Why the Blue Puttees wore blue
The Blue Puttees — the famed First Five Hundred — are possibly the best-known and most famous group in Newfoundland’s history. They were the men who came forward to join the Newfoundland Regiment in August 1914, immediately after the outbreak of the First World War.
No less than 74 volunteers signed up at the CLB Armoury in St. John’s on Aug. 21, the first night that men were enrolled. Within 10 days, 743 men had rallied to serve King and Country.
Some 200 failed to pass a “stiff medical examination” by eight doctors in St. John’s, but by early September more than 500 soldiers and 25 officers were under canvas at their training camp, at Pleasantville on the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake. Less than a month later, on Oct. 3, the First Five Hundred — there were actually 537 of them, in all — broke camp and marched to the St. John’s waterfront, where they boarded the SS Florizel. The next day, they sailed for England.
The British had decided in 1870 that they would no longer “maintain a Garrison of Imperial Troops in Newfoundland,” and by that autumn they had withdrawn their army from the colony. Although a Royal Navy reserve unit was formed in 1902, there were no soldiers in Newfoundland when war was declared in 1914.
Five private cadet corps were the closest Newfoundland came to having an army. Four of them — the Church Lads’ Brigade, the Catholic Cadet Corps, the Newfoundland Highlanders and the Methodist Guards — were made up of young men and boys. The Legion of Frontiersmen, with about 100 members based mainly in St. Anthony, was a private organization which attracted youths and men of all ages.
Led by the governor, Sir Walter Davidson, and the prime minister, Sir Edward Morris, Newfoundland undertook to raise a battalion of 500 soldiers. Lacking any military experience, the government entrusted the task of raising and equipping the Newfoundland Regiment to a group of private citizens, called the Patriotic Association of Newfoundland.
The association was charged with raising, outfitting and training the regiment. The government provided the necessary money. The arrangement continued until a Militia Department was created in the summer of 1917.
The association’s equipment committee set to work at once. Their first task was to design a uniform. Khaki puttees — strips of cloth wrapped around the lower part of a soldier’s leg between his breeches and his boots — were part of the British Army’s regular uniform. The equipment committee quickly decided that the new regiment would wear khaki, but that the Newfoundlanders would be marked by the blue puttees they wore.
And so they were. When the men of the First Five Hundred marched through St. John’s for their final parade before they went to England, they wore blue puttees together with the regular army’s khaki tunics and breeches.
Soon, however, there came to be a belief that the puttees wore blue because no khaki material was available in St. John’s. Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson, in The Fighting Newfoundlander, enshrined the myth: “Since no khaki woolen material suitable for making puttees was available, the troops at Pleasantville were issued puttees of navy blue. The only Newfoundland soldiers to wear these were the members of the First Contingent ...; and so a makeshift item of equipment became a badge of distinction. To be a ‘ Blue Puttee’ was to be a member of the famous First Five Hundred.”
Years later, Major Herbert Outerbridge, the regiment’s first quartermaster, confirmed this, when he told a public meeting in St. John’s that because, “it was impossible to obtain khaki material to go with the uniforms … I had to have the clothing factories make the puttees of blue serge.” His statement repeated and reinforced the legend that had grown up since 1914. Outerbridge didn’t create the myth; he simply repeated it.
Outerbridge’s statement was quickly contradicted by two men who knew better. P.C. Mars and J.G. Mcneil, two members of the equipment committee, sent a letter to the Evening Telegram on Feb. 15, 1930 to set the record straight. They had served during the Boer War with Britain’s Colonial Division, in South Africa. They were appointed to the committee in 1914, they said, “not because we were affiliated with any local brigade [in Newfoundland], but because we had seen active service and were supposed to be familiar with a soldier’s outfit.”
The two men wanted Newfoundland’s soldiers to wear a distinctive uniform, and they designed one, with Australian-style slouch hats and blue puttees similar to those worn by the Colonial Division’s Regiments in South Africa. (The slouch hats never arrived in St. John’s).
Mars, who signed the letter, described their decision clearly: “The blue puttees were not used to complete the uniform because of the shortage of khaki materials, but were adopted at the suggestion of Mr. J. G. Mcneil and myself as part of the temporary uniforms of the Newfoundland Regiment.”
The necessary material was available in St. John’s, because the boys of the CLB wore blue puttees as part of their uniform. The committee placed orders with the local clothing manufacturers for enough khaki tunics and breeches to outfit the soldiers training at Pleasantville, and for enough blue puttees to provide each man with a pair.
‘ Tis true that the first Newfoundlanders wore blue puttees as they went to war, but the story of why they did so is a myth, not the truth.
But the gallantry and heroism of the men who wore the Blue Puttees is no myth. Every Newfoundlander should remember them with pride and passion.