Author Journal / History

The First World War in Buttons

Nina Edwards.

The First World War in ButtonsButtons are small features of dress, yet they can be important. Searching through my old button tin, I came across a blackened brass button still sewn to a scrap of khaki green. Not the khaki brown of the Second World War, but most likely it came from my grandfather’s First World War uniform. It could be argued that the First World War allowed men a period of respite from post Enlightenment black clothing. Since Beau Brummell first suggested that elegance in gentlemen’s dress lay in clothes being inconspicuous, opportunities for sartorial splendour were few. No proper man would run the risk of seeming frivolous, and a neat clerk had very much the appearance of a vastly wealthy gent.

If uniforms create a sense of collective pride, then buttons help provide their swagger. Uniform modifications were made as the war progressed, but generally early First World War French uniforms, with their scarlet tight-fitting trousers, and Prussian uniforms with helmets like Teutonic knights, bore far greater numbers of tunic buttons than the British. Brass buttons – and for the affluent they might be plated gold – were considered so important to the morale of a regiment that they could be requisitioned and delivered to the allied front line within eight hours. The bill for paste alone, to clean all 350 odd categories of British Army button, came to over £200,000 per year. Button slides were used to protect the clothing beneath, and it is easy to imagine such a simple, repetitive task having been welcome in the trenches.

The glamour of brass aside, even ordinary khaki shirt and trouser buttons could be important too. A soldier found improperly buttoned could be liable to punishment, his dress held to be a matter of respect. In cases of courts marshal, when time allowed, badges of office and buttons would be stripped from those found guilty. A fighting man would have learnt to sew on his own buttons, but there are many accounts of Red Cross nurses and auxiliaries performing this task, representing perhaps a moment of feminine care in those desperate circumstances. Buttons with photographic images of loved ones under glass were sometimes worn discreetly, or sets might be purchased in Paris and sent to those at home for keepsakes. Sometimes cheeky or pornographic buttons could be cheerful company.

The newly formed women’s units of nurses, drivers and ancillary services eventually came to have their own official buttons on variously cobbled together uniforms. Such buttons might also find their way into a button tin, and years later remind someone of a time when she had suddenly stepped outside the domestic realm. There are examples of women who took on male uniform to fight as men and others who replaced male workmen at home, drove lorries and buses, or signed up as land girls in buttoned drill breeches or dungarees. Munitions’ overalls might hide jolly garters underneath, decorated with painted buttons of flappers’ innocent faces, often in patriotic red, white and blue. For each and every role and aspiration a button might recall some aspect of a former life.

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the memorial poppy may seem the most suitable example of a button. Yet these other half-forgotten buttons, from uniforms of all types, and even an ordinary button from a cardigan that happened to be worn on the day when a shell-shocked soldier finally returned home – or the moment when a telegram arrived – have the power to recall such distant memories.  ■

Nina Edwards is the author of On the Button. You can follow her on Twitter @buttonsandoffal.

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