The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Uniforms of World War I

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Uniforms of World War I

The First World War was horrible, it destroyed everything it touched. It mechanised death. And the uniforms reflected that. They went from being an echo of past centuries (the blue of the French, the pelisse of the hussar) to a drab, practical method of reducing one’s chances of death. Understandable, but another illustration of how industrial practices (killing the most, quickest) began to dominate warfare. This is the introduction from the book, in which I set out the state of Europe in 1914:

Europe was a flourishing continent in 1914. Its population of 467 million largely enjoyed abundant wealth, improving health and political freedoms unimagined by their forebears.

That population was growing which led to pressure in urban centres (Paris, Glasgow, Constantinople, Berlin Moscow, St Petersburg and Vienna had populations numbering more than one million) and also led to emigration from some of Europe’s harsher peripheries (Scandinavia, southern Italy, Scotland) to the United States and South America. Quality of life in many areas was improving but life was still short and uncomfortable for many more.

Wealth, whether generated by industrializing economies, increased purchasing power or money flowing in from colonies and dependencies, had a crucial impact on politics and daily life. For those lucky enough to enjoy it, it opened up a world of possibilities from travel or further wealth to fine art. For those marginalised by the wealth of others’, it caused political agitation. Socialism, aiming to reduce inequalities, was on the rise in most countries and was a significant force in Germany, Italy and Russia. Participation in political life was, however, generally restricted to a narrow elite.

Great Britain enjoyed a unique position as owner of the world’s largest empire (one fifth of the world’s territory, one quarter of the world’s population), an empire which would grow still more by 1919. The island’s population of 46 million was steadily rising whilst those of Canada, Australia, New Zealand were also predicted to show modest gains. India’s population was also on the increase, perhaps to 330 million by 1920. Politically, India was very much dependent on Britain whilst Canada had achieved a measure of independent action in 1867, Australia in 1901, New Zealand in 1907 and South Africa in 1910.

France, Europe’s most important republic, had a population of 39.7 million and, since the humiliation of defeat by Prussia in 1870, had been an enthusiastic collector of colonies (which now included Algeria, Morocco and large parts of Central and West Africa). Periodically calls for revenge, and to take back Alsace and Lorraine, annexed by Germany, made their presence felt particularly when Raymond Poincaré became president. He was from Lorraine and recovery of lost land and lost prestige were the cornerstones of his domestic and foreign policies. To the north east she was bordered by a fragile Belgium inhabited by French and Flemish speakers.

Italy, only united under the House of Savoy in the 1860s, had a population of 35.3 million but was divided between the industrialized north and a south where abject poverty tormented a largely illiterate population. Politically, the government enjoyed little popular support but occasionally stirred patriotic feeling by waging war for colonies (Abyssinia, Libya, the Dodecanese islands), intriguing against France or defending Austro-Hungary’s Italian-speaking minority.

Portugal was in a similar position. Despite owning a vast colonial empire, the majority of the population lived in poverty and misgoverned by a narrow elite of landowners.

Germany, recognised as being Europe’s most powerful state, had a thriving economy and a growing population (68 million in 1914). It stretched from Alsace and Lorraine all the way to northern Poland and ran along the coast as far as modern Lithuania. It governed some minor colonies in the Pacific as well as some more substantial African territory. Ruled by the Kaiser, and dominated by a Prussian political caste, the Germans had waged successful small wars against France, Denmark and Austro-Hungary in order to unite. Germany’s Social Democrats were popular agitators for reform of an oppressive political system and were the largest party in parliament after 1912. The levers of power were, however, very much controlled by conservative forces.

The Austro-Hungarian empire, a patchwork of ethnic minorities, was Germany’s principal ally in Europe. It was territorially impressive (and included modern day Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, southern Poland and most of modern Romania) but politically backward. It was known as the Dual Monarchy as the Emperor of Austria was also King of Hungary. This divided the empire in two as the Hungarians had an autonomous government in Budapest which governed most of the empire’s eastern territories (including Transylvania, a territory containing many Romanians who wanted, or might not want, to join the independent state of Romania on the eastern border). The empire had a joint army and a common foreign policy.

Russia was physically even more impressive. The empire’s European population stood at 148.2 million people and the country’s economy was expanding rapidly (steel production increased by 1000% between 1880 and 1914) Politically it was an autocracy, dominated by the czar, a figure of hate for Europe’s liberals and the increasingly violent socialists and anarchists in Russia’s urban wastelands. The revolutionary unrest following defeat in Japan had led to some political reform and the establishment of the Duma, a poor substitute for a parliament. Real power remained in the hands of the czar and a close circle of advisers. The Russian empire occupied the eastern half of Poland, modern day Moldova, Finland and the Baltic States. In the Caucasus and Asia it had absorbed vast territories but still squabbled with China, Persia and the Ottoman and British empires over precise borders.

The decline of the Ottoman empire had accelerated sharply between 1911 and 1913. Italy had defeated the empire in North Africa and seized some islands in the Aegean. Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece had defeated the Ottomans in the Balkans and reduced the empire to a rump around the bustling city of Constantinople. Disaster, as so often before, pushed the Ottoman government slowly towards reform. The government itself was largely bankrupt, most of the country’s wealth been handed over to European powers (France owned 62% of the empire’s foreign debt), but it turned to German advisers (British ones for naval reform) for technical expertise in an attempt to modernise. The Ottomans maintained their control over most of the Middle East, including modern Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Of those who gained from Ottoman defeat, Greece and Serbia were the most notable winners whilst Bulgaria lost out in the Second Balkan War. Serbia absorbed Kosovo and much of Macedonia, and was now a formidable regional power. And, because of that, she was a threat to another tottering institution: the Austro-Hungarian empire.

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