Back in the olden days, at the very dawn of this little blog, I wrote a post covering the evolution of the Australian Army hootchie, the humble “shelter, individual”. In that poorly-written little piece I indicated that the hootchie as issued to Australian forces from the late 1950s onward was the first time Aussie and British Commonwealth military planners had even considered the fact that soldiers might need something a bit bigger than a 7 foot by 3 foot groundsheet to bivouac under in bad weather.
If ever called out on it, I’ll vehemently deny that my incomplete research on the topic led me to being wrong, so rather than call it “new information” let’s all pretend that space constraints on the original post meant I had to leave some important stuff out. Yep, that’ll work.
So what did I miss out? A few things…
From the time of the Battle of Waterloo circa 1815, the British army had adopted the French idea of the tente d’abri (literally “shelter tent” in English). It was a 2-man shelter made from two sheets of linen canvas with a plethora of buttons and buttonholes along the edges so it could be connected to others. Usually two of these tentes d’abri were used, forming a small “A” tent.
The idea is familiar to this day as it had also been adopted by the United States military in the decade before the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861. The troops there called it a “dog tent” but it was officially known as a shelter half. In the US, the shelter halves were issued right through until after the Vietnam war. These later shelter halves are roughly trapezoidal in shape and when pitched as a two man tent, have both ends closed in. I have a set of two halves dated 1982. It makes a nice, snug and warm windproof and waterproof little pup tent which is great in cold weather.
In British military publications from the 1870s, the shelter was still officially known as the “Tente d’abri” or simply as the “d’abri”. Some time in the mid 1880s, the designation changed to “MkI Shelter”. and it was used throughout the Boer War and into the First World War, also by colonial and later Federal Australian troops.
The dimensions of the Mk I Shelter sheets were approximately 183cm long x 153 cm wide. When two were fastened together, the resulting tent was 183cm long x 214cm wide x 107cm high.
In Australian service, these were used extensively by Australian Light Horse troops during the First World War. They were rolled with a blanket and carried as a swag roll strapped to the rear of the saddle and used as swag-style bedding when bivouacking. They were also used in the camp environment as pitched two-man shelter tents just like the American shelter half “pup tents” of the Civil War.
There was a variant of the MkI shelter which saw the two halves sewn together into a large, hootchie-style tarp, but it seems to have been an interim measure between the Mk I and the Mk II which is described below.
The MkII was more tent-like in design, but could still be used as a tarp if required. It was essentially a MkI sewn up variant with one closed in end. The end of this shelter was made from two triangular sections of canvas which closed using a dutch lacing (grommet and cord loop) closure.
The MkII Shelter became the basic troop accommodation for British and Empire personnel in the field. Later, it was modified with an extension on the rear and a front closed by a pair of canvas flaps. This last model was known as a “Bivy” tent and soldiered on in British Army service until the 1990s. During WWII there was a lighter weight tropical version which was completely mosquito netted, not a bad modification, although it seems to have been used in Europe more than any other theatre of that conflict.
I guess it’d be prudent to discuss the various improvised shelters which were made by troops bivouacking. These were usually two or more groundsheets laced together, or even a pair of wool service blankets fastened together with blanket pins. Surprisingly, these blanket shelters did an amazing job at keeping the rain off, but the flip side was that the soldier had to carry a wet blanket around which weighed a ton and took an age to dry out.