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US Enlisted Uniforms 1900 - 1918

Presented by: Glenn E. Hyatt

Fredericksburg Area Military History &
Collector's Association

Part 1: Introduction

As the United States entered the Great European War in April of 1917 it found itself woefully unprepared for the task at hand.

To successfully fight a foe with a state-of-the-art army across thousands of miles of ocean was a formidable task. It would require the US to not only build and equip a effective land based army but to modernize the systems it had to meet the challenge of Trench Warfare.

With an estimated requirement of 4,000,000 men at arms to be contributed by the United States, pre war stocks of equipment were far from sufficient for what would be required. The US manufacturing capability required to supply the proposed American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was inadequate.

It was also obvious that much of the equipment in common use by our forces was outdated and needed to be upgraded for use on the Western Front.

The urgency of the situation soon became apparent to American leaders. German U-boats were strangling much of Europe. Not only were there shortages in most commodities but shortages in critical war materials and even the possibility of starvation loomed on the horizon.

The collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 would release a windfall of enemy troops and supplies. These would soon be available to reinforce the Central Powers on the Western Front and tip the scales to their advantage. Allied armies had been bled white by the war of attrition that characterized the battlefield of 1916-1917 to the point where they needed immediate reinforcements if they were to save the day.

The Supreme War Council ( the central organization of Allied governmental and military leaders) judged that if they were to be saved, America must send one million troops by July of 1918. A series of conferences established the following plans for winning the war if not just staving off defeat:

  1. America had to keep the European Allies from starvation by shipping food.
  2. America had to continue to support the Allied armies by keeping the flow of material already in production rolling off the lines.
  3. America would send as many men as could be transported with the shipping facilities then under America's command.
  4. America would focus its energy toward having a large American Army ready for a major offensive in 1919, using American supplies.

To stave off disaster and provide for the American 1919 offensive a series of agreements were made with the Europeans.

First, The Europeans would train American troops in the advanced practices of trench warfare.

Second, Europe would provide for major American shortages in technology by supplying updated weapons. Of note was that the Europeans would provide machine guns, artillery and its associated material. Europe would supply, or at least assist in, the transportation of troops and supplies to the war zones.

This agreement had a profound effect upon American production of munitions. Most important, it gave us time to build manufacturing capacity on a grand scale without the hampering necessity for immediate production. It gave us time to redesign and improve our equipment and to encompass the technology required for success on the modern battlefield.

However, there was still the immediate crises. Thus to provide an immediate presence, over 120,000 men were sent to France making up part of 4 divisions by December 1, 1917. This initial lot of men was drawn from existing Regular Army, Marines and National Guard sources.

By December 1917 it was realized that the Germans, now receiving reinforcements from the collapsed Russian Front, would mount a major offensive in the spring of 1918 as soon as the campaign season opened. To counter this perceived offensive, troop shipment schedules were accelerated. The British provided additional tonnage for shipping, the Allies in Europe sped up their weapons production and agreed to provide 10 weeks of provisions and food.

With this agreement we were able to far outstrip our schedule for the transfer of troops and embarked 6 extra divisions for the Front.

This sudden surge of manpower put an unbelievable drain on our ability to cloth our soldiers with the standard issue wool uniform. Use of European uniforms would not suffice, if the American Expeditionary Force wished to maintain its own identity.

Existing uniform stocks were scoured, out of date uniforms pressed into service with modifications to bring them up to near standard. Contractors were hired to produce new uniforms and raw materials were sought to enable the uniforms to be constructed. A series of production changes were implemented to ensure the maximum yield in production and new uniforms were developed with an eye on production savings.

The group that handled this enormous manufacturing effort became known as the Central Equipage Division of the Office of the Director of Purchase and Storage. The cost of the necessary equipment, of textiles, leather and rubber goods for the perceived army with a strength of 3.75 million would be estimated at $2.1 Billion dollars. Fully one quarter of this huge sum went for clothing the procurement of which was truly one of the largest undertakings of the War. The Central Equipage Division recruited scientists, manufacturing experts, designers, in fact entire industries. It standardized production methods, materials, designs and at times developed new industries if none were in place.

Raw materials were requisitioned, including the entire wool production of the United States for 1917-1918 and purchased additional wool from foreign sources. During its incumbency the Central Equipage Division purchased 722 million pounds of wool costing the Government in excess of $504 million dollars.

Cotton cloth was also purchased for linings, summer uniforms and other uses. By the end of the war they had procured 800 million sq. yards. This is enough to carpet an area nearly four times as large as the District of Columbia.

However, all of these raw materials had to be turned into material and ultimately uniforms constructed. This was accomplished by the contracting with thousands of weavers, millers, cutters, sewers and final assembly companies. The Government supplied and routed components, job shops operating on basically a piece work basis assembled and finished the uniforms required to outfit our army.

In other words, there was no central uniform factory rather hundreds and hundreds of organizations involved with the construction of our soldiers uniforms. Thus, the reason for the wide variety of cuts, colors and patterns of uniforms that are in the collecting community today. Although all had to pass a Government inspector, there were definite tolerances from the rigid Government specifications. Dye lots, buttons, patterns, cuts, cloth texture all are main variations found in surviving uniforms. Remember, the objective was to ensure each soldier had a uniform, in the shortest period of time.

Enlisted uniforms tended to be issued from Government stores on a last in first out basis. They would not pull a bunch of un-issued uniforms from the supply chain because they no longer met the latest specifications and issue the latest stuff, they just didn't have that luxury. One has to keep in mind that the authentic WWI uniform today has survived in most cases as the last uniform issued a veteran upon his return from war. The uniform a soldier left the states in was most likely replaced several times before his discharge after hostilities. Most of the surviving examples are 'walking out' uniforms, never worn except for the return home. Other uniforms (those worn in combat) were changed, repaired, deloused, reissued or sent to the salvage heap.

The salvage effort was phenomenal. In the AEF there were salvage organizations that worked at Army, Corps, Division and even at the Brigade levels. These scavengers picked up any and every thing and brought it back for reprocessing. At the salvage depot at Tours, France from March to November of 1918 they reprocessed goods at a value of $19,383,353.58. Nothing that could be utilized for repairing or manufacturing purposes was discarded. In just in clothing (all types) the salvage corps reclaimed $37,632,158.00 during the War.

As a side note: The German helmets that have for years popped up at flea markets, estate sales etc are not always captured in the heat of battle. The salvage corps of the AEF packed and shipped 85,000 German helmets to be used in advertising and promotions for the American 5th war loan (Victory loan of April 1919).

In Section 2, I have attempted to provide some collecting details based on the surviving uniforms that one commonly finds in the market today. I have addressed Enlisted versions only, dividing them into major categories by period they were manufactured. This is because for the most part, Enlisted uniforms were issued by the Government where Officers tended to purchase their own clothing on the private market.

If there are any comments or questions please do not hesitate to contact me at fbmmm1@yahoo.com.

Glenn Hyatt


CONTINUE with Part 2, Uniform Patterns

CONTINUE with Part 3, Uniform Insignia

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