As I mentioned in one of our last articles, “A Dazzling Idea”, the concept of using art and design in warfare is a very old one. For many years different societies and cultures have sported colourful and sometimes elaborate uniforms as a method of intimidation or as an indication of rank. Of course, by 1914 the key consideration in the design of these uniforms, at least for the British, was not prowess or intimidation but deception.
Khaki first appeared in the Indian Army in 1846. The word, which derives from khak, the Hindi word for “dust” or “earth”, was first applied to the Corps of Guides, an irregular Indian force raised by the British in the Punjab. They were used primarily for scouting and intelligence gathering and their khaki outfits made them far less conspicuous. By 1902, the Second Boer War had demonstrated the key advantages that khaki held over the traditional red uniform of the British forces. The Boers, a relatively small force but whose uniforms were the same sandy shade as the land they were fighting for, humiliated the British Army through their adoption of guerrilla warfare.
Consequently, by the beginning of the First World War the British were the only force on the Western Front to make all their uniforms in khaki. As this illustration by D MacPherson (right), which was published in The Sphere, makes clear, the Belgian (middle), German (bottom) and French (top) soldiers sported more colourful and traditional uniforms. The Illustrated London News commented on the advantages of khaki in the muddy fields of the Western Front from as early as October 1914. They noted that the Germans with their hazey blue uniforms were much more conspicuous than the British soldiers in khaki. The ILN emphasised this point in 1916 when it published a two-page spread, showing colour photographs of British infantry in their surroundings, to illustrate how khaki helped the soldiers blend in.
Of course, the nature of the First World War made khaki ever more essential to the British Army. The growth of aerial reconnaissance and the advent of the smokeless rifle, which no longer produced the thick, camouflaging blanket of smoke associated with previous artillery, made blending in with the surroundings ever more necessary. Officers found that certain costume features made them targets on the battleground and consequently began to rid themselves of shiny buttons and riding boots. The fashionable was quickly replaced by the practical and khaki became a symbol of the war, particularly after propaganda posters stating “Why aren’t you in khaki?” emerged to drive more men to the recruiting offices.
Khaki even managed to make its way into the world of women’s fashion. In 1915, The Sketch published a silhouette of a woman buying clothing (right) with the following caption:
The Customer: “Will the colour run?”
The Assistant: “Oh, no, Madam; it’s a khaki shade.”
The purpose of the illustration was to show the predominance of khaki in World War 1 Britain.