An example of the colour patches sewn onto the sleeves of Australia's overseas-serving soldiers' uniforms in 1915.
An example of the colour patches sewn onto the sleeves of Australia's overseas-serving soldiers' uniforms in 1915. Courtesy of the National Library

The soldiers with a feather in their cap

IN TRUE Queensland fashion, the men of the state's Light Horse started a trend with emu feathers that would spread throughout the war to many infantries on the Western Front and in Gallipoli.

Author Craig Wilcox, who has written several books on military history, said one of the most interesting things for him about the First World War uniform was the emu feathers stuck in hats throughout the war.

"Queenslanders had started using emu feathers from the early 1890s," Mr Wilcox said.

"And there's a story that it comes from soldiers on guard during the big strikes of the 1880s and 1890s. They happen to stick emu feathers in their hats.

"And they are seen as distinctively Queensland. But once Queenslanders go overseas and no other Australians are wearing plumes in their hats, it's assumed 'oh, gee, Australians wear emu feathers in their hats' and that's a sign of an Australian."

Mr Wilcox said that by the end of the First World War, even though the other Australian troops did not like the emu feathers because they felt it was forced upon them, it became a general trend.

"Because international opinion, and I suppose the opinion of a lot of people at home reading newspapers and magazines think that this is what we should be wearing," the author said.

"And it takes off like that in a way.

"Some of the things that become typical were almost accidental in the way that they got there and were really disliked at the time.

"It's another case where something catches the imagination and everyone thinks that is what Australians should look like."

The colour patches

Mr Wilcox described the coloured patches, sewn into soldiers' sleeves an inch below the shoulder seams, as "jewels" of the First World War uniform.

The patches (pictured) identified army units and were first used in 1915.

"The colours don't mean anything at all, they're randomly picked," Mr Wilcox said.

"Just as long as every unit has a different combination of colours. These things get taken up by the soldiers themselves."

The women in the soldiers' families back home would also sew dresses made of the same colours as the patches on their men's uniforms.

"They'll wear them to fundraisers and places like that," Mr Wilcox said.

"Families of men who didn't come home would have a photograph of the missing man with a colour patch on the photograph as well."