First World War Uniforms: Lives, Logistics, and Legacy in British Army Uniform Production, 1914-1918

Catherine Price-Rowe. First World War Uniforms: Lives, Logistics, and Legacy in British Army Uniform Production, 1914-1918. Yorkshire, UK: Pen & Sword Archeology, 2018. Hardcover, 232pp.

Review by Peter L. Belmonte

Review by Peter L. Belmonte

All military services have in common a uniform that their members wear. A service member might rarely touch a weapon, but they probably wear a uniform every day. These pieces of distinctive clothing are ubiquitous in the military, and some scholars have studied different types and components of uniforms, usually in collector-themed books. But historians have not devoted much attention to the design, fabrication, acquisition, distribution, maintenance, and disposition of military uniforms. This book seeks to do just that for the British Army in World War I.

The author, Catherine Price-Rowe, is a fourth-generation dressmaker with extensive experience in making reproduction uniforms. She writes about more than just uniforms, however. Price-Rowe endeavors to tell the story of British supply of uniforms, from factory to field, during the war. She weaves this story together with a narrative of the history of her great-grandfather, Sergeant George Ball, 177th Tunneling Company, British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

Price-Rowe begins with an overview of the types of uniforms issued to British soldiers. She describes the shortages associated with the rapidly expanding need for uniforms resulting from the swelling ranks of the British army. Next the author describes the evolution of the sometimes-convoluted process of getting cloth from mills to factories, and from factories to depots in Britain and France. The author describes the process for the requisition and issuance of uniforms and how supplies got from the depots to units in the field.

Price-Rowe’s chapters on laundering (and general hygiene) in the field and on the massive salvage effort shed light on areas that are not well known or studied. Special squads combed the countryside to collect waste and discarded items. These items were sorted and transported to depots where workers repaired them; if an item was unserviceable, it could be destroyed or, in the case of textiles, made into rags.

The author includes an appendix that describes the manufacturing process associated with cloth and uniforms; she also includes a helpful list of sources for family members or others who wish to conduct research on British soldiers. Another section gives a list of places to visit for those interested in learning more about the historic textiles industry.

It should be noted that this is not a typical collector-oriented book that describes and illustrates uniform variants and uses. Rather, the book describes how both the British War Office and the British clothing industry adapted to wartime pressures. The book examines how the process to determine clothing needs, issue contracts, ship cloth and related materials, etc., evolved during the war. While collectors and re-enactors may enjoy the book, its primary focus is on the process of supplying and maintaining uniforms and thus touches upon social, economic, gender, and labor history as well as military history.

The information presented in this book is important, but the author’s style at times can be somewhat off-putting. Multiple errors with regard to introductory clause agreement interrupt the reader’s flow and can impact comprehension. Here are just two examples: “Derived from the flax plant, the principle supplier of flax to Britain was Russia, through Archangel, and into Scotland” (p. 62).
“Receiving the clothing from the factory, uniform was sent from the main central depot at Pimlico, London, to regiments and units across the country” (p. 75).
Some sentences require several re-readings: “Divided into two categories—fighting troops, and administrative services and departments, the latter of which provided the stores (including clothing) for the armies at the front. This was sub-divided into three main branches” (p. 81).
These and other grammar errors can be found on most pages; the editors should have caught and corrected these errors. It would behoove both the author and the publisher alike to issue a revised and better-edited version of the book.

Price-Rowe engages the primary and secondary sources very well in this book. Her use of British government regulations and immediate post-war histories buttress the information in the narrative. The book is illustrated with photographs of uniforms, soldiers, factories, equipment, depots, etc. Depot illustrations give the reader an idea of the scale of the storage problem. The author includes an extensive bibliography; this, along with helpful endnotes, will give readers ample ideas for further reading and research. This book is recommended for those with an interest in the history of quartermaster and supply functions during wartime and to those who are deeply interested in the BEF. The potential purchaser and reader should bear in mind the grammar difficulties that may distract from the flow of reading.

Peter L. Belmonte is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, author, and historian. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he holds a master’s degree in history from California State University, Stanislaus. He has published articles, book chapters, reviews, and papers about immigration and military history. Pete’s books include: Italian Americans in World War II (Arcadia, 2001), Days of Perfect Hell: The U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November, 1918 (Schiffer, 2015), Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys (with Alexander F. Barnes, Schiffer, 2018), Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball during the Great War (with co-authors Alexander F. Barnes and Samuel O. Barnes, Schiffer Books, 2019), and Chicago-Area Italians in World War I: A Case Study of Calabrians (Fonthill Media/Arcadia Publishing, 2019). He is also working on a multi-volume history of Italian Americans in World War I. You may see his books at his webpage: https://www.amazon.com/author/peter.belmonte.

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