History and Development
Throughout history, armies have needed to provide their soldiers a set of equipment to carry ammunition, rations, and other necessities. Historically, this equipment was made of leather, and typically consisted of various pouches suspended from belts and shoulder straps. If well-cared for, the leather was strong and durable; but if not properly maintained, or subjected to severe weather, it was liable to dry out and crack.
In the late 19th Century, military equipment was revolutionized by an American Army officer, Captain Anson Mills. He noted that ammunition tended to get stuck in the individual cartridge loops of the leather belts worn by his men; he therefore experimented with a cartridge belt made from cotton canvas. Pleased with the results, Captain Mills joined forces with a weaver; together, they designed machinery and established a factory for making cartridge belts made from a tightly-woven cotton webbing. These were in turn adopted by the U.S. Army and used successfully in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Soon after, a limited number of webbing bandoliers were used by British troops in the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902).
In addition to his American operation, Captain Mills established a second company in Great Britain: The Mills Equipment Company, Ltd. This company designed and produced the 1908 Pattern Web Equipment, the first complete set of non-leather infantry equipment adopted by the British Army. During World War I, the 1908 webbing performed extremely well, and held up under the appalling conditions of trench warfare better than other armies’ leather equipment.
With the massive conscription efforts of World War I, millions of sets of 1908 Pattern webbing were produced. At wars’ end, the Army was drastically reduced in size, and returned to its primary function of garrisoning the British Empire. There were enormous stocks of 1908 Pattern equipment in stores, and the British government was reluctant to invest in developing a replacement.
In the late 1920’s, it was recognized that the nature of warfare was changing; accordingly, the government authorized the Mills Equipment Company to experiment with designs for a possible new set of equipment. The Army maintained official oversight and established a committee to provide input, but otherwise Mills was left largely to their own development. The designers wanted the new equipment to be lighter in weight than the 1908 Pattern. Additionally, the Army was becoming increasingly mechanized. It was assumed that troops would be transported to the front lines rather than having to march; to better accommodate usage in vehicles, the designers wanted to avoid having any components of the equipment hang below the waistbelt. It was also assumed that the heavier and bulkier items of uniform and gear would be transported by vehicle and not carried by the soldiers themselves.
By 1932, the Mills Equipment Set Number 3 underwent troop trials, and was then officially adopted in 1934. However, this set was never produced or distributed in large numbers; the adoption of the Bren light machine gun, and the need to carry its magazines, required a significant re-design.
The result was adopted and designated as the 1937 Pattern Web Equipment; the official training manual was published in 1939. According to the manual, the 1937 Pattern was a direct descendent of, and improvement upon, the 1908 Pattern; unfortunately, the troops who transitioned from one to the other did not see it as an improvement. However, in one major respect, it was a departure from all earlier designs. Historically, the different arms had their own specific equipment; that is, one set for the infantry, another for the cavalry, and often yet another for the artillery and engineers. The 1937 Pattern was designed to be used by the entire British Army; component pieces intended for one branch could be interchanged for other components. The equipment was based around a waistbelt and a pair of braces, or shoulder straps. From there, different pouches and packs could be attached depending on the role of the individual soldier; there were also items designed specifically for officers. For the purposes of this article, only the infantry equipment will be examined in detail.
Like the 1908 Pattern, the 1937 Pattern equipment was made from cotton webbing. The cotton yarn was pre-shrunk and dyed a light khaki color before weaving; the weave design was extremely tight for both durability and water-resistance. The various buckles, keepers and press-studs (snap closures) were made of brass.
The Mills Equipment Company was the primary contractor, but with the outbreak of World War II, dozens of other manufacturers throughout Britain and the Commonwealth also made webbing equipment; it was produced in Canada, Australia, India and South Africa. Canadian webbing was of very high quality, and tended to have a yellow tinge to its khaki color. Indian and South African webbing tended to be much poorer in quality; the webbing itself was often less-densely woven, while the brass keepers were somewhat thin and flimsy.
Brass was a vital war material, as it was needed for ammunition casings. As World War II progressed, the various buckles and keepers were sometimes made from mild steel with an anti-rust treatment. Much post-war equipment was made with mild steel hardware painted black.
After World War II, the 1937 Pattern equipment soldiered on in Korea and several colonial conflicts during the breakup of the British Empire. It was finally replaced by the 1958 Pattern Web Equipment, but the 1937 Pattern was used by cadets and reservists nearly to the end of the 20th Century.
The infantry components of the 1937 Pattern webbing were as follows:
- Basic pouches
- Bayonet frog
- Waterbottle carrier
- Shoulder straps
- Supporting straps
Details of these items follow.
Waistbelt. The waistbelt was originally made in two sizes, labeled as small and large. In 1941, an extra large size was adopted; the small size was later renamed as normal. The belt was adjustable by placing two pairs of hooks into a series of loops on the inside of the belt. The buckle was a simple clasp that relied on the tension caused by a tight fit to keep it closed. The back of the belt had a pair of buckles to which the braces attached.
Braces. The braces were made in two sizes, normal and long. The braces were significantly narrower than those of the 1908 Pattern, except at the shoulders where the braces widened to better distribute the weight of the equipment. The left brace included a small loop through which the right brace was fed; this loop was often eliminated in later production versions.
Basic pouches. Two large pouches, designated as basic pouches, were attached to the front of the belt via brass hooks which were inserted into the belt’s loops. The pouches also had buckles at the top for attaching the braces. The basic pouch was designed to hold two magazines for the Bren L.M.G.; alternatively, the pouch could hold grenades or projectiles for the 2-inch mortar. Rifle ammunition was issued in a cloth bandolier which was worn over the shoulder to allow the basic pouches to carry ammunition for the support weapons.
After the Dunkirk evacuation, many soldiers complained that their basic pouches were too low and hit their thighs when getting into a crouching or kneeling position. Accordingly, the Mark II pouch was introduced, with the brass hooks moved down one inch, causing the pouch to ride slightly higher on the belt. Many of the original pouches were retrofitted to the Mk. II configuration. After the adoption of the Sten machine carbine, the Mark III pouch was adopted, as the earlier pouches were too short to snap shut when filled with Sten magazines. In 1944, a quick-release tongue-and-loop fastener was adopted to replace the snap fastener; very few pouches with this fastener were issued during the war.
Bayonet frog. As originally issued, the only item suspended from the waistbelt was the bayonet frog. The Rifle, No. 1 Mk. III, with its lengthy 1907 Pattern bayonet, was still in use when the webbing was adopted. However, the No. 4 Rifle and its short spike bayonet were under development, reducing the designers’ concern over an item hanging below the belt. The bayonet frog incorporated a number of loops, the largest of which simply slipped onto the belt, rather than using any hardware. The bayonet scabbard was held by a twin pair of loops at the bottom of the frog; the scabbard stud protruded between the loops. Yet another loop at the top of frog went over the bayonet hilt to reduce movement; this upper loop was often eliminated once the spike bayonet went into production. Later frogs also had to be slightly modified to allow the spike bayonet’s scabbard to sit in the right position; this was often done by making a hole or split in the upper of the twin loops through which the scabbard stud was inserted.
Waterbottle carrier. The original waterbottle carrier was described as a framework of webbing straps; collectors sometimes call it the “skeleton-type” carrier. Later in the war, a simple webbing sleeve carrier was adopted. Originally, the waterbottle was intended to be carried in the haversack, and the carrier only used under certain conditions, but in actual practice it was nearly always suspended from the brace ends. For more information on the waterbottle and carrier, please my earlier article on field hydration.
Haversack. The haversack was often called the “small pack”, both by the troops who used it and by modern collectors. The haversack had internal dividers; the smaller pockets were for the water bottle and mess tins, while the larger section was for the wool jumper or cardigan. The groundsheet was folded and carried under the flap of the haversack; although not described in the training manual, the anti-gas cape was frequently rolled and tied to the top. Invariably, troops carried more equipment in the haversack than the designers intended; although not an official practice, the tea mug was often suspended from the haversack by running a strap through the mug’s handle.
Pack. The 1908 Pattern pack was re-adopted, unchanged, for use with the 1937 Pattern equipment. If the pack was worn, the haversack was moved from the back to the left side. The pack was intended to carry the greatcoat, cap comforter, holdall (toiletry roll), towel, and a spare pair of socks. However, the socks and holdall were more commonly carried in the haversack. The pack was uncomfortable when worn, but fortunately this was rarely done, as the pack was typically kept with unit transport. The pack was often called the “large pack” to better differentiate it from the haversack or “small pack”.
Shoulder straps. The shoulder straps could be used with either the pack or the haversack. Each shoulder strap consisted of two lengths of webbing; the wide portion buckled to the top of the pack, and the narrow portion to the lower. These component straps then joined at a brass hook for attaching to the basic pouch, intended to help distribute the weight. Because of their shape, the shoulder straps are often referred to as “L-straps” by modern collectors.
Supporting straps. The supporting straps connected to the shoulder straps and crossed over the pack; the name derives from the idea that they would help support the weight of the pack when worn.
Entrenching tool. At first, the 1937 Pattern equipment did not include an entrenching tool. In 1939, an entrenching tool with a fixed haft and square head was rushed into production; it was very similar in appearance to that used by the Germans. Not many of these were issued, and those troops who did receive the item did not like it. The 1908 Pattern entrenching tool was therefore re-adopted; this was a combination pick and shovel, with a removable handle or helve. The Mark II helve, adopted in 1944, had lugs for attaching the Number 4 spike bayonet so the helve could be used as a mine-prodder; this version saw very limited use during the war. The webbing carrier for the entrenching tool held the tool head inside a pocket, with the helve strapped to the outside; the carrier was suspended from the brace ends. It was not uncommon for the helve to slip out of the carrier; an extra strap was added to the carrier in 1945, but few of this variant were issued before war’s end.
How to Assemble
The following description is copied from the 1939 manual; however, the references to the manual’s photographs have been omitted.
- Fit the waistbelt comfortably tight by adjusting each end equally. Adjustment is made by withdrawing the double hooks (at the ends of the belt) from the loops woven inside and re-inserting them into loops a corresponding distance from each end. Before re-inserting the hooks, the belt may be tried on, and adjusted as may be necessary. Once the belt is fitted it need seldom be altered. The hooks are inserted by pinching up the webbing… fasten the hook and loop buckle, by passing the hook part through the loop of the other part and not by catching the hook over the outer bar.
- Slip the bayonet frog over the left end of the belt and bring it to a position so that it will hang, when the belt is put on, upon the left hip.
- Attach the basic pouches on the outside of the belt by passing the double hooks over the upper and lower edges of the belt and inserting the hooks into the woven loops, so that they correspond each side, in a position to bring the buckles on top of the pouches in line with the centres of the shoulders.
- Pass one end of the right brace (without loop inside) through the loop inside the rear end of the left brace and attach the rear ends of each brace to the respective buckle on the back of the belt. Pass the front ends of the braces through the centre opening of the buckle on top of the basic pouches, taking care not to twist the braces in doing so. Try the equipment on and make any necessary adjustment of the braces at all four points of attachment to ensure that they extend below the lower edge of the belt equally, thus ensuring that the wide portions of the braces lie evenly on the shoulders. Finally, pass the free front ends of the braces down behind the pouches, between the back of the pouch and the web chape carrying the buckle, and pull down firmly.
Orders of Wear
There were four designated Orders of Wear, as follows:
Marching Order: waistbelt; bayonet frog; pouches; braces; pack with shoulder straps and supporting straps; haversack hung on left hip; waterbottle and carrier hung on right hip; entrenching tool carrier hung on rear.
Battle Order: as Marching Order, but without pack; the haversack is worn on the back. Officially, the waterbottle was to be carried inside the haversack in Battle Order, but this was rare in actual practice.
Musketry Order: waistbelt; braces; pouches; bayonet frog.
Drill Order: waistbelt and bayonet frog.
Differences from the Training Manual
The 1939 manual for the 1937 Pattern Web Equipment describes it as a development of the 1908 Pattern, but lighter in weight. While it was lighter, it was not necessarily an improvement; the 1908 Pattern was well-balanced and comfortable, while it was difficult to adjust the 1937 Pattern to a comfortable fit.
The manual describes the haversack as being worn “rucksack-fashion”, and goes on to state that it was easy to remove and get to its contents (I laughed the first time I read that statement). The haversack was best worn high on the back; if it hung low, it bounced during marching or running. Unfortunately, tightening the shoulder straps to get the haversack to ride high made it much more difficult to take off. Additionally, as noted above, far more items were carried in the haversack than originally intended; the increased weight and bulk also made it harder to get a comfortable fit.
The official manual also states, “When the equipment has once been properly fitted it will be kept assembled as far as possible.” However, as noted above, Drill Order consisted of just the belt and bayonet frog. Training sessions alternated between foot drill and fieldcraft, which meant frequent disassembly and reassembly of the equipment. Further, many units ordered that the waistbelt was to be worn separately as a “walking out” item with best battledress.
The section of the manual on care and preservation states, “Should the equipment become in a dirty or greasy condition, it may be washed, using warm water, soap and a sponge. Then rinse with clean water, and when thoroughly dry apply the cleaner in the manner laid down in the instructions accompanying it. No cleaner may be applied to the equipment unless previously approved by the War Office… The metal work will not be polished, but allowed to get dull, so as to avoid catching the rays of the sun.”
There were two approved webbing cleaners, although the term “cleaner” is rather misleading. By far the more common “cleaner” was Blanco, made by Joseph Pickering & Sons, Ltd. This was a cake of densely-packed colored powder; a wet brush or sponge was used to build up a paste and apply it to the webbing. The Mills Equipment Company made their own webbing cleaner, which was a colored powder sold in a shaker tube; the powder was sprinkled onto the webbing prior to adding water and brushing into the webbing.
For something that was supposed to sustain the soldier on the battlefield, the recruit’s first exposure to webbing equipment was the obsession of his superiors with a smart parade-ground appearance. Soldiers, especially new recruits, spent countless hours polishing the brass hardware and applying just the right amount of Blanco to their equipment. If applied too thinly so that any of the actual khaki web showed through the Blanco, the soldier was punished; yet, if it was applied too thickly, it would crack and flake off, with a similar result. Fortunately, once on operations, a more practical approach typically prevailed.
Tips for Reenactors
When I first started collecting webbing equipment in the mid-1990’s, 1937 Pattern web equipment was cheap and plentiful; that is no longer the case. Most components are still available, although significantly higher in price, and some items require diligent searching of the internet.
Reproductions of most items are now readily available. It appears that all reproduction 1937 Pattern webbing is made in India; when first on the market, these reproductions were of poor quality. Fortunately, in recent years, the webbing itself has improved, although the brass hardware still seems a bit flimsy.
People today are generally larger than seventy years ago; most reenactors would be well-advised to purchase long braces and large or extra large waistbelts. To help ensure the correct fit, remember that the waistbelt should be worn just below the ribcage, regardless of the modern concept of the waistline; far too many reenactors wear their webbing with the belt too low.
As noted above, it was common to wear the waistbelt separately as a “walking-out” item with best battledress. Reenactors will frequently purchase a separate belt for this purpose; this seems like a reasonable solution, but historically, soldiers had to break down their equipment to wear just the belt.
Many reenactors use the Mark II entrenching tool helve, as many of these were made post-war and are now more common than the Mark I. However, very few Mk. II helves actually saw wartime service.
Blanco is an interesting subject, and deserves its own article. Suffice it to say here that original Blanco has become quite scarce, but reproductions and substitutes are now available.