Military Photographs Decoded

Military Photographs Decoded

In this exclusive extract from his book Military Photographs and How to Date Them, Neil Storey reveals some typical army photos from the mid-19th century to the end of WW1

Neil Storey, military and social historian

Neil Storey

military and social historian

A good working knowledge of military uniforms, headdresses, badges, insignia and equipment cannot be acquired overnight. Indeed, I am still making revealing discoveries after working for over 25 years in the field. The problem is that there will often be a particular situation which proves a generalisation wrong! And be careful – just because Grandad said it was so, it may or may not be the case, so always check family stories against official records if you can. Information from service records and medal index cards will enhance the interpretation of any family military photographs.

Above all, take your time. Examine your pictures carefully, enlarge them on the computer or use a magnifying glass. Even the identity of a blurred or indistinct badge may be confirmed by diligent research. Don’t be afraid to write to the relevant armed force, regimental or corps museum of your ancestor to see if they can help. Look at clues beyond the portrait photograph, such as the address of the studio often printed on the original photograph. Even if no photographer’s name is shown, if the back of the card is marked ‘Carte Postale’ it indicates it was taken abroad; there may even be a censor mark and a message to help you.

Another often revealing avenue for research can be Rolls of Honour. These are often displayed in local churches or larger libraries. In some areas the local press published weekly images of local lads and lasses ‘doing their bit’.

The uniformed photographs that are now in our care bear mute testimony to often young men and women embarking on a great adventure, especially in the early war years. Some show groups of smiling comrades, several of whom probably did not return. Others taken during or at the end of the war show men changed by their experiences, somehow more serious, harder, their youth lost and aware of many comrades fallen. With sensible and diligent research I hope your images will be ‘unlocked’ and some of the stories of those heroes will be revealed.

Soldiers of the Queen, 1865-1900

In the 1860s and 1870s, Victorian soldiers still wore scarlet tunics. The Cardwell reforms of the 1870s saw major changes to the structure of the army.

 2 Lieutenant Robert Tomkyns Hawkes
2 Lieutenant Robert Tomkyns Hawkes, Ensign, 7th Foot, Royal Fusiliers, November 1865

  1. As an Ensign his collar is plain; insignia denoting rank was displayed here
  2. The Undress frock coat has two rows of buttons, practical to his right, decorative to his left
  3. His officer’s forage cap (1852-1881) was known as the ‘cheese cutter’, made of blue cloth; royal regiments had a scarlet band, others had black lace
  4. The sash worn around the waist by generations of British officers back to the 18th century was now worn from the left shoulder to the right hip; senior NCOs wore it right to left
  5. In the centre front the cap displays the regimental number
A Regular Soldier Private, The Suffolk Regiment, c1884.
A Regular Soldier Private, The Suffolk Regiment, c1884.

  1. The Glengarry, initially introduced as the Undress cap for Scottish regiments in 1852, was adopted by the majority of English line infantry regiments in plain blue in the 1870s and remained the standard headgear for other ranks soldiers up to the 1890s
  2. Undress frock jacket with seven front buttons prescribed for home service; a five-button pattern was generally for use in India
  3. The Glengarry was bound at the bottom with black silk or leather with silk tails
  4. A typical line infantry soldier after the Cardwell reforms of 1881
  5. Many soldiers at this time are photographed carrying swagger canes. These do not denote rank or special duties; all soldiers were expected to be proficient in ‘stick drill’ and to carry a cane when ‘walking out’

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The Edwardian Era, 1901-1913

This was the era of the South African (Boer) War. The territorial forces were also completely reorganised, with distinctive changes in uniform for Volunteers.

Private Soldier, 2nd Volunteer Battalion, The Essex Regiment
Private Soldier, 2nd Volunteer Battalion, The Essex Regiment, c1905.

  1. He wears the Broderick cap (or the ‘forage cap, new pattern’), introduced in 1902 and rarely worn after 1907
  2. The khaki tunic has twisted shoulder cord epaulettes, worn 1904-1907. The cap badge is the Essex Regiment (his shoulder cloth insignia would have read simply ‘Essex’ in white lettering)
  3. His valise equipment belt (in dark brown or black because the 2nd VB were Rifle Volunteers) and ‘civvy’ boots confirm his status (many units asked Territorial soldiers to provide their own shirt and boots)

Volunteer Artillery Officers in ‘Full Dress’, 1909
Volunteer Artillery Officers in ‘Full Dress’, 1909

  1. The Lieutenant (left) has two pips on his shoulder cords, the Captain three; this is an important dating clue because in 1902 Second Lieutenants were given a single star or ‘pip’ for the first time, thus full Lieutenants were given an extra star for their rank insignia and Captains were increased from two to three stars
  2. It was quite common for Volunteers and even Territorial unit officers to be seen wearing helmet plates with Queen Victoria crowns up to about 1911
  3. The braid above the cuff was simple for the Lieutenant, increasingly embellished from the rank of Captain and above

World War One, 1914-1918

WW1 saw new uniformed military units for women, and the practicalities of war led to various changes in uniform and the way men presented themselves.

King’s Own Royal Regiment Lancaster
A soldier of the King’s Own Royal Regiment Lancaster demonstrates the correct assembly and wear of the 1908 Pattern webbing in ‘Full Marching Order’ c1919

  1. The 1908 Pattern webbing was typically used in the years immediately leading up to and during the First World War: it comprised a 3 inch wide belt, with left and right ammunition pouches
  2. The Pattern webbing also featured left and right braces, a bayonet frog, water bottle carrier, and an entrenching tool head in web cover
  3. Inside the small haversack were personal items, knife, fork and spoon, sewing kit and necessities for washing and shaving
  4. The large pack was usually reserved for carrying the soldier’s greatcoat and/or blanket. A correctly packed full set of 1908 webbing would weigh 70lbs, but if it was worn correctly the weight would be evenly distributed
Second Lieutenant, The Norfolk Regiment, 1914
Second Lieutenant, The Norfolk Regiment, 1914

This is a typical photograph of a newly commissioned officer taken during the very early months of the war

  1. His hat has a crown stiffened by wire and a bronze cap badge; the stiffeners were often removed for comfort and practicality
  2. He is due a quiet word from a friendly brother officer to tell him he has got his collar badges facing the wrong way
  3. His uniform would have had regimental buttons and still has a ‘new’ look to it, certainly showing little sign of having being used in training or active service
  4. Like many newly commissioned officers he proudly wears his sword, but they soon began to be seen as very old-fashioned
  5. As a junior officer, he wears puttees (cloth wound round the leg) rather than the riding boots worn by some more senior officers

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