What are military uniform badges and portrait photographs?
Detachable badges in metal or cloth are a key element of military uniforms. They can be worn on a cap, collar, shoulder, arm, or cuff. They can be stitched, or attached with brass pins or ‘sliders’. They can identify the rank of the serviceman, their particular regiment or ship, qualification or specialist trade, and distinguish those with gallantry awards, long service or who have been previously wounded. Servicemen may also wear badges of larger formations (such as Brigades, Divisions or Armies), within which their unit is currently serving. It follows that badges on military uniforms change throughout military service, and can help identify and date portrait photographs.
Portrait photographs such as this one were purely unofficial - the British Army did not photograph its First World War recruits. The images were typically taken in a commercial studio while on the first leave after being fitted with a uniform. They were given to loved ones or exchanged with friends.
For ‘other rank’ soldiers, the uniform badges that might be visible in a photograph include the cap badge and shoulder titles, the latter only viewable from certain angles. Officers will additionally have collar badges.
Who would have owned these badges and portraits?
Everyone in military uniform in the First World War had badges issued to them, and since they were obvious souvenirs, many survive today. Studio portrait photographs had to be bought by the sitter. It is important to remember that a photograph found in the papers or albums of a relative is not necessarily an image of that individual; many soldiers’ wallets contained photographs of friends, as well as relatives.
What was the purpose of the uniform badges?
The purpose of the badges is to identify information about the individual quickly, in particular the rank held, so all serviceman can respond according to military rules when they meet a higher, equal or lower rank. However, metal badges were soon found to be impractical in the trenches - it was quickly learnt that anything shiny could glint and attract enemy attention, and badges were often removed altogether. Cloth versions were introduced, especially of shoulder titles.
Identifying a First World War military badge can be relatively straightforward if you can hold the badge in your hand, or see it clearly in a portrait photograph. You can find out what the badge represents by comparing the badge against other pictured examples in standard reference books and websites such as British Military Badges or The British and Commmonwealth Badge forum
Some designs relate to the function of the corps or regiment that the badge belongs to. Here on the Royal Artillery cap badge a gun is incorporated into the design. The badge overall is a distinctive triangular shape, and easily identified, even in a blurred photograph.
However, some units had very similar cap badges which can be hard to differentiate - this example is the Royal Engineers cap badge, whose wreath-style looks like a number of other round-shaped badges when it is even slightly blurred .
More about portraits
Equipment shown with the uniform can be revealing – e.g. if leather gaiters and spurs are worn, this indicates horse-riding, so perhaps a cavalry, ambulance, artillery or transport unit.
Commercial photographers often placed their name and trade details on the photographic print. This can be useful if also matched to a cap badge. For instance, a soldier with an East Lancashire Regiment cap badge in a portrait attributed to a Carnarvon studio very probably belonged to the 11th Battalion (Accrington Pals), as they were the only battalion of the regiment ever to be based in that town (in training in 1915).
To see the various towns and camps within the UK where First World War infantry battalions were billeted and trained, use British Regiments 1914–18 by Brigadier E A, James.
If a First World War cap badge in a photograph proves difficult to identify, it may belong to a unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Many recent emigrants from Britain (especially Scotland) enlisted in the CEF in 1914 – some CEF battalions even wore kilts. The British & Commonwealth Military Badge Forum usefully illustrates many CEF badges.
Useful websites and books for further research
There is no single website which is an easy visual source for badges or uniforms but these sites can be useful
British Military Badges
A dealers’ website that usually illustrates all the main badges, in an easily accessible format that would allow quick comparison; does not give historical detail, nor allow for just a 1914–18 selection; no endorsement of this website as a place for trading should be inferred.
Great War Forum
The leading online discussion group has a thread for identifying badges and uniforms etc.
Copies of all these books can be freely consulted from open shelves at the Explore History Centre at IWM London.
From Scarlet to Khaki – Understanding the Twentieth Century British Army Uniforms in Your Family Album by Jon Mills
(Wardens Publishing, Orpington, Bromley, 2005)
A booklet full of information on dating uniforms, including within the years 1914–18; also covers rank badges.
British Army Cap Badges of the First World War by Peter Doyle and Chris Foster
(Shire Publications, Oxford, 2010)
Illustrated with photographs of actual badges, in full colour, plus some notes on how they were worn, and other badges.
The British Soldier of the First World War by Peter Doyle
(Shire Publications, Oxford, 2008)
Introduces the basics on badges and equipment, plus much else, for the mainstream British Army.
Women in the First World War by Neil Storey and Molly Housego
(Shire Publications, Oxford, 2010)
Includes badges and uniforms for all of the Women’s services.
Tommy’s War – British Military Memorabilia 1914–1918 by Peter Doyle
(The Crowood Press Ltd, Marlborough, Wiltshire, 2008)
A wide-ranging book, more detailed than the Shire Publication by the same author.
Brassey’s History of Uniforms: World War One British Army by Stephen Bull (Brassey’s, London, 1998)
A detailed source for uniforms, sadly not in print; a companion volume by the same author covers German Army Uniforms.
Uniforms & Equipment of the British Army in World War I by Stephen Chambers
(Schiffer Military History, Atglen, Pennsylvania, 2005)
Large book, uses hundreds of portrait and other photographs as the primary source; good for identifying if equipment carried is unusual, and might indicate a specialist e.g. tank crew, machine gunner, etc.
Collecting Metal Shoulder Titles by Ray Westlake
(Leo Cooper, London, 1997)
Illustrated book showing most known examples; shoulder titles can sometimes pinpoint a specific unit, such as a battalion, battery or field ambulance
History of the British Army Infantry Collar Badge by Colin Churchill
(Naval and Military Press, Uckfield, East Sussex, 2002)
A comprehensive guide to this piece of insignia that is often (and confusingly) different to the cap badge.