This photo depicts a young signaller posing in a Salonika photographer’s studio in May 1916, showing off his new slouch hat.
An online purchase, this is one of my favourites, as it depicts the time when the BSF – who had arrived wearing their standard service dress from France or home – started to change in response to the increasing Macedonian temperatures. Captain Cyril Falls, compiler of the Official History of the campaign, describes it thus (Vol. 1 p102):
Egypt held the purse-strings … the demand for sun-helmets for the coming hot weather, made as early as February 1916, was opposed by the Director of Medical Services in Egypt. It was first considered that even in the hottest weather neck-covers fitted to the service caps would give sufficient protection. Next it was decided that slouch hats, similar to those worn by Australian troops, were necessary; and these were issued. Finally, on the 18th June, the then Army commander at Salonika had to insist that the estimate of the Macedonian summer climate made by Egypt was incorrect, and that sun-helmets were urgently required.
So in the spring and summer of 1916 – until sun-helmets were issued – the BSF looked rather distinctive in their slouch hats – which were unusual attire for British soldiers of the First World War – and sometimes leads to them being mistaken for Aussies. Even Cyril Falls describes the hats in relation to Australians, which is unfortunate, as a felt hat with a brim was the traditional headdress of the English soldier from the Restoration until 1800, when shakos were introduced. Of course, during the course of the 18th century they were ‘cocked’ into more and more extreme ways, but once on campaign, especially in north America, more informal styles appeared – what we would recognise as a slouch hat – often decorated with feathers and animal tails.
Brimmed hats sometimes made an unofficial appearance on campaign in hot climes during the 19th century – when they were often known as ‘wideawake hats’ (because they don’t have a nap – it’s a hatters joke!) – but it wasn’t until the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) that they appeared more widely. It soon became apparent to some officers and men that the slouch hat worn by many colonial troops (and the Boers!) was lighter and more practical than the sun-helmet and later in the war they became official and widespread, with even the Guards wearing them. Their popularity continued after the war and there are many photos of them being worn with the new service dress, especially by yeomanry and volunteers, but unfortunately – in my opinion – the slouch hat lost out to the service cap in 1905.
The slouch hat is so versatile, it keeps the sun out of the eyes, the rain off the neck, can be used to carry water or forage, you can fan a fire with it, and use it to shield a cigarette or pipe at night. To many in the military, though, it was unsoldierly; probably because of its association with colonial troops and because soldiers could and did shape it into a hundred-and-one different styles. As we can see from the photo of Harold it can look very smart with one side pinned up, maybe with a cap badge but, once up country, individuality crept in; see the photo below. The military authorities in the 18th century had been equally frustrated by the tendency of soldiers to customise their headgear! It must have been a great relief to many officers and sergeant-majors when sun-helmets – a ‘proper’ military headdress – arrived from Egypt.
Men of the 1st Royal Irish Regiment marching along the Seres Road into the Struma Valley, June 1916. BRITISH FORCES DURING THE SALONIKA CAMPAIGN 1915-1918 (click on image to see full size) © IWM (Q 32128)