You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.
– Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din
The human body needs to be kept hydrated; a person can function longer without food than without water. Therefore, no military equipment would be complete without giving the soldier a method of carrying water.
The standard British water bottles used in both World Wars were very similar; the Mark VI version issued with the 1908 pattern webbing equipment was replaced by the Mark VII, issued with the 1937 pattern equipment. Both were made of enameled steel with a wool cover, with a stopper made of cork which was attached to the bottle with a short length of cord. Each version held two Imperial pints of water, or 40 ounces.
When the 1937 pattern equipment was adopted, the original intent was that the water bottle would be carried in the haversack, or “small pack” as it was commonly called. However, a webbing carrier was also developed; it could attach to the ends of the braces and hang below the waistbelt. Officially, use of the webbing carrier was not the preferred method. In actual practice, however, more equipment was carried in the small pack than the designers had intended, and the troops were forced to use the carrier simply to make room. Because of the inherent difficulties in resupplying Airborne troops, they typically carried two water bottles: one suspended on the carrier and a second inside the small pack.
The original water bottle carrier was made of webbing straps. A later version consisted of a webbing sleeve; while this version used more material, it was easier to manufacture and saved labor costs. The earlier type was often called the “skeleton” carrier, and the later type the “envelope” carrier. Some modern militaria vendors have tried to assert that the envelope version was only issued to Airborne troops, implying somehow that it was more rare or specialized, and therefore more desirable to collectors; that is completely untrue and easily disproven.
The envelope carrier has a web strap at the bottom to support the weight of the water bottle, but is open at the top. The skeleton carrier has a retaining strap that is closed with a large snap or press-stud; some Indian-made versions closed with a buckle. The intent was obviously that the water bottle would simply be lifted out, with the carrier remaining attached to the rest of the webbing. However, I have found at living history events that this is easier said than done. Over the years, I have used several different carriers, of both types, and all of them have been very tight. Getting to the water bottle has often required significant effort, or assistance from a friend. Between events, some of my friends have experimented with soaking the carrier in hot water and stretching; the most successful method involves placing wooden shims between the bottle and the wet carrier, then allowing it to dry. I assumed that the carriers had all somehow shrunk while sitting in a warehouse for the last several decades; surely they could not have been so difficult to work with during wartime.
As I have mentioned in previous articles, one of my favorite authors is George MacDonald Fraser. His book, Quartered Safe Out Here, is an extraordinary memoir of his service in Burma, fighting the Japanese as part of Slim’s 14th Army. Fraser’s title was inspired by Kipling; I thought I would follow suit with this article. There is a remarkable segment in Fraser’s book dealing with the water bottle and its carrier. It is a somewhat lengthy and colorful narrative, full of slang and foul language; I will summarize rather than reprint it here. A significant battle was going on, but Fraser’s section was on the flank and had not encountered the enemy. It was a hot day, and one of the other soldiers found himself very thirsty and naturally wanted a drink. He was the largest member of the section, and had a nickname that reflected his size. He asked one of his section-mates to borrow his water bottle, as he could not easily get to his own. His mate refused, but countered that he would help the first man with his own bottle. What is significant in this exchange is the fact that the second soldier did not offer to pull the first man’s bottle out of its carrier; instead, he offered to unbuckle his comrade’s carrier from the rest of the webbing. This exchange was astonishing when I first read it; my assumption that the carrier must have been easier to use in wartime was shattered. The narrative continues with the troops finding a local well, using their slouch hats attached to rifle slings to bring up water, and adding purification tablets; all that effort was still apparently easier than accessing the water bottle. It was at that point that the section took fire from the enemy, and Fraser ended up down the well.
This story of unbuckling the water bottle carrier from the brace-ends must not have been an isolated incident, and I have been trying to find other examples. While I have not found any other narratives, I did find a rather remarkable photograph showing this method. The picture shows troops from 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden, and was taken near Divisional Headquarters in Oosterbeek. The photo shows two Airborne soldiers in a slit trench; one is in the act of drinking water, with the water bottle very clearly still in the skeleton carrier.
In another part of his memoir, Fraser describes being issued with a canvas water bag for certain patrols. This water bag was a clever item; it had to be soaked in water prior to use, which would cause the fabric’s fibers to swell and, somewhat counter-intuitively, make the bag water-tight. This item was called a “chaugle”, derived from the Urdu, but the troops often called it a “chaggle”. I have only seen references to its use in the Far East, despite its obvious superiority to the enameled water bottle.
Providing clean water to the troops was a logistics challenge even in the best of conditions. In the deserts of North Africa, fresh water had to be trucked out to the troops on a constant basis; it had to be chlorinated to kill any bacteria and prevent algae from forming during transport. Even in Northern Europe, where troops could fill their water bottles from the many rivers and streams, it had to be assumed the water was contaminated. In Fraser’s narrative, he referenced the use of water purification tablets. These were universally issued regardless of theater, for use when the men had to obtain their own water. The “sterilizing outfit” was issued as a small tin; inside were two glass bottles. One bottle contained the actual purification tablets; however, these tablets gave the water an unpleasant flavor that was supposed to be neutralized by the tablets in the second bottle. I have one of the tins in my collection, but not the glass bottles. One of each of the tablets was to be dissolved in the water to be treated; shaking the water bottle was supposed to speed up the mixing of the contents. In Fraser’s story, the soldiers argued whether chewing the pills prior to drinking the well-water would do any good.
I feel rather relieved that my personal struggles using the water bottle at living history events seems to be an accurate reflection on historical precedent. I have occasionally seen fellow reenactors hide modern plastic water bottles inside their basic pouches, but I consider that cheating and bad form.
A note on terminology: to the British, the item that held water was called a “water bottle”, while the American term for such an item was “canteen”. In British usage, a canteen was a shop, restaurant, and social club specifically for service members. As an American who reenacts as British, I believe it is important to use the correct terminology.