Why the Blue Put­tees wore blue

The Compass - - OPINION -

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.

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