Dressing the part: The CEF officer in World War I

Like the Victorian armies in Britain in the 19th century, officers of the British and Imperial armies, including the Canadian Expeditionary Force, were expected to be able to fund their own lifestyle. Until the First World War, most officers came from the upper middle class and were already well connected within the army, usually receiving the recommendation of a family friend that would allow them to take a position as an officer. 

Image: “Bought of Scott Adie Ltd, Scotch Manufacturer and Waterproof Cloak Maker” [bill of sale], Lt. E.S. Turner Collection, Collections CCGW/CCGG, 2014.06.19.01

Officers were expected to maintain a particular lifestyle, including their own horse, tailored uniforms, and a large budget for fine spirits like brandy. This culture continued to be pervasive in the first years of the war, and initially the officer ranks of the British and colonial forced were populated by those able to purchase a commission. As a result, much of the army leadership had little experience actually fighting a war, and in the first two years of the conflict, the death rate of young, inexperienced lieutenants was extremely high.

By 1916, it became clear that the old model of recruiting officers was not workable, and that promoting men who had served in the ranks on the Front was preferable. This did not mean that every one stood an equal chance of being promoted to the officer class, and promotion was still weighted heavily on the side of those with an education and a basis in the middle-class. Even these promoted soldiers were expected to supply their own dress uniform, to learn to ride, and to conduct themselves as befitted a “member of the establishment”.

With its beginnings in the militia system of Victorian Canada, the CEF maintained many of the same traditions for officers, including that the men be able to outfit themselves. Most officers’ uniforms were privately tailored, introducing an incredible amount of variation between men as the fit and fabric of their uniforms depended on what they could afford, and purchased from companies who specifically supplied officers’ uniforms. Perhaps the most expensive officer to outfit were those in the Highland regiments, whose colourful kilts and cutaway tunics drew many recruits.

The bill above belonged to Lt. Edwin Turner of the 42nd Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) and was incurred while he was convalescing in England after being gassed in the spring of 1918. Turner was commissioned as an officer in 1917, and upon his commissioning would have been expected to buy his kilt, cutaway tunic, hose, bonnet, Glengarry, sporran and trews himself. Turner’s bill for a new kilt comes to about 3.75$CAD, so less than 1 British Pound, though for the time it was still very expensive. In comparison, the price of bread in the same year was about 10 cents a loaf. Turner would have been able to draw on his army pay to cover the bill, and could also have taken advantage of store credit. If he had been killed, his family would have then been responsible to cover his debts.

Officers often had little choice in taking on debt to pay for their kit; they were expected as representatives of the army to reflect the values of the force in which they served, which included their clothes. With a British sub-altern’s pay  sitting at about 7s (roughly 1.90$) a day, and with additional costs such as lodging, food and drinks, it is easy to see how a young man might easily find himself owing money at the end of the war.

 

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