Gizmos and Gadgets: Privately purchased trench gear of WW I

The length and static nature of World War I made it in some ways like going to camp; a very dirty, dangerous camp, but one that demanded men to live outside in all sorts of weather. As units settled in their patch of front and men claimed small dugouts (and in some cases pilfered furniture), the trench became more and more a home.  

Image above: Primus stove, private purchase, [1914-1918]. Collections CCGW/CCGG

As a result, civilian businesses were able to capitalize on the perceived need for special products made “for your boy”. Not only were families back home encouraged to send care packages to their relatives at the front that would help bring luxuries like chocolate, non-ration cigarettes and jam to the troops, they were also deluged with various products made especially for trench warfare, at least trench warfare as the merchants well behind the front lines saw it.

Officers were a prime marketing target, as they were required to have a private income and therefore had more purchasing power than a regular private soldier. They could afford many of the flashlights, primus stoves and collapsible dishes frequently marketed to soldiers and their families. The running joke of the “Christmas tree”, or the first-time recruit leaving home festooned with various gadgets, none of which he would need, surfaced soon after the war settled in the trenches around 1915.

Some of these products actually worked and were very helpful, like a good trench flashlight or a waterproof groundsheet. However, many were simply preposterous, like commercially manufactured “bullet-proof” armoured jackets, and were not designed to either stand up to the conditions in the trenches or to be functional in a military situation.

Robert Graves commented that the more veteran a man was, the less he carried with him, as most of it would get lost anyway and if he died would probably disappear with him. Of more interest for most men, was food from home to break up the monotonous diet of the infantry man.


One thought on “Gizmos and Gadgets: Privately purchased trench gear of WW I

  1. When I was very young my Grandmother sent me a gift, a special something that had been my Grandfather’s.  She gave it to me to have something to remember him by,  I had met him only once and my memory of him was thin. It was from my Grandmother’s stories that I had learned that he had fought in the desert in World War I;  in a place the bible called Mesopotamia, but was now known as the country of Iraq.  I knew from the minute I unwrapped her package, that it was a soldier’s field mess kit.   I was a Cub Scout and I had one that I used for camping and hiking, but mine was not like this.   This had a gray green canvas cover with leather belt to secure the kit together. Underneath the cloth, the cookware was old and tarnished, it looked like it had been through the very depths of hell.  As it turns out, it had been – to hell and back – to the Persian front and beyond, where a desperate Turkish Army fought to hold on to ground and the daytime temperatures could soar to 150 F.  And,  it appeared to have done so in the finest imperial style. When I lifted off the top that was the pot lid, there was an elegant undersized fork and knife and spoon all  with fluted handles.   Further down there was a pair of miniature, conical and similarly fluted salt and pepper shakers . Inside the smaller pot was a little tea pot complete with loose tea infuser. I marveled at the thought of my Grandfather, pausing in the midst of war, which in my young mind was one continuous raging battle without end, to make and drink tea or to add just a pinch of salt to his eggs.


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