Gordon Highlanders 1914 - 1918


When you put on the uniform of the Gordon Highlanders, you will be privileged to represent, not only one of the finest regiments in the British Army, but also, at the same time, the British Army and the Highland regiments as a whole. You will have a lot to live up to.

These notes tell you something about the uniform, how it evolved and how to wear it. You will see that the Highland uniform evolved significantly during the Great War, so that several variants are necessary to depict the different phases of the war. In order to reduce initial expenditure, we will ask you first to obtain the uniform and kit for the period 1916 onwards. This is because we believe that the periods of the Somme and Passchendaele respond best to the public perception of the war. But we will start from the beginning….

1914 Service Uniform
The initial service uniform, worn by the regular and Territorial battalions in 1914, is shown in a sketch by Snaffles.


The head-dress was the regimental pattern diced Glengarry, with a black cockade and the regimental badge on the left hand side. The badge was of white gunmetal, not brass, and consisted of a stag’s head above a ducal coronet with a wreath of ivy, all above the motto “Bydand”. It was based on the crest of the Marquis of Huntly, heir to the Duke of Gordon, and was only adopted in 1872. The motto is Scots and means “biding or abiding, in the sense of enduring, lasting or biding the time”.

The Regimental badge, shown on a postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons, c.1914. The sprig of heather was not worn!

The jacket was the khaki service dress jacket introduced in 1902, with the front ‘cutaway’ to produce the Highland version. The buttons were of brass and were of general service pattern, not specific to the regiment. The name of the regiment was however indicated on brass shoulder titles, which for the Gordons regular battalions (and later service or Kitchener battalions) simply stated “GORDON” (singular) in large letters The Territorial battalions had distinctive shoulder titles which incorporated both a ”T” for Territorial and the specific battalion number.

The jacket was worn over the greyback shirt, which incidentally had conveniently long tails for wearing with the kilt. The shirt had a white patch sewn on to the front, on which was written the soldier’s regimental number, for ease of identification in case of wound or death. He would also carry an identification tag round his neck, beneath his jacket.
The kilt, of course, was of Gordon Highlanders tartan, and is described more fully below. However, to provide some camouflage, it was now covered front and back by a khaki apron. This apron had a pocket in the front, to replace the sporran, and was fastened with ties on the right hand side. The sporran was not worn on active service.
Shoes (brogues) were worn rather than ankle boots. Diced hose tops, covering the calf, were worn over ordinary socks. For the Gordons the hose-tops were diced red and black, like the Black Watch, rather than red and white as worn later. They were secured at the top by garters with red flashes of regimental pattern, characterised by a distinctive loop. Protection to the ankle was provided by khaki canvas spats which covered the lower part of the hose-tops and the top of the shoes, and which were secured underneath by a leather strap. In the Gordons the buttons of the spats were black.

With this uniform, the soldier wore the1908 pattern webbing and carried the Short Magazine Lee Enfield Rifle (SMLE). (see below)

Variants and Subsequent Changes
In general, the recruits who joined in 1914 and early 1915, in the enthusiastic rush to enlist after the declaration of war, did not receive their full uniforms straight away, for the army simply couldn’t keep up with the demand. This was especially so for those joining the New Army (service or Kitchener) battalions, which, unlike the regular and Territorial battalions, had little or no kit in stock to start with. Many recruits to Highland regiments carried out their initial training in dark blue “postmen’s” uniforms or with outdated or non-regimental items of kit, and sometimes with khaki kilts. Regimental kilts were issued relatively late to a number of the Kitchener battalions. While waiting to be kitted out, the soldiers would often have to borrow a kilt to have their obligatory photograph taken to send to their sweetheart or family. Many recruits were issued with the standard square-cut service dress jacket rather than a Highland ‘cutaway’ version, and took this with them on active service. There is some evidence that, however rigorously enforced, this became official policy from 1915, the idea being that the squared-off corner was more convenient for sewing on the field dressing.

Experience gained on active service soon led to some changes in the basic uniform. It was found in the winter of 1914-1915 that the Highlanders’ shoes were totally unsuited to conditions in the emerging trench systems of Flanders, where they were easily sucked off by the mud, such that soldiers on occasion found themselves shoeless. Consequently, in 1915, the shoes and spats were replaced by much more practical ankle boots and puttees. The puttees were wound round the top of the boot and the hose-tops, to reach about half way to the knee. They were shortened versions of the long puttees issued to ordinary infantry which reached to just below the knee. At about the same time, some of the surviving vestiges of colour were removed. In the winter of 1914-15, the diced Glengarry was replaced by a small khaki Balmoral bonnet, originally sometimes blue, and the colourful diced hose-tops were replaced by khaki. Perhaps surprisingly, the flashes were not changed to khaki, and the distinctive red regimental flashes remained in use throughout the war.

1915 Squad
A squad of Gordon Highlanders, probably recruits in early 1915, wearing improvised dress. They wear trousers and mostly plain, not regimental diced glengarries. Some wear cutaway jackets, others have standard square-cut jackets, while all wear 1914 emergency pattern leather webbing.

Later in 1915 or early 1916 the small Balmoral was replaced by the larger Tam o’ Shanter (TOS), which carried a tartan patch with the regimental badge. In 1916, prior to the Somme offensive, the steel helmet was introduced for service in the trenches, being designed essentially to provide protection from shrapnel from above. After this, in principle, the TOS would only be worn out of the line. The steel helmet was normally worn with a Hessian cover to reduce reflection from sunlight.

As regards personal equipment, many new recruits could not be equipped with the 1908 pattern webbing, for the Mills Equipment Company, which made it, was simply unable to cope with the huge initial demand. In this situation the government placed orders with manufacturers in Britain and the United States for a million sets of leather equipment, based closely on the 1908 pattern. This Pattern 1914 leather equipment was issued to many new recruits and, although it was intended to be used for training only, many soldiers went to war with it. Some battalions were eventually re-equipped with the 1908 kit, but others retained the 1914 leather pattern throughout the war.

[On the 1914 Pattern leather equipment, see CHAPPELL, Mike, 'British Infantry Equipments 1908-80', Osprey Men-at-Arms series No.108]

Anti Gas Protection
The final significant changes to the Highlanders’ kit concerned the introduction of protective equipment against gas. Protective equipment evolved gradually from 1915, but the principal items came to be the PH helmet and the later Small Box Respirator (SBR). The PH helmet was introduced in early 1916, in response to the Germans’ introduction of lethal phosgene gas, and was carried in a small bag, which Highland soldiers frequently wore in front of the kilt, like a sporran. It was carried by all British troops in the Battle of the Somme. The SBR, the familiar “gas-mask”, was introduced in late 1916, and was carried in a case usually worn over the chest. It was carried by all soldiers at Passchendaele. For some time it was common for soldiers to carry both the SBR and the PH helmet, with the latter available as back-up. The PH helmet was only officially withdrawn in early 1918, but the withdrawal was not necessarily universal. Mustard gas, which was first employed by the Germans on the Western Front in July, 1917, potentially posed particular problems for Highland troops. As well as attacking the lungs if inhaled, which affected all troops the same, externally it also caused dreadful burns and blisters to exposed areas of skin, especially to moist parts of the body. Since most Highland soldiers had nothing but their bare skin under the kilt, they felt particularly exposed to attack by mustard gas. As a result, at one stage, long drawers, which covered the skin completely from waist to hose, were issued to at least some units. It is uncertain how widely these were issued, and how often they were worn, but the practice was clearly not universal, even in the trenches.

[On the PH hood and SBR, see JONES, Simon, 'World War I Gas Warfare Tactics and Equipment', Osprey Elite series No.150]

The Uniform By 1917
The uniform as it had evolved by 1917 is illustrated below. This is the uniform we will ask you first to concentrate on obtaining, as we believe that the periods of the Somme and Passchendaele respond best to the public perception of the war. This is our “default” dress. You should also obtain an additional waist-belt to provide walking-out dress (see below). Ultimately, we wish to be able to depict all types of battalions of the Gordons at any date during the war, but in order to reduce initial expense, we recommend that you add the other variations later, as you can afford them. For more detailed advice on the kit to acquire, and a suggested order of buy, click Kit list

The uniform as it had evolved by 1917. The photograph was taken in the restored trenches in Sanctuary Wood during the Passchendaele March in 2007. The pattern 08 webbing is worn with the addition of the SBR, worn across the chest. The TOS has replaced the Glengarry, but the steel helmet would have been worn instead in the front-line.

Walking Out Dress
When “walking-out”, that is when off-duty outside camp, soldiers would still be expected to turn out smartly, for they were then on display, representing the regiment to the public. Highlanders would wear the kilt without the khaki apron, with the leg-wear and head-dress appropriate for the time (See above). They would not wear their webbing, but would wear the waist-belt and would normally carry a regimental cane swagger-stick (although presumably not when on service in France and Belgium). All brasses would be polished. It will be useful for soldiers within our group to equip themselves with a spare waist-belt, which not only allows it to be kept permanently pristine, but also eliminates the need to keep detaching the waist-belt from the webbing, which is a time-consuming and annoying process, and inevitably involves adjusting the fit of the webbing each time.

Walking Out
A young Gordon Highlander in walking out dress as worn from 1916 onwards. Note that he wears the kilt without apron or sporran and is carrying a swagger stick. His leather belt is from the 1914 emergency pattern equipment.

The Kilt
The most distinctive element of the uniform was of course the kilt of regimental tartan. This was not a clan tartan. Like most of the regimental tartans of the British army it had been created by adding an over-stripe to the basic dark blue and green government pattern tartan, which is known more familiarly as Black Watch. In the case of the Gordon Highlanders the over-stripe was yellow.

The kilt is pleated at the back, with knife pleats, and overlaps at the front, effectively forming an apron (as distinct from the khaki apron cover). It is fastened by straps on both sides. A kilt-pin is worn on the right hand side of the front of the kilt, but is not fastened to the underlying layer and is for display only.

As regards what went on under the kilt, the normal practice in the regiment before the war, as confirmed by Ian Hamilton, who served as a regimental officer in the closing years of the nineteenth century, was that “we didn’t wear drawers except at athletics or dancing on a platform.” There is abundant evidence from Highland soldiers’ accounts from 1914-1918 that, while a few chose to wear short briefs under the kilt, the great majority, through induction, custom, peer pressure or choice, continued to do without. As one former volunteer private soldier in the 1st Battalion put it when asked, “The plain answer is that if you wore anything under a kilt you’d have been issued with it. You didn’t get that issued so you didn’t wear anything.”


Private Alex Brownie of the 4th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, visited his parents on a fourteen day leave in January 1918. He recalls that when his mother took his clothes for cleaning, she asked him where his pants were. He told her the battalion never wore them. She didn’t believe him, so before he returned she made him a pair – but on his first spell in the trenches they were done away with, and his mother’s work had gone for nothing. And this even after the introduction of mustard gas! You have been warned!

New recruits (even mere English) should not however worry too much about either cold or embarrassment when donning the kilt for the first time. The kilt is made of heavy wool, with two thicknesses around the front of the body, and up to six where it is pleated round the back. In normal temperate conditions, it provides excellent protection against the cold. Indeed, in all but extreme conditions, the problem tends to be that the kilt is too warm on hot days rather than too chilly in the cold. Furthermore, the weight of the kilt means that, even when worn, as it normally will be, without a sporran, it will generally stay in place, except when exposed to the stiffest breeze. This is all the more so when the khaki apron is worn, for the apron is kept in place by ties at the side and also has a small pocket at the front in place of the sporran, where your spare change or wallet will keep everything in place and spare your blushes. With a little care when sitting down, potential embarrassment can be avoided quite easily and you will soon get used to the feel of the kilt….and the attention of the ladies.

Comic 2

During the war, however, the kilt did not always prove suitable. Conditions in the trenches were often extreme. True, the kilt had some advantages. Unlike trousers, it could be removed, without removing boots and puttees, when wading through waist-high water; and in burning heat, in quiet sectors, soldiers could discard the kilt itself and just wear the khaki apron. But there were severe disadvantages. Mud drying, or water freezing, on the back of the kilt cut the soldiers’ legs while marching, and the extreme cold in winter caused significant cases of frostbite on occasion. Soldiers would roll up their hose-tops to cover their knees and in some cases would be reduced to wrapping field dressings or sand-bags round their legs as additional protection. In addition, while all soldiers who served in the trenches came out lousy, lice were a particular problem for Highland soldiers, for they bred in the seams of the kilt. Kilts would be fumigated in delousing centres when the soldiers came out of the trenches, but this was not always successful, and soldiers would run candles or a hot iron down the seams of the kilt in frequently vain attempts to get rid of them.

Quite apart from the disadvantages of the kilt in cold, wet and muddy conditions, it had certain other military disadvantages too: For Intelligence purposes it could reveal to the enemy that a new battalion had come into the line, and by implication, a new brigade or Division. On some occasions indeed, Highland soldiers were put temporarily into trousers to disguise major troop redeployments. When crossing barbed wire, the kilt flew out and easily became caught on the wire, leaving its wearer a sitting duck as he attempted to disentangle it. Furthermore, the Highlanders’ bare legs were easily cut on the wire, and the resultant cuts, otherwise inoffensive, could quickly turn septic in the trenches. Finally, as we have seen, Highland soldiers were particularly vulnerable to mustard gas,
But the kilt, with its appeal to patriotism, swank and self-esteem, was superb for recruiting. Perhaps that is why, despite the efforts of Major-General Harper, commanding 51st Highland Division, to abolish it in 1916, it remained in use throughout the war. Only in 1939, after the outbreak of the Second World War, were Highland soldiers finally stuffed into battledress trousers.

[Much of this section is based on the writer’s own research in both published sources and unpublished material held largely in the Imperial War Museum. For Ian Hamilton, see HAMILTON, General Sir Ian, 'Listening for the Drums', Faber & Faber, London, p.42. For Alex Brownie, see MACDONALD, Lyn, '1914-1918 Voices and Images of the Great War', Penguin, 1991, p.264. For General Harper’s attempt to abolish the kilt, see NICHOLSON, Col. W.N., 'Behind the Lines', Jonathan Cape, London, 1939, pp.145-6. For additional reference, see also YOUNG, Derek, 'Forgotten Scottish Voices from the Great War', Tempus, Stroud, 2005.]

The S.M.L.E.
The basic weapon of the British soldier in the Great War was the Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle, S.M.L.E. for short, and inevitably therefore known as the “Smelly” by Tommy and Jock. The S.M.L.E. had been introduced in 1902 to replace the Long Lee Enfield rifle, which was the standard weapon in the Boer War. As its name implies the weapon was shorter than its predecessor, so designed to make it more easily usable by both mounted and dismounted troops.

In its many variants, the S.M.L.E. remained the basic weapon of the British soldier for over 50 years. The version most widely used in the Great War was the Mark III, introduced in 1907, although there were several wartime variants. The weapon has a magazine which will hold ten .303 rounds, loaded by inserting charger clips, each holding five rounds, to save time. It has an adjustable sight and a lug to accommodate the 1907 pattern bayonet, a long sword bayonet. The long bayonet compensated for the shortness of the rifle itself, compared with the German Mauser, and was designed to ensure that the British soldier was not out-reached in a bayonet fight. A trap was included in the butt to hold cleaning materials.

The adjustable sliding sight is capable of being set at ranges from 200 to 2,000 yards. Ranges from 0-600 yards were considered ‘close’, from 600 to 1400 yards ‘effective’ and from 1400-2000 yards ‘long’. Most musketry training on the firing-ranges was conducted at ranges of 0-600 yards. Soldiers were trained to fire 15 rounds a minute rapid fire, the practice being tested on the ranges in a ‘mad minute’ firing at 300 yards. The weapon was well thought of by those who used it, being reliable, accurate and quick to load and fire.

[On the S.M.L.E. see DUCKERS, Peter, 'British Military Rifles', Shire, 2005; HOLMES, Richard, 'Tommy', Harper Collins, London, 2004, pp.377-380]

The Pattern 1908 Web Infantry Equipment

A side view of the 1908 pattern equipment

The 1908 pattern equipment was introduced that year as a result of lessons learned from the Boer War, where the leather Slade-Wallace equipment had proved inadequate. The new equipment was, for the first time in the British army, made of woven cotton webbing, which was not affected by wet conditions. It is well designed so that the weight of kit is evenly distributed. When assembled it is all in one piece, and consequently can be put on and taken off like a coat. The buckles, studs and tags are all of brass. The belt and braces support two sets of five cartridge pouches, each pouch containing three chargers of 5 rounds each, making a total of 150 rounds in all. They also support the bayonet frog with bayonet, water-bottle and carrier, small pack, large pack, entrenching tool and mess-tin. The two basic orders of dress were Marching Order, in which the large pack was carried, with all its contents, and Battle Order, in which the large pack was discarded and only the small pack or haversack was carried, usually containing food.

The normal contents of the large pack were as follows: Spare shirt and vest, soap and towel, TOS when helmet worn, greatcoat, 4 brushes, brass polish and dubbin/blacking, spare socks, Hussif and holdall, waterproof sheet.
Typical contents of the small pack were: Emergency iron ration, Ilb of corned beef, 3 army biscuits and maybe cheese or bacon. tea and sugar in a tin, clasp knife with lanyard.

[On the 1908 Pattern webbing see CHAPPELL, Mike, 'British Infantry Equipments 1908-80', Osprey Men-at-Arms series No.108]

And Finally
It is a privilege to wear this uniform. You should wear it with pride. You should always wear it correctly, and you should never forget that in doing so, you undertake to respect and live up to the traditions of the Regiment we represent.

Be proud to be a Gordon!