Military uniforms then and now

I’m still reading, and enjoying a great deal, George MacDonald Fraser’s Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II. (For those who recognize the author’s name, he also wrote the Flashman novels.

Early in the book, Fraser describes the uniform his platoon wore as they slogged through Burma, clearing out the Japanese presence:

The uniform was all dark green; even underpants, vests, and socks had gone into the big dye vat at Ranchi; watch-straps had to be green or khaki. You had two shirts, two pairs of trousers, puttees (a better protection than anklets against leeches and other crawlies), and boots – British-made, if you were lucky, rather than the clumsier Indian pattern; later we sometimes wore captured Jap jungle boots, with their thick crepe soles. A few – Parker, for one – dispensed with socks and filled their boots with tallow, claiming that it prevented blisters. It was also messy, and stank. I tried it – once. (Quartered Safe Out Here, Skyhorse Publishing, Kindle Edition, p. 19.)

In addition to the basic uniform, the men in his platoon wore a hat that protected them from the sun and rain, and they carried an important grooming item:

Fourteenth Army’s distinguishing feature was the bush-hat, that magnificent Australian headgear with the rakish broad brim which shielded against rain and sun and was ideal for scooping water out of wells. In some ways it was a freak, in the steel-helmeted twentieth century, and it may have cost some lives under shell-fire, but we wouldn’t have swapped it. It looked good, it felt good; if you’d been able to boil water in it you wouldn’t have needed a hotel. Everyone carried a razor-blade tucked into the band, in case you were captured, in which event you might, presumably, cut your bonds, or decapitate your jailer by stages, or if the worst came to the worst and you were interrogated by Marshal Tojo in person, present a smart and soldierly appearance. (Id. at pp. 19-20.)

Lastly, they carried their equipment:

Equipment consisted of the standard web belt; cross-braces; pouches worn brassière fashion; small pack containing two mess-tins, pialla (enamelled mug), knife, fork, and spoon, housewife with needle and thread, water purification pills, mepacrin (to ward off malaria, which it didn’t), and any personal effects you felt like carrying, plus your rations; a pint water-bottle; entrenching tool, a steel mattock head with a detachable handle; and a log-line, a five-yard coil of thin rope. The last three items hung from the belt behind. A small trouser pocket contained a field dressing, but everyone scrounged a spare one because the gauze made a splendid sweat-rag-cum-neckerchief. Weaponry was equally simple. There were a few tommy guns (but none of the hated Stens, the plumber’s nightmare) in the company, but the standard arm was the most beautiful firearm ever invented, the famous short Lee Enfield, either of the old pattern with the flat backsight and long sword bayonet, or the Mark IV with the pig-sticker, a nine-inch spike with no cutting edge. The old pattern, which I carried, was the great rifle of the First World War, which the Old Contemptibles used with such speed and skill that the enemy often believed they were facing automatic weapons, and one German general told of how his division had been “shot flat” by its disciplined fire. It held ten rounds with its magazine charged, and another up the spout, had an extreme range of close to a mile, and in capable hands was deadly accurate up to four hundred yards.


Apart from the bayonet, the other essential sidearm was the kukri, the curved short sword of the Gurkha, slung behind the right hip. Mine cost me ten rupees, and some swine pinched it near Rangoon. The alternative was the dah, a long, broad-bladed machete. In one pouch you carried two armed 36 grenades (Mills bombs), and these posed a problem. A grenade has a split pin holding in place an arm which, when the pin is withdrawn, releases a plunger which causes havoc with a fulminate of mercury detonator; depending on the internal fuse, you then have five or seven seconds to get rid of the thing, or good night, sweet prince.


In the other pouch were two Bren gun magazines, holding between 25 and 30 rounds, for the section’s light machine-gun; rifle and Bren ammunition being identical. (Id. at pp. 20-22.)

Fraser, who wrote this autobiography in the 1980s, ended his description of a British soldier’s clothing and gear by comparing it to what a modern soldier wears and carries:

To my eye the loose camouflage blouse is ugly, clumsy, and ill-fitting compared to our tight shirt and trousers; it might have been designed to catch on snags and hinder its wearer, and as if that wasn’t enough, the poor infantryman is festooned with more kit than would start a Q.M. store. I’m sure it’s all necessary; I just can’t think what for. I don’t like the helmet, and suspect it cramps head movement. Very well, I’m old-fashioned and ignorant, but I hold that a streamlined soldier is better off than one who looks as though he has been loosely tied in the middle, and I’d hate to try to crawl through a hedge or swim a river in that lot. Perhaps if those who design the Army’s equipment had to do either of those things, they’d come up with something better. (Id. at p. 23.)

Just a couple of days after having read the above passage, I came across this poster on the internet:


Any opinions on which is preferable as a matter of principle? I fully understand that we have different equipment today, not to mention better medical kits, but would the average infantryman be better off if he was less weighed down or are the modern accouterments worth the bulk and weight?  (And keep in mind that Fraser seems to be describing an even more close-fitting uniform than is shown above.)

  • Texan99

    My grandfather told me that he and his comrades in the WWI trenches put coldcream in their socks, to fight trench foot.

  • Dullahan

    Aside from the night vision device and the squad radio, I don’t think there’s much difference. Both guys are carrying close to the same weight. The modern weapon is lighter and so is the ammo, thus today’s infantryman carries more ammunition than George’s crowd. 

  • Dullahan

    Sorry, missed the body armor. Never wore any myself. That might add a bit more to the load, but I bet not much. Let’s see what the younger guys say.

  • Jose

    Today’s soldier has boots that are so much better than anything that came before.  From the mid 80s through the next 20 years I saw, and wore,  much improved footwear.
    Fraser doesn’t seem to have carried Chemical Warfare gear.  That adds a lot of weight and can be extremely uncomfortable to wear.  Remember the pictures of our troops invading Iraq and wearing their Chem suits through the desert?  Absolute misery!

  • pakurilecz
  • Thank you so much for the info.  A laundry list of what soldiers wear tells nothing about comfort, weight, usefulness and necessity.

  • Michael Adams

    I am reliably informed that our soldiers today carry tampons, which they can poke into bullet holes, one following another, which swell as they absorb, and tamponade the bleeding, even of major arteries.  I have also heard that they carry condoms, for the usual reasons, and  to cover other things that need covering, e.g.  gun barrels. The sand in Iraq is very fine, gets in everywhere, and messes up everything.  I couldn’t say, regarding the condoms, beyond their conventional uses, which I dimly remember, but as an ER survivor, I can see how the tampons ought to work.  They are very light, and if everyone is carrying them, and not everyone is wounded, they ought to save a great many lives, for their weight.  If they are in a velcro-patch pocket in front,  same pocket on everyone, easily found, even a soldier who is unconscious can be plugged up by a comrade very quickly.
    Yes, what I hope y’all are thinking is true, women ought to carry them, even if they don’t need them.  They’d come in mighty handy in a mass shooting situation, and the country is over run by Democrats, who can snap at any moment!
    Remember, a lipstick is a good way to mark the number of tampons in a wound.  Very important to know.

  • It’s generally the heavy armor plating and the backpack that’s the problem.
    The equipment itself, when arrayed around, generally balances out.

  • Glad you’re enjoying and flagging up Quartered Safe. The 14th Army or Chindits who fought in Burma were known as the Forgotten Army so it’s good to see them remembered here.
    As an army cadet in the 1970 I trained with Lee Enfields and Brens, beautiful guns. 
    To my delight I discovered while the boots Fraser praises are now no longer issued they are still being manufactured. I bought a pair last year from Silverman’s on Mile End Road.  Anybody interested in kit should google them. 

  • Graves

    The load has dramatically increased over time, some of it really good stuff like night vision, but they hold periodic reviews to determine how to get rid of some weight.  Since nobody is willing to go out on a limb and say that some things don’t need to be carried by everyone or can be left in the supply trains, the most famous result was a suggestion that the Army spend more time on weight training.  Much of it is based around protection.  The fear is that somebody will die and a career will be destroyed because the soldier wasn’t in all of the protective gear.  Infantrymen often argue that if they were wearing less, it would be harder to hit them.  Nobody in a position of authority listens.  Other than that, the chemical protective gear is a pain in the tuckus and very hot in the summer, while interfering with cold weather gear in the winter.  New electronic gizmos come with batteries, which are heavy.  When I was at the infantry school, in the 80s, I quickly learned I had to have a small tree nearby if I sat down and rested or I would need help to stand up again.  I retired in December, the gear got lighter along the way, but body armor and batteries more than made up for it.  We hated each new upgrade to the armor.  The only movement was to more bulk and weight. 
    The body armor I had 15 years ago was like two lead lined exercise mats, one in front and one in back.  Then it was something like a vest, made it much harder to let your arms hang down, they had to stay out like a caricature of a weightlifter.  Then it was something like a tabard with a four inch wide belt around the waist.  then they added supplementary armor to the sides again, and upgraded the ceramic plates on the front and back.  Those kept getting heavier.  My last deployment was two years ago, we actually held classes on how to fit and put on the armor.  I worked at a high level logistics headquarter, I never left the base and worked at a desk.  The only way I would have needed that expensive gear was if the enemy overran one of the biggest bases in Afghanistan.  I had three computers on my desk, I’d rather the money spent on my vest have been spent on better broadband on the base where we did our final pre-deployment training. 

    • Graves:  that is fascinating. I wonder if there’ve been statistical studies balancing the benefits of increased armor against the risks of decreased mobility. 

      • Graves

        There is a team looking at body armor, but what they do is look at soldiers who were hit while wearing body armor to see what improvements could have prevented it.  Since there is no way to totally avoid losses, that means the armor has to be improved and upgraded, which means get heavier, whenever there is budget.  Since opposing that gets you tagged as preferring soldiers to die rather than spend money, nobody fights it. 
        The other thing to mention is that just as Ymarsakar said, PC is everywhere.  I was in Afghanistan when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was cancelled.  We had classes, in Afghanistan, on what that meant for how we must behave.  Or, you have to get yearly lectures on things like sexual harassment and suicide prevention, and a half dozen other things which turn out to be those same two classes.  You also get them before deploment, and the yearly briefing doesn’t count for that.  You also get them when you return, and it doesn’t count for the yearly briefing.  I take great pleasure in not taking my yearly online computer safety and driving classes. 

      • It’s two unrelated fields, you need a polymath or imaginative thinker (out of the box) to connect the dots.
        For example, as body armor increased, the old methods still stuck in training and running. So what does that mean? It meant that when a soldier was told to take a knee to put up marksmanship, they busted their knee from the increased weight of the whatever. During training this can be mitigated by ice and first aid, or by slowing things down. In combat, there is no time and people just keep working that broken knee until it is completely dead.
        So yeah, great body armor, now a disabled soldier because of body armor. Since more people get disabled this way than they are shot… guess what that means. But since HC Democrat traitors were calling for “more body armor”, a lot of this just got passed over and people who had more balanced views were ignored in favor of Politics. You know how Politics works, right?

  • The way equipment is handled via internet simulation is via free choice and kill/score counts. The units or individuals with the highest kill ratios and/or mission objective success, are awarded their pick of the best equipment, but only what they want to use.
    Equipment for scenarios are limited based on supply lines but the emphasis is on user choice.
    Since America’s military is only “excellent” because of the personal initiative of our warriors and soldiers, the upper level strategic commanders and generals are producing contradictory policies that don’t go with a bottom up tactical battle space. It gets better under Republican war time Presidents, with the promotion of people like Petraeus, but under Democrats, things go worse in one of two ways. 1. The funding is cut, so people are forced to use inferior equipment because the better stuff costs too much, even to train with. 2. So many rules and regulations are put on, such as homosexual sex and what not, that people spend more time in paperwork than actually training and learning war.
    For example, for a number of years now, rape prevention policies in the US Army has consisted of the checklist of multiple powerpoint slide briefings per week or per month. They consider that “sufficient” to prevent and deal with rape on military bases (armed ones on the front line).
    Many soldiers join the Special Forces branch and their counterparts in various US branches, because the normal Army way (the wrong way) is something they could not stomach. They wanted to choose better calibers, better selection of arms, better selection of weight, and just better choices overall. Instead of doing it One Way, the Army Way, they do it the right way, which could be any way.
    As one goes back into civilian life and protection agencies, or pseudo military corporations like Blackhawk, the diversity in options and choices tend to increase, even though the ROE may become stricter. The normal rank and file tend to view autonomous or individual (volunteer) type forces as being loose guns. Barely better than civilians that have been given military training, but without military obedience or military ROE restrictions. In some sense that is true, but in other ways it is not.
    Bottom up and top down command structures can be seen as a spectrum slider, where the two ends of the extremes provide zero benefit and a lot of negatives. If you’re completely bottom up, with everyone deciding for themselves what they need to do, you don’t have an army technically speaking and you can end up with friendly fire, people getting cut off, and various other examples of the left hand killing the right hand. On the other hand, if you have 100% top down command structures, everybody is supposed to do what they are told, and the only person that knows what to do, the commander, has no idea what’s actually happening, so everyone dies while waiting for orders that never comes or comes at the wrong time.
    Newbies and civilians tend to need some babying, because they don’t have the autonomous reflexes or confidence to make their own decisions. But experienced warriors and trained soldiers are hard to come by, so you can’t allow everyone to make decisions on their own, since a lot of them are incompetent. It’s relatively easy to get some experience as a PFC in today’s military, fighting in Afghanistan, as that is a real war with real combat experience and promotions. But the challenges of commanding from the top, high level strategy, is more difficult to acquire in terms of talent or experience.
    So if the troops are behaving like incompetents and shooting at shadows, they need somebody to tell them what to do. If everyone is competent and more battle hardened than the commanders, then the commanders need to stop giving orders for a time.

    LTC (ret) Kratman is one of the better US military trainers and out of the box thinkers around. He’s not my only source of miltech, but he’s got a better view of how paperwork on war preparation is inferior to actual war preparation than anyone else I’ve found. We saw most of the benefits of the Iraq Conflict after the problems were resolved or while they were being fixed.
    I shifted my personal focus from military affairs in 2006, due to the success of the surge, to focusing on the traitors in the US. So I’m not as up to date on modern military equipment and procedures as I was in the past, but I can imagine how things are under a Democrat Regime.

    Kratman’s essays on war training can be found in the link there. For civilians, it should be a good primer on things actually work in the US military, without the glaze of the MSewerMedia confusing things with their propaganda and necromancy.

  • The Left likes to use the old appeal to authority and “shut up, listen to your leaders” kind of rhetoric. In about 1-2 years, they will be attempting to withdraw from Afghanistan and declare it Mission Accomplished, by waving the white flag.
    So people might as well buff themselves up on military trivia now, because you’ll be getting an earful of Democrat generals telling you what to think and when to do it, vis a vis Afghanistan soon.