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A.E.F. Jerkins 1917 to 1919

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Of all the articles of clothing associated with the American ‘Doughboy’ during the Great War, next to the hobnailed field shoe and perhaps the overseas cap, the wool lined leather jerkin is by far the most iconic and the most recognizable.


When most collectors think of the jerkin worn by the men and boys of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the image of a russet colored leather jerkin is immediately comes to mind.

True, the russet leather jerkin was the most common jerkin worn by the Yanks and Doughboys that served in the AEF, but it was just one of several different types and styles.


The various jerkins as worn by the Doughboys of the AEF have turned out to be somewhat difficult to research. Therefore there are large information gaps in this post. Quite a few when’s, where’s, how’s, and why’s, in regard to how the jerkins were devised, manufactured and issued, as well as when, and to whom they issued still need to be answered.


Because I am unable to complete the task I’ve started, I’d like to ask the viewers of this post to please correct any errors I may have made and to add relevant photos and new information about any one of the jerkins posted below.


Despite having very little evidence, I do believe that most; if not all of the jerkin types issued by the British Army were at some point worn by American troops on the Western Front and later in Russia. Therefore, this post contains the history of the development of both the British and American jerkins that were worn during the Great War.


World War I Nerd …

A.E.F. Jerkins

1917 to 1919

Photo No. 01: This wartime illustration, drawn by an unknown French artist, depicts a British ‘Tommy’ wearing an animal skin jerkin. This style of jerkin was worn primarily by the troops of the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF), and to a much lesser extent, by a handful of Doughboys in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).


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A Brief History of the Jerkin

The dictionary defines a jerkin as being …


A man’s short, close-fitting jacket, made usually of light colored leather, and often without sleeves, worn over the doublet in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The term is also applied to a similar sleeveless garment worn by the British Army in the 20th century.


The origin of the unusual word “jerkin” is unknown. Modern linguists disagree over whether or not, the Dutch word “jurk” – a children’s frock, is or is not the source of the word jerkin.


In respect to men’s fashion, a garment known as a jerkin became fashionable in Europe during the 14th century. It was worn across the continent in various forms until the late 17th century. The collarless and sleeveless jerkin of medieval and renaissance times was typically worn over something called a doublet. The doublet, which is often confused with the jerkin, was a different men’s garment that was shaped and fitted to the wearer’s body. The doublet, which could be either hip or waist length, differed from a jerkin by having a buttoned front and sleeves.


During this period stiffened leather jerkins were also worn by soldiers as a means to protect them from both the elements and the blade of a sword. In the British Army, martial jerkins made from boiled ox hide were referred to as “buff coats” during the mid 17th century.


During the 18th and 19th centuries, jerkins and buff coats as either a stylish or protective garment had largely disappeared from both civil and military fashion.


However, at the end of the first year of the Great War, the jerkin as a military garment was resurrected by the British Army. The early 20th century jerkins were simple makeshift garments made from animal skins. Their purpose was to provide warmth for the British and Commonwealth troops that served in the frozen trenches of the Western Front.


Photo No. 02: From left to right, a Spanish jerkin made of silk circa 1580, an Italian embroidered suede jerkin from the early 17th century, and an English ox hide buff leather coat that dates to 1645.


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Animal Skin Jerkins & Jackets

Worn by American Doughboys

on the British sector of the Western Front from 1917 to 1918

To augment the regulation outer clothing of the British Tommy during the first winter of World War I (WW I), improvised garments made from animal hides were issued on the Western Front.

Sleeveless jerkins and jackets (with sleeves) were both issued and locally made from either sheep skin or goat skin. Based on the wide variety of shapes, styles and patterns seen in period photographs, there seem to have been no “regulation pattern” to which the primitive garments were made. Some were manufactured with the fur or fleece to the outside, while others were made with the fur or fleece turned inside.


In regard to warmth, the sheep and goatskin jerkins lived up to the purpose for which they were designed during the winter of 1914 and 1915.


The animal skin jerkins and jackets, because of their appearance, were promptly nicknamed “Bunnies” and “Wooly Bears” by the soldiers who wore them. They also received the rather unfortunate epithet of “Stinkers” because of the strong odor that usually emanated from the animal fur after it became wet. In addition the outer layer of fur was a magnet for mud. In the mud filled environment of the trenches, once the fur covered garment was caked with mud, it was difficult, if not impossible to clean. A British Royal Marine left us his opinion of the makeshift goatskin jerkins:


They were quite warm, but they stank to high heaven when wet and they soon became clogged with mud.


Private Dalton, Royal Marines, BEF

Photo No. 03: This sheepskin jerkin (left) with the fleece turned inside, is just one of many examples of animal skin jerkins worn by the BEF early in the war. The pattern of the “Bunnies”, worn by the two Australian soldiers serving on the Western front during the winter of 1916 – 1917, were made respectively from goatskin and sheepskin, and are drastically different.


Left hand photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum


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Photo No. 04: At left is a British sheepskin jacket followed by another Australian soldier wearing a goatskin jerkin. Note that in virtually each photo, the animal skin jerkin or jacket utilizes a different method comprised of wooden toggles, buttons, straps, belts, ties and buckles with which to keep the garment closed or otherwise secured to the body.


Left hand photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum


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Photo No. 05: The left hand member of this AEF Signal Corps wire repair detail is wearing a shortened version of the British issued sheepskin jerkin. Presumably these Doughboys are serving in the U.S. Army II Corps which was under British command. Yanks in the II Corps carried British weapons and were fed British rations. Even though the Yanks serving alongside the British retained their American made uniforms and field equipment, they were frequently supplied with articles of British clothing and equipment.


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Photo No. 07: Close ups of the two sheepskin jerkins worn by the Doughboys in the previous photos are compared next to still another variation of the sheepskin jerkin worn by an Australian ‘Digger’ circa 1917. Note that the jerkin worn by the American at left features buttons instead of a toggle, strap or buckle to secure its front opening. Also the similar materials, cut, and manufacturing technique of the two Doughboy animal skin jerkins indicate that they may have been made by the same manufacturer.


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British Leather Jerkin

Worn by early arrivals to the AEF & AEF troops serving with the Army II Corps

Late in either 1915 or 1916,* a sleeveless leather jerkin with a blanket lining was introduced by the British Army as an alternative to the greatcoat, which became immensely heavy when wet. It also replaced the goat and sheepskin jerkins that had been issued during the winter of 1914 – 1915. As it turned out, the leather jerkin proved to be both comfortable and durable when subjected to the appalling conditions of trench warfare.


*I have conflicting sources as to what year the leather jerkin was adopted by the British Army, hence the uncertainty regarding dates. If anyone knows which date is correct, please add that information.


The wool lined leather jerkin was a practical garment for soldiers because it offered warmth without limiting arm movement. It was warm and comfortable and also provided a certain degree of protection when performing tasks that might soil the uniform. In addition, being partially windproof, the leather jerkin became the outer garment of choice for any soldier whose duties included driving a vehicle or wagon with an open cab.


To simplify supply of the American soldiers serving in the II Army Corps, the troops of that corps were armed with English weapons, fed British rations, and they frequently drew British khaki service dress, hobnailed shoes, and presumably British leather jerkins as well.


In extreme cases, the only thing that could distinguish an American Doughboy of the II Corps from the British Tommy was the use of U.S. army buttons, insignia and American made field gear.


Photo No. 08: The basic traits that identify a Great War British leather jerkin from its American made counterpart are: leather covered buttons, reinforced button holes and flared shoulders.


Flared shoulders are noticeably absent on the U.S. made leather jerkin worn by the American officer from the 339th Infantry Regiment on the right. The American officer to his left is wearing a British made leather jerkin whose flared shoulders cover the shoulder of the wearer.


Left hand photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

Right hand photo courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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Photo No. 09: All three of these American service men serving in Northern Russia are wearing British made leather jerkins. Note the flared shoulders.


Photos courtesy of the Polar Bear Digital collection

Does anyone know what the right and left hand soldiers are wearing on their heads?


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Photo No. 10: Two types of leather covered buttons were used on WW I British Jerkins. In the center is the plain leather regulation button. On either side is the less common, patterned leather button, which was often referred to as a ‘football button’ because of its resemblance to a British football/soccer ball. Note the stitching which secures the leather buttonhole reinforcement to the inside of the jerkin. Both types of leather button was secured by a split ring on the inside of the jerkin.


A flat, brown composite button similar to the type used on American made jerkins, which were sewn on, was adopted by the British Army in 1924. Unless leather buttons were swapped for American jerkin buttons, any British leather jerkin bearing sewn on plastic, Bakelite or composite buttons is most likely of post war manufacture.


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Photo No. 11: At center, the details of the British leather jerkin are, from top to bottom, the front and back of a leather covered football button; the split ring with which both styles of the leather button was attached and the leather reinforced point of their attachment, the leather reinforcement which surrounded the button holes on the inside of the jerkin and a faint British War Department broad arrow stamp; and the manufacturer’s name (Polikoff), size number 3 and date stamp also on the inside of the jerkin.


My apologies, I managed to get the image for photos numbers 10 and 11 reversed!


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Photo No. 12: Against the War Department’s advice, in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson ordered American troops destined for the Western Front to be rerouted to Northern Russia and later Siberia to assist with the Allied intervention into that nation’s civil war. The Yanks were sent to North Russia under the condition that they be supplied with clothing suitable for sub-zero weather by the British Army … A condition to which Great Britain reluctantly agreed.


As a result of that agreement, large numbers of American soldiers serving in the ANREF can be seen in period photographs wearing a mixture of English and American clothing and equipment. In this image American soldiers are wearing U.S. Army woolen service dress and British issued arctic caps, leather jerkins and Shackleton boots, which were named after the famous Antarctic explorer.


Also of interest are the Russian rifles and the British Webley revolvers. Note the variety of methods with which the leather holsters and pistol cartridge pouches have been attached to the men’s pistol and rifle cartridge belts.


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Photo No. 13: The following jerkins are anomalies that at present cannot be explained. Both the jerkin in the period photograph at center, and to its left and right do not have flared shoulders. This suggests that they are American made. The jerkin on the left and right however bears most of the characteristics of a British made jerkin, i.e., leather buttons and reinforced button holes, but curiously, the jerkin does not have flared shoulders. The other anomaly is the fact that both jerkins have patterned wool linings made from what appears to be household blankets!


In the absence of any real information, here are a few unsubstantiated possibilities:

  • They could be commercially or tailor made jerkins.
  • The British Army could have resorted to using donated civilian woolen blankets to line its jerkins
  • British clothing manufacturers could have been contracted to make copies of the U.S. style leather jerkin, without flared shoulders, for the AEF. While doing so, certain design elements of the British made jerkins were incorporated into the British contract jerkins

Center photo courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection

Can anyone explain these unusual hybrid leather jerkins?


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British Royal Flying Corps Leather Jerkins

Photo No. 14: A leather jerkin was also made for the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which by all accounts was identical to the leather jerkin made for the British Army. Research indicates that only difference between the Army issued and RFC issued leather jerkins was that the RFC leather jerkins were identified as such on the size/contract label … one of which is shown at upper left.


The short, double breasted, padded leather jerkin shown on the right is thought to have been made for the RFC. It was likely made waist length to allow freedom of movement in a restricted space, such as an airplane cockpit, and may have been used for driving.


Just as some British leather flight coats do, the front of this jerkin crosses over in front to provide a double layer of protection to the chest. Three wooden toggles and loops, one on each shoulder and one on the lower front corner are used to close the jerkin. The jerkin is made from russet tan sheepskin with the fleece to the inside. In turn, the fleece has been covered by a layer of woolen fabric to provide additional warmth. There is one simple pocket sewn on the inside, lower, front edge of the jerkin. The only marking present is the British War Department stamp comprised of the initials ‘W’ & ‘D’ and an arrow on the inner woolen lining.


The inset at lower left shows the thickness of the combined leather, fleece and wool jerkin.


Upper left photo courtesy of the Lieutenant Colonel collection

Lower left & right hand photos courtesy of Grant’s Militaria.com


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British Twill Jerkin

A waterproof twill jerkin was adopted by the British Army on September 11, 1917. Its official name was “Jerkin, Double Texture Tan Twill, Pattern 1917”


The construction details and pattern were identical to that of the leather jerkin, with the exception that a double layer of khaki colored cotton twill fabric had been substituted for the leather. Like its leather counterpart, the canvas twill jerkin was lined with blanket wool and featured leather covered wooden buttons, secured by split rings, and reinforced button holes.


It is unclear whether the cotton jerkin was developed for a specific task or if its intended duties were the same as those of the leather jerkin. The canvas twill jerkin was declared obsolete by the British Army on January 6, 1920.


At the time of posting, it is not known if the British canvas twill jerkin, like so many other articles of British Army clothing, was worn by American Doughboys. However, as I’ve learned that the words “always” and “never” rarely if ever apply to AEF clothing, insignia and equipment, I’ve included the canvas jerkin in this post, just in case.


Photo No. 15: At left, this British signalman, identified by the white over blue Signal Service brassard appears to be wearing the late war canvas twill jerkin. Opposite is a surviving example of the British Army’s canvas twill jerkin. Note the blanket lining and leather covered buttons.


Right hand image courtesy of the Grovetown collection


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British Cold Weather Jerkin

Worn by members of the American North Russian Expeditionary Force & American Expeditionary Force Siberia

During the Great War, the British Army produced a leather jerkin that was specifically designed for wear in extreme weather. The cold weather jerkin* was made from russet tan colored leather and was lined with woolen material. The primary difference between it and its Western Front counterpart was that its front was secured by four wooden toggles as opposed to four buttons. Toggles and loops were selected over buttons because toggles were much easier to manipulate with a gloved hand.


Aside from the fact that the cold weather jerkin existed, I have been unable to locate any additional information on this style of jerkin. Therefore, It is not know if it was issued and worn on the Western Front or if it was a garment that was specifically created for the British and Commonwealth troops involved in the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil war in 1918.


*Note, at the time of posting, the official designation for this jerkin was not known. Therefore, I’ve opted to use the term “Cold Weather Jerkin”, which is an unofficial name fabricated by myself.


Photo No. 16: Three of the soldiers standing in Arkhanglsk, Russia are wearing the British made cold weather jerkin with its toggled front. Along with many other details, it is not known if the cold weather jerkin featured a different or heavier wool lining.


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Photo No. 17: On the left is a closer image of the British cold weather jerkin showing its loops and wooden toggles. Presumably, this particular soldier has drawn a jerkin that was several sizes too big, so that it could be worn over a bulky arctic greatcoat.


To the right an American officer is also wearing a British cold weather jerkin under a British issued fur lined arctic greatcoat. Officers’ of the American North Russian Expeditionary Force typically wore rank insignia on the front of the British issued arctic, seal skin cap. Presumably, on the front of this officer’s cap the oak leaf insignia of a major is buried under seal fur.


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AEF American Made Jerkins

Photo No. 18: The three most common jerkins donned by AEF personnel during the Great War were from left to right: British issued Leather Jerkin, U.S. issued Leather Jerkin and the U.S. issued Wool Jerkin.


Right hand photo courtesy of Advance Guard Militaria.com


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U.S. Leather Jerkin

Specification No. unknown, adopted in 1918

Worn from the spring of 1918 through to the end of the occupation of Germany

The U.S. made Leather jerkin was warm, comfortable, unrestricting and copied from the British garment of the same name. It was only authorized for troops serving in the AEF and was never issued to stateside troops.


The wool lined leather jerkin was primarily, but not exclusively, issued to Doughboys whose duties made wearing the longer overcoat or bulkier mackinaw impractical. Therefore, the leather jerkin is frequently seen being worn by AEF men serving in the Corps of Engineers, Tank Corps personnel, mechanics, as well as truck drivers, and motorcycle riders.


Although there is no proof of this, it is likely that the AEF purchased or borrowed leather jerkins from the British Army late in 1917. Senior AEF officers must have considered the British leather jerkin a useful article of clothing because a garment nearly identical to it was later adopted by the U.S. Army for the AEF sometime in 1918.


Thus far, I have only found the leather jerkin mentioned once in either a wartime or post war government publication. The following two paragraphs which described the U.S. made leather jerkin appeared in a post war study of AEF clothing published by the Army Medical Department:


In the fall of 1918* a leather jerkin was adopted as an additional article of clothing for issue to our Army. The jerkin was a waistcoat made of sheepskin or lambskin, lined with woven-woolen Melton kersey or mackinaw cloth of a weight varying from 26 to 32 ounces per lineal yard of 54-inch material. It was supplied in 6 sizes, numbered 1 to 6; number 1 being a 36; and number 6 a 46.


Though the jerkin was a late article of issue it proved a popular garment in the American Expeditionary Forces in the winter of 1918-19, and was frequently worn over the olive drab coat in lieu of an overcoat.


Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War, Vol. VI, Sanitation, 1926, Page 624, 625

*Based on U.S. made leather jerkins that bear contract labels dated as early as March 21, 1918, I believe that the authors of the Medical Department history were incorrect when they stated that the jerkin was adopted “in the fall of 1918”. My guess would be that the leather jerkin was actually adopted sometime between the fall of 1917 and early spring of 1918.


Photo No. 19: Apparently, early production U.S. made leather jerkins were lined with blue kersey wool cut from obsolete Spanish American War overcoats and blankets. The center image shows the blue kersey blanket lining sewn inside the leather jerkin to its left. The background color is a close up of the blue kersey woolen fabric from a U.S. Army enlisted man’s 1898 Overcoat. The left hand photo depicts a Doughboy wearing the ubiquitous leather jerkin. He is also wearing an unusual leather pouch on his cartridge belt that, if not designed for another purpose, looks as if it might contain four magazines for the 1911 .45 automatic pistol.


Left hand photo courtesy of Great War Images.com

Center & left photos courtesy of Bay State Militaria.com


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Photo No. 20: This trio of American Doughboys all wear the U.S. made version of the leather jerkin, which turned out to be one of the most popular military garments produced during the war. Note that the right hand soldier is wearing his jerkin over a home knit or Red Cross sleeveless sweater. The lanyard emerging from the front of the left hand soldier’s jerkin appears to be the chain attached to a brass whistle.


Photos courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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Photo No. 21: On the left, the front of this unissued leather jerkin is secured by four black composite buttons. Black buttons of this type were the most common type of button found on the U.S. made leather jerkin. Other button types include a similar brown composite button, and on occasion, tunic size regulation bronze eagle buttons borrowed from a service coat.


Bronze eagle buttons appear to have been sewn onto the center Doughboy’s leather jerkin. The inset of an enlarged button shows the barely discernible image of an eagle. It is doubtful that jerkins arrived from the factory with bronze service coat buttons already in place. A more likely scenario is that a soldier, who happened to have a spare set of bronze buttons, a needle and thread and some spare time on his hands, used that time to swap composite buttons for bronze.


At far right is a reconstruction of an FT17 tank driver wearing the leather jerkin, which was ideally suited for the cramped interior of the diminutive French tank.


Left hand photo courtesy of Bay State Militaria.com

Center photos courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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Photo No. 22: As previously mentioned, leather jerkins were destined largely for AEF troops who needed a warm garment that also allowed freedom of movement. The leather jerkin however, did manage to make its way into the hands of non-combatants and soldiers from every branch of service. From left to right the leather jerkin is worn by a combat soldier whose branch of service is not known, a member of the Army Nurses Corps and a Doughboy from the 2nd Division’s ammunition train.


Center photo courtesy of the National World War I Museum

Right hand photo courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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Photo No. 23: During WWI leather was considered to be a critical war material for America’s war effort. As such, its use was carefully monitored and regulated by the War Department. Contractors that manufactured leather equipment and clothing for the Army were not allowed to let even the smallest scrap of leather go to waste. The smallest pieces were made into straps and shoe laces, and leather that could not be used was burned as a substitute for coal.


As a result of this policy, the backside, and occasionally the front, of leather jerkins were often composed of a patchwork of miscellaneous shaped scraps of leather. Three examples of ‘pieced together’ leather jerkins are shown here.


Right & left photos courtesy of Bay State Militaria.com

Center photo courtesy of the John Adam-Graf collection


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