How the uniform changed: puttees

During the First World War, soldiers of the Regiment wore puttees as part of their uniform. Puttees were narrow strips of khaki-colour fabric wrapped in an over-lapping spiral pattern around the lower leg, above the ankle boots up to below the knee. 

“The puttee was almost like a bandage made of [knitted] wool, and it was wrapped around the leg,” explained Douglas Cordeaux, from Fox Brothers & Co Ltd, from Wellington, in Somerset.

”The beauty of it was that it didn’t need sizes - it would also stop your boot being sucked off in mud,” Mr Cordeaux added.

The firm made an estimated 12m pairs of putties, which unwrapped would have stretched for 41,000 miles (66,000 km) - enough to go around the coastline of the UK twice.
— Excerpt from the BBC (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-25879184)

They were good in some ways

Puttees provided the soldier’s leg support, prevented dirt and insects entering both boots and trousers and provided a measure of protection against the weather and abrasions. When wrapped properly, puttees helped to insulate the leg from cold weather and to reduce injury without restricting movement. In hot weather, the material breathed and could be removed and washed. Importantly, puttees could be used as a dressing or splint, or to provide support to a part of the body.

… and not so good in others

While puttees helped to prevent or at least reduce damage to soldiers’ legs, they could also cause harm. Once they became wet and if worn in cold weather, the puttees could cause frostbite and extreme pain. Also, “tightly wrapped puttees might have encouraged or aggravated trench foot by restricting blood flow to the feet. Trench foot was prevented by keeping boots well-oiled and generously sized, loosening the puttees, rubbing oil into feet and lower legs and wearing clean, dry socks”. (Canadian War Museum Artifact Backgrounder on Puttees)

but they’re Still relevant today

In the Second World War the Regiment’s puttees were replaced largely with canvas web anklets. Puttees are, however, still used today in sport such as hiking, climbing, cross-country skiing and backpacking. Their lightweight, breathable and multi-purpose nature make them practical gear to have to get by with less but still stay safe, healthy and comfortable on the trail. 

Where is my relative buried overseas?

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There are many resources available to you to locate where a Canadian soldier is buried or commemorated.  These are two very helpful sites:

  • Veterans Affairs Canada’s Canadian Virtual War Memorial.

  • The Commonwealth War Graves Commission can help you find the war dead and cemeteries of 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died during the First and Second World Wars among the 23,000 cemeteries, memorial and other locations worldwide where they are commemorated.

Something to think about

People travel overseas to tour the great battlefields of the First and Second World Wars and visit the gravesite of relatives.  Those who have gone often describe it as a profound and moving experience.  You may want to consider something like this for your next trip.

Which military unit did my relative serve in?

Many people are interested in tracing their family’s history and finding out more about their ancestors, but it can be a daunting task.

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Where to start

A good place to start is by asking your family for stories about the past.  They may also be able to give you photos and records (i.e. birth, marriage, death, church, military and immigration records), which will be a big help in your research.

Military records are a fantastic source of information not only about the person who served but also their next of kin.  These records, however, can be confusing.  For example, in World War I, Canadian soldiers typically joined local units and while some of those units made it to the front, most soldiers were sent in small groups to reinforce other units.  Sometimes units were re-designated or dissolved.  It was not uncommon for a solider to have served in several units so it can be difficult to trace a soldier’s experiences.

We can help

We can tell you whether your relative served with The Royal Winnipeg Rifles Regiment but we will need some information about your relative… at the very least, one or more of the following:

  • name [surname, full given name(s)];

  • date of birth;

  • date of death; and/or

  • military service number.

Secondary information (i.e. the names of next of kin, postings, dates of service, place of enlistment) can help us identify the correct person.  For example, with a common name like “John Smith” we will need more information to determine which of the many “John Smith’s” your relative was.

The Royal Winnipeg Rifles took part in many important battles since their establishment in 1883, and were awarded many battle honours in recognition.  Find out about your relative’s role as a Royal Winnipeg Rifle solider in forming Canada’s history.