Web Infantry Equipment, Pattern 1908


The First Modern Infantry Equipment

seaforthsAs was discussed in the introduction to the section on Bandolier Equipment, Patt. '03, the years immediately after the end of the 2nd Boer War were not happy ones for the Mills Woven Cartridge Belt Company of London, England. The General Staff had come down in favour of leather and, after that decision was made, the emphasis turned toward the ongoing development of a new main battle arm. The Army had taken a tremendous amount of public criticism for its performance during the war. The British soldier's accuracy and the rate of fire were decried as inadequate, and it was the Magazine-Lee Enfield rifle that was singled out as the scapegoat in the press. The Lee was compared to the Mauser used by the Boers and was declared inadequate. Something had to be done. Development work was started on what would eventually become the finest battle rifle of its time: the Short, Magazine-Lee Enfield Rifle.

While this furore played itself out in the headlines, the M.W.C.B.'s founder, William Lindsey, endeavoured unsuccessfully to make headway against the "leather-minded" military establishment. Eventually he became discouraged and returned to the United States. The Company's young Managing Director, William Pierrepont Wise, however, was by no means ready to give up the fight. He tirelessly paced the halls of the War Office, pressing the case for Mills webbing with anyone who would meet with him. His persistence eventually paid off. During a sales trip to the Orient in 1900-1901, Wise had met with a British Naval Captain in China, who had been favourably impressed with the Mills Woven Cartridge Belts he had seen there. Now returned to England and appointed Director of Naval Ordnance, Captain Jellicoe (who would eventually become Admiral of the Fleet John Rushworth Jellicoe, 1st Earl Jellicoe, GCB OM GCVO) sanctioned trials of a Naval Web Equipment at Whale Island, Portsmouth. According to Albert Lethern's account in The Development of the Mills Woven Cartridge Belt, 1877-1956, this particular equipment had been developed in conjunction with some of the Navy Training Officers at Whale Island, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the reviews were favourable. Mr. Wise used this success to finally penetrate the War Office, and in late 1905 General Baden-Powell authorised the purchase of forty sets of the Naval Web Equipment for an "unofficial" test at Aldershot. Once again, the reports were positive. The understanding that webbing was, after all, superior to leather was beginning to take hold at last in the minds of military officialdom.

The year 1906 was a turning point for the Mills Company for two reasons, although only one of them was recognised at the time. Major (later Brigadier-General) Arnold R. Burrowes, of the 87th Royal Irish Fusiliers, had patented a form of Infantry Equipment in 1903, and had pressed the War Office for its test and adoption during 1905 and 1906. The War Office looked at his design, concluded that it was superior to the Mills Company offering, and in June of 1906 decided to direct Major Burrowes to 68 Victoria Street, London, the offices of the Mills Woven Cartridge Belt Company. His arrival was met with great anticipation - everyone there recognised that this could be the turning point in the Company's fortunes.

A few months earlier, in April, the other significant event of 1905 had taken place almost unnoticed. A new junior was hired was hired as a draughtsman. His name was Albert Alexander Lethern. More will be heard from him in future.

1905 front1905 rearThe photos at far left, taken from a Mills catalogue c. 1905, shows the current Mills Company Web Equipment of the period. The drawing of the Burrowes equipment, taken from his Patent No. 14059 of 1904, shows that his design was in essence two halves of leather waistcoat joined by a belt in back, with two haversacks hanging over the shoulder from the braces and attached to the belt at the rear. With these two designs as starting points, the Mills design produced a revolutionary new idea. The new equipment was designed as a system, to use modern terminology. Before this time, the military load bearing equipment of every country in the world bore broad similarities. Packs, haversacks, cartridge pouches, and equipment carriers of all kinds were slung or strapped together without a great deal of planning, and certainly with little or no concern for ease of use or the comfort of the wearer. The Mills-Burrowes Web Infantry Equipment, as the new development was called, would change all this forever.

burrowwesIn the Mills history cited above, Lethern makes the argument that the "whole secret ... of the Burrowes idea revolved on the diagonal straps of the Cartridge Carriers and the supporting straps of the Pack", which together form a cradle which supports the weight of the pack evenly front and rear, so that it does not hang from the Braces. This is indeed one of the major design innovations found in the new equipment, but this concept appears nowhere that I can see in Major Burrowes's original patent. There are no diagonal straps, and his Haversacks hang directly from the Braces, which are attached to the tops of the Waistcoat halves. In fact, other than the very general shape of the Mills-Burrowes Cartridge carriers, almost nothing of the original Burrowes design has survived. William Wise was an astute businessman, though, and he knew perfectly well that having the name of an up-and-coming young officer attached to his new design was exactly what he needed to get War Office approval.*

Wise also realized that the Mills Woven Cartridge Belt Company of London, England was, in its attempt to win a major contract with the War Office, labouring under the additional difficulty of being foreign owned. Although, as its name proclaimed, its premises were located in London, the founder and owner, William Lindsey, was an American. In 1905, Lindsey had also acquired the original American firm, then called Mills & Orndorff, from the aging Anson Mills (Brig.-Gen., U.S.A., Ret.), and renamed it the Mills Woven Cartridge Belt Company. In the eyes of the War Office, the London organisation was little more than an adjunct of the much larger and better known American firm. His Majesty's Government would certainly be most unwilling to award a major government contract to a company that wasn't solidly British. Accordingly, Wise reorganised. He located an well-placed patron, Lord Davey, and formed an English Company whose subscribers, including Lord Davey and his son, the Hon. Arthur Jex Davey, raised £10,000 Cash Capital. The new company was called the Mills Equipment Company. Arthur Davey became the Chairman, with William Wise as Managing Director of the new firm.

come overProceedings moved forward towards getting the Mills-Burrowes Web Infantry Equipment adopted as the new standard for the British and Imperial Forces. The War Office was satisfied with the new equipment and in late 1906 placed an order for 1,300 sets to be used in extended Troop Trials. An additional 50 sets were sent to India for Trials there, and William Wise followed them there to ensure the trials went well. Following the successful conclusion of the Troop Trials both at home and abroad, the Army Council met in December, 1907, to make its final decision. At the first meeting, a final decision was postponed until the question of carriage for the new "Sirhind" entrenching tool was decided. This was soon resolved, and, after four years of effort, the Mills-Burrowes design was finally adopted. The new standard would be called the Web Equipment, Pattern 1908.

* I realize, of course, that a statement like this cannot stand unsupported. Accordingly, I have attached the full texts and drawings of both Major Burrowes's original patent of 1903, and of the newly formed Mills Equipment Company's 1907 patent for the Mills-Burrowes Web Infantry Equipment (the documents are provided as Adobe *.pdf files. Use the back button on your browser to return to this page). I invite the reader to study both and make his own decision.

Patent No. 14,059 Improvements in Cartridge Holders and in Equipments for use therewith, Approval dated 23rd June 1904

Major Burrowes's original patent for his equipment.

Patent No. 28,812 Improvements in or relating to Military Equipments and the like, Approval dated 8th August 1907

The Mills Equipment Company's original patent for what would become Web Equipment, Pattern 1908.

U.S. Patent No. 874,945 Military Equipment, Approval dated 31st. December 1907

For completion's sake, I've added the U.S. version of the Mills-Burrowes patent. It differs only slightly from the British original, but does include the name of Albert Lethern as Witness, appearing here for the first time in Mills Equipment Company official documentation.