian alike. Some libraries also have copies of the originals.

John French