A question I’m often asked when identifying WW1 British photographs, is “what are those stripes on the lower right arm?” These small badges are known as Overseas Service Chevrons, and were worn with the apex pointing upwards. Simply put, they were awarded for each year’s service overseas during the Great War.
The chevrons were first approved under Army Order 4 of 1918, published on the 20th December 1917. As they were only worn until 1922, they are really helpful for narrowing down the dates of photographs – If a soldier is wearing these chevrons, the photo generally dates between 1918 and 1922.
The chevrons came in two colours:
Red: Earned on or before 31st December 1914. As such, a maximum of one red chevron could be worn. These were worn at the bottom, below any blue chevrons.
Blue: Earned on or after 1st January 1915. A maximum of 5 of these could be earned, one for each year from 1915 to 1919. Those awarded in 1919 were for service in North Russia.
The Army Order stated the chevrons should be manufactured “of worsted embroidery, 1/4 inch in width, the arms being 1 1/4 inch long“. Due to the huge quantities of these being manufactured, they are often found with slight variations in size.
The quality of material and embroidery vary hugely too, which can be seen from the various examples below. Those produced on a dark navy blue background were manufactured to be worn on Naval uniforms.
The original order listed the following as eligible for the chevrons:
- Officers and soldiers of the Regular Army, Special Reserve and Territorial Force, and officers, Naval ratings and Royal Marines of the Royal Naval Division.
- Officers, soldiers and followers of the Indian Army and Indian Army Reserve.
- Officers and soldiers of Oversea Forces.
- Native troops in East and West Africa.
- Members of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, retired members of the Army Nursing Service, members of Queen Alexandra’s Military Nursing Service for India, the Territorial Force Nursing Service, and Oversea Nursing Services.
- Members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
- Civilians attached to British Forces in an official capacity.
- Native Labour Corps.
- Chinese Labour Corps.
- Members of officially recognised Voluntary Aid Detachments.
- Personnel working under the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and under the St. Andrew’s Ambulance Association, if under the direct authority and supervision of the War Office.
- Personnel of the Women’s Legion employed under War Office authority.
The qualifying period for the first chevron was the date the individual left the UK for overseas service, or for those already serving overseas on the outbreak of war, from the 5th August 1914.
Each additional chevron was awarded for “successive aggregate period of 12 months’ service outside the United Kingdom”. The service didn’t need to be continuous and periods of leave of up to one month were allowed, provided the individual returned overseas on conclusion.
- Those Absent Without Leave (AWOL), in prison or detention.
- Those in hospital due to sickness or avoidable causes.
- Prisoners of War – Although this exclusion was removed with Army Order 361 of 1918.
- Draft Conducting Officers (DCO) and those sent overseas temporarily. (DCOs were made eligible along with remount and veterinary men in Army Order 286 of 1918 under certain conditions.)
Issuing and Wearing
Chevrons were supplied by the Army Ordnance Department at public expense (i.e. paid for by the Army) and Commanding Officers of units were responsible for the individual issuing and ensuring only those entitled to chevrons received them.
The original instructions for how to wear the chevrons were provided in the original Army Order as follows:
“They will be worn inverted on the right forearm; in the case of officers, the apex of the lower chevron will be 1 inch above the upper point of the flap on the cuff; with Highland jackets, the point of the lowest chevron will be midway between the seams of the sleeves and 2 inches above the upper row of lace; and with jackets with plain cuffs, immediately above the point of the cuff. In the case of warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and men, the apex of the lowest chevron will be midway between the seams and 4 inches above the bottom edge of the sleeve…. They will not be worn on greatcoats.”
Chevrons were also approved for wear in civilian clothing by those who were entitled to them, although these would not be provided from Government stores and would need to be individually sourced.
Overseas service chevrons were not issued posthumously.
As with all aspects of dress in the British Army during the Great War, variations and anomalies exist.
Enamelled versions of the Overseas Service Chevrons were available for private purchase, and would have been worn by those wanting to smarten up their appearance.
I have also seen numerous photographs of men wearing the chevrons upside down! Presumably, some confusion existed when the chevrons were first issued as to how they should be worn.