Our regular contributor Howard Bradley pays tribute on Armistice Day with a bit of a history lesson relevant to textile care.

Most of us are familiar with the grainy black and white images of the First World War and particularly the trenches and the mud of the western front. Scenes of devastated landscapes, bodies of soldiers and horses lying in water filled ditches and shell holes seem to represent the utter madness of war. If you have read this far, you might well be wondering what this article could possibly have that would be relevant to our industry.

During the Crimean war the UK lost 2,755 troops killed in action, and we lost a further 17,580 as a result of diseases. A great many of these could have been simply prevented with clean linen, clean bandages and clean uniforms.

In the years following, it was realised that some kind of mobile laundry service was a vital requirement if the amount of deaths by disease were to be drastically reduced. By the outbreak of the First World War there existed a small number of mobile laundries, illustrated,  and fumigation units. These resembled covered circus wagons and were horse drawn until the good old traction engine was found to be not only more able to tow them, but also able to supply drive belts and heat for steam and mechanical action.

At the outset of the Great War it was not difficult to clothe and look after the rather small British Expeditionary Force and of course the stalemate of trench warfare had yet to show itself. However, as the war progressed, even military clothing factories were unable to provide enough uniforms for the millions of men who enlisted and so private tailors were also given the task of providing uniforms (including Bradleys, Howard’s family’s tailoring business). War was good for that type of business as is often the case with essential suppliers.

The mobile laundries were usually a part of a service battalion and were based not too far from the front line, usually in a rear rest area. In the US Army it came under the jurisdiction of a Quarter Master.

When the troops had completed their rotation in the trenches they would go to the rest areas and providing that the logistics had worked out, there would be hot mobile shower units for the men, Laundering and repairs carried out to the uniform and of course de-lousing. Lice were found to be the main cause of trench fever which is said to have affected up to about 500,000 British troops Keeping this disease spreader at bay was one of the main aims of the laundry unit.

Footwear and socks were also vital to keep in good condition as trench foot was a terrible disease and deliberate neglect of one’s feet was a chargeable offence.

War leads not just to improvement in weapons, but also to many other apparently nonrelated areas and so the mobile laundry and the ability to keep the fighting man at the front clean, resulted in smaller equipment that could be transported with ease and this has eventually resulted in the small modular designs of textile care equipment that we see nowadays. Drycleaning also benefited as the ideas for those self-contained machines that we have seen since the 1950s were developed  partially as a result of keeping war clean.

  • See more in LCN’s December version of this article.