The Evolution of British Webbing (Part 1)- 1903 Pattern

Today we start a major new series covering the development of British load carrying equipment across the first half of the twentieth century. We have looked at many of the individual components before, however in this series we will look at the complete sets and by following through week by week their development, hopefully the evolutionary process will become clear and each set can be placed in its wider context. I am only looking at the basic sets and the major components, rather than each variations, each set up and every single piece of webbing however each post will be longer and more in depth than a usual blog post and hopefully they will combine together to make an interesting reference.

We start with the earliest, and most unique, of the sets: the 1903 Bandolier Equipment. The 1903 set was developed in the wake of the Boer War when the old Slade Wallace 1888 pattern equipment had been found to be very flawed on operations. The new design, however, was still made of leather and consisted of a main bandolier to hold rounds of .303 ammunition in the newly introduced charger clips, with separate pouches for wear on the belt. This set was then, usually, worn with older items of leather equipment including the bayonet frog, waterbottle carrier and haversack. These were not part of the 1903 set, however were habitually worn with it and are usually associated with it in most collector’s minds.

The 1903 Pattern set was soon found to be inadequate for infantry, with the criss-crossing bandolier, waterbottle and haversack all needing to be taken on and off separately and the straps restricting the chest when on the march. Despite this, it was found to be very suitable for cavalry, often being used in a stripped down form, and would continue to be used by mounted troops and service troops through until the Second World War and items were still being manufactured in South Africa into that conflict.

  1. Bandolier– The bandolier came in two versions, the 50 round bandolier seen here with five pockets for carrying ammunition, and a larger 90 round bandolier used by the cavalry with an additional four pockets on the rear. Each pocket had room for two five round chargers and a top flap secured by a stud. The bandolier is cut on a curve to follow the shape of the body and a loop is fitted to the triangular brass ring to allow it to be secured to the belt to hold it in place. The earliest pattern had an elaborate buckle, but this was soon simplified.
  2. Waterbottle Carrier– There was no waterbottle carrier specifically issued with the 1903 Pattern set, however most men would use the Mk 1 Waterbottle carrier that had been introduced in 1901 which consisted of a leather cradle for the bottle, with an adjustable leather carrying strap with a canvas panel where it rested on the shoulder.
  3. Bayonet frog– no bayonet frog was provided with the 1903 pattern set so a variety of leather frogs from earlier or general patterns were used with the set. This example is a World War II South African manufactured example that is typical of these items.
  4. Belt– The belt is made of leather 1 ¾” wide and with a brass buckle at one end. The belt had a leather runner (missing on this example) to secure the loose end of the belt. The belt was to remain in inventory for decades, long after the rest of the set had been declared obsolete, indeed it was still in stores catalogues as late as 1999.
  5. 15 round ammunition pouches– leather pouches were provided to carry additional ammunition on the belt in both ten and fifteen round varieties. These are the second pattern of 15 round pouch where the original large flap, securing on the front has been replaced with a smaller flap that secures at the rear with a tab and stud. This change was introduced in 1906. A brass metal loop is fitted to the rear of each pouch to allow a great coat carrier to be attached with brass hooks if desired.

In addition to the components seen above, other items of the 1903 pattern set included a greatcoat carrier which consisted of canvas straps in which a rolled greatcoat could be fitted. These then went over the shoulders and attached to the loops on the back of the belt mounted pouches. A mess tin cover was also produced, with leather belt loops on the back to allow it to be won on the belt in the small of the back. Finally the set was often worn with a canvas haversack over the shoulder to carry food, eating utensils etc. This was a simple canvas bag, with a flap secured by a single button and a shoulder strap. It was later replaced by a variant of the 1908 haversack which was again worn over the shoulder on a strap.

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