by Laura Ugolini, Professor of History
An old army song had First World War soldiers looking forward to the end of the conflict:
When I get my civvy clothes on,
Oh, how happy I shall be;
When this bloody war is over
No more soldiering for me.
Returning to civilian clothes was part of the pleasure of leaving army life behind and the Armistice provided the first step towards the loosening of sartorial restrictions.
In his memoirs P. J. Campbell, officer in the Royal Field Artillery, described how on the evening of 11 November 1918 he and his fellow officers were able to get undressed before going to bed: ‘We could take all our clothes off tonight, it would be pyjama warfare for all the rest of time’ (Campbell, 1979, p. 163).
Many servicemen looked forward to demobilisation as a straightforward sloughing off of the uniform and of their military identity with it, but this often turned out to be a more complicated and protracted business than they had anticipated. During the period between the Armistice and demobilisation, as uniforms wore out but new stock became increasingly difficult to obtain, servicemen often found themselves issued with garments that tended to undermine any residual sense of themselves as military men. Charles Crutchley was in Tripoli in November 1918. On the long journey back to Britain he ‘was issued with winter clothing several sizes too big for me, the best the stores Quarter Master could do. My size was out of stock’. By the time he arrived home, ‘I must have looked more like a scarecrow than a soldier’ (Crutchley, 1980, p. 122).
Just as many new recruits had felt self-conscious and uneasy when wearing the uniform for the first time, similar feelings were experienced during the drawn out process of returning to ‘civvies’. On the train home from the demob camp, F. E. Baily felt ‘slightly ridiculous sitting there in a uniform to which one was no longer entitled’ (Baily, c. 1985, p. 150), while wearing the uniform after he had been demobilised made Fred Hodges feel ‘unfit for civilised society’ (Hodges, 1988, p. 216).
Furthermore, the eagerly awaited shedding of the uniform was not always an unalloyed pleasure. A few days after returning home, Basil Peacock borrowed a civilian suit and found it ‘cold and strange after my service dress’ (Peacock, 1974, p. 88). Apart from the difficulty of getting used to looser civilian clothes after months and even years of wearing a tight-fitting uniform, many of the men who accepted the so-called ‘civvy suit’ offered by the military authorities upon demobilisation, found that the quality and fit often left much to be desired. George Hewins, for example, was not pleased to find that the cap he was given was marked ‘Wandsworth Workhouse’ (Hewins, 1981, p. 156).
To men such as ‘Bombardier X’, the poor quality and fit of the civvy suit hardly mattered when compared to the pleasure of freedom: ‘it didn’t fit me in the slightest degree, but what did it matter?’ (Bombardier X, c. 1930, p. 212) Others, however, were not so easily pleased, choosing the suit rather than cash only as the lesser of two evils. Realising that ‘it wasn’t much use going up to Savile Row’ with thirty shillings, Jack Cummins opted for ‘the non-descript suit’ (Cummins, c. 1982, p. 42). On the other hand, when given a choice between cash or a suit, ‘and having seen a victim in one of these’, Ifan Edwards ‘hurriedly asked for the money’, adding that ‘I wasn’t going to look like that if I could help it’ (Edwards, 1947, p. 13).
Uniform and kit, furthermore, did not suddenly disappear into thin air after the war. Many garments were kept into civilian life, either as items to be worn – the army overcoat proving especially popular – or as souvenirs. Lanyards, patches, belts, stripes and badges, as well as medals and decorations, were often valued and kept on by later generations as cherished family possessions. That said, just as putting on a civvy suit was not always as easy or pleasurable as anticipated, so leftover military items did not always have entirely positive connotations.
Frederick Noakes’ autobiographical account illustrates well the ambivalent post-war attitude of many ex-servicemen towards army garments and kit, and by extension towards the army itself. At his demobilisation in 1919 he was told that he could keep his helmet ‘as a free gift … from the Government’, but he was ‘so eager to have done with “all that” ’ that he ‘unhesitatingly’ returned it to the stores. By this time, it should be noted, he had already smuggled home most of his army kit, including ‘sundry pairs of “scrounged” socks, a webbing belt and a new pair of … boots “sold” to me by Sergeant “Snob” ’. In a final twist, before he and his comrades were allowed to leave the demobilisation camp they were thoroughly searched, ‘to make sure that we were not absconding with any government property’. Despite having committed exactly such an offence, he felt insulted by this ‘final “kick in the pants” from officialdom’. His final experience of the army uniform had been ‘an ungracious “farewell” and a gratuitous insult’ (Noakes, c. 1953, pp. 240, 241).
F. E. Baily, Twenty-Nine Years’ Hard Labour (Hutchinson, London, not dated, c. 1985).
Bombardier X, So This Was War: The Truth about the Western and the Eastern Fronts Revealed (Hutchinson, London, not dated, c. 1930).
P. J. Campbell, The Ebb and Flow of Battle (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979).
C. Crutchley, Shilling a Day Soldier (New Horizon, Bognor Regis, 1980).
J. Cummins, The Landlord Cometh (Queenspark Books, Brighton, not dated, c. 1982).
I. Edwards, No Gold on my Shovel (The Porcupine Press, London, 1947).
G. H. Hewins, The Dillen: Memories of a Man of Stratford-Upon-Avon (Elm Tree Books, London, 1981).
F. J. Hodges, Men of 18 in 1918 (Arthur Stockwell, Ilfracombe, 1988).
F. E. Noakes, The Distant Drum: The Personal History of a Guardsman in the Great War (The Author, Tunbridge Wells, not dated, c. 1953).
B. Peacock, Tinker’s Mufti: Memoirs of a Part-Time Soldier (Seeley Service, London, 1974).