Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Your Anglo-Boer War Ancestor

Your photograph of an Anglo-Boer War ancestor (if he fought on the British side) probably shows him wearing khaki uniform. Khaki is for most of us a familiar term: it stems from the Indian word meaning dust-coloured. How this form of apparel evolved is uncertain. The Indian Corps of Guides in the 1840s may have been the first to dye their clothes as a form of camouflage, using a substance obtained from the mazari palm.

It has also been suggested that at a dangerous outpost on the Indian frontier, an officer dipped white uniforms in coffee to make them inconspicuous while soldiers were on patrol. This was followed up by a request for an issue of properly-dyed uniforms in the colour, an idea which was gradually adopted by the British Army for its colonial campaigns. All troops serving in the conquest of Sudan in 1897-1898 wore full khaki uniform.

According to a 1915 edition of The Natal Mercury Pictorial:

‘Khaki was discovered by a happy accident. British troops in India wore a cotton uniform which when it was new was khaki in colour, but after a visit to the laundry was indescribable. A Manchester businessman, discussing this defect, casually remarked that a fortune awaited the man who could find a khaki dye that neither, sun, soap nor soda would fade. A young officer overheard the remark, hired a skilled native dyer and began the search. Years passed in fruitless experiment, till one day turning over a heap of rags, relics of their failures, they chanced upon one piece which was still khaki, though the laundry had worked its will. But it had received no special treatment, so far as they knew, except that it had fallen into a metal dish. That was the secret. The metal of the dish and the chemicals in the dye had combined to produce that fadeless khaki colour which makes our soldiers invisible and turned the lieutenant into a millionaire.’
Whatever the truth of its origins, khaki became standard overseas service issue in 1896 and its use spread into civilian life as well, men’s khaki jackets and trousers being advertised in South African newspapers from about 1899.

Because of the universality of the khaki uniform, it’s not easy to identify photographs as specifically of the Anglo-Boer War period, or even to know whether the pictures were taken in South Africa at all, rather than in other parts of the British Empire – India perhaps, or the Far East. Many photographs of this era were ‘mock-ups’ taken a long way from the South African veld, perhaps prior to the soldier leaving home. Generally, such photos show the uniform in pristine condition; it would look less so after a few months in the field.

The uniform consisted of tunic and trousers, worn with puttees (a strip of cloth wound like a bandage round the leg from ankle to knee) and a khaki-covered helmet as protection against the sun. There were some changes – the original uniform fabric, a firm coarse cotton known as drill, was replaced by serge and the style of the helmet was modified. Sometimes a flap of material attached to the back of the helmet shaded the
neck – or the helmet was reversed so that the longer part of the brim served that purpose. There was a regulation pith hat (solar topee) as well. The felt slouch or ‘smasher’ hat with the brim turned up on one side, as worn by colonial volunteers, was found to be more practical than the helmet, and this headgear also became popular among Imperial troops, so if the man in your photograph is wearing the slouch hat it may not necessarily mean that he was in a colonial unit.

There were minor variations in dress according to regiment. The Canadians had their own distinctive hat with a high crown. Imperial cavalry regiments wore chains on the shoulders of their tunics, boots rather than puttees, and leather gauntlets. Certain regiments wore coloured puggarees wound round the helmet. It’s not difficult to pick out a member of a Scottish regiment in kilt and sporran (which must have been hot in the tropics, and sometimes a khaki apron was added to this ensemble). Some of these differences may aid in identification of an ancestor’s photograph, but in the field there were often highly-individualistic alterations to the regulation uniforms.

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