World One War: 'Sam Browne' Belt
The most famous and instantly recognisable feature of the British Army uniform of World War One was the ‘Sam Browne’ Belt.
The ‘belt’ had its origins in the 19TH Century.
Sam Browne was a British Army Officer who served in India during the 19th Century. During this period, officers always wore swords when in action and as an everyday part of the uniform. The sword hung from a metal clip on the waist belt called a ‘frog’. However, the scabbard which held the sword, tended to slide a lot when the wearer was running, which meant it had to be held steady whilst the sword was being drawn.
During the horrendous Indian Mutiny of 1857 which claimed the lives of thousands, Captain Sam Browne was serving with the 2nd Punjab Irregular Cavalry. On the 31st August 1858, Browne was engaged in fighting near Seerporah. Charging rebel cannon, he was attacked by its crew. Receiving two sword cuts, Browne was wounded in the left knee and the left arm which had been severed at the shoulder. Browne survived the injuries but without a left hand which meant he was now unable to draw or control a sword.
Browne came up with the concept of wearing a second ‘belt’ which went over his right shoulder which held the scabbard where he could draw the sword. The cross-shoulder belt would hook into a heavy leather belt which had ‘D-rings attached for accessories. Browne’s design also incorporated a pistol in a flap-holster on his right hip and included binoculars with case.
The design and concept soon caught on. Other Cavalry officers in the Indian Army began wearing Browne’s ‘belt’ and it soon became a standard part of the uniform.
It is interesting to note that Infantry Officers sometimes wore a variant that used two suspender straps instead of the cross belt. This variant was supposedly invented by Sir Basil Templer Graham-Montgomery, 5th Baronet Stanhope who was a lieutenant in the 60th Rifles in 1878. There still is a fierce debate as to whether Graham-Montgomery modified Browne’s design or vice versa.
The ‘Sam Browne’ came to prominence in the 20th Century.
The device became the mainstay of British Army Officers following its adoption during the Second Boer War. A different arrangement of the ‘Sam Browne’ was popular with British Officers and Commonwealth Armed Forces which consisted of a wide belt with two vertical supporting straps-one over each shoulder.
The ‘Sam Browne’ is unmistakeable wherever and whenever it is seen. The belt not only defined a conflict and war, but marked out the Officer Ranks of the British Army. The belt was adopted all over the British Empire and can be seen in period films and dramas such as Gandhi, Passage to India, Michael Collins and Poirot to name a few.
Following the Second World War, the ‘Sam Browne’ saw a distinct decline in use by the British Army and Commonwealth forces. This was in part due to the redesign of military uniforms and the fact that Officers no longer carried Swords.
Despite its decline, the ‘Sam Browne’ is still used by military forces around the world, but in less numbers. Officers and Warrant Officers, such as Regimental Sergeant Major’s and other Warrant officers of the British Army, including Royal Marines, still wear it on formal occasions.
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