Patent no. 45782. Filing year 1894.
"Army Accoutrement," William Silver Oliver.
In the late 19th century, the Canadian Militia was making the transition from being an offshoot of the British Army to becoming the core of Canada's own national forces. The Militia's uniform and accoutrements (the belts, packs and pouches intended to make the infantry as mobile, self-sufficient and weapon-ready as possible) became the most visible symbol of its transformation. The pattern designed by William Silver Oliver, a surgeon with the Canadian military, became the first truly Canadian system of accoutrements put to use, and was employed from the Boer War to the beginning of the First World War.
William Oliver's first attempts at designing accoutrements were patented in 1876 (no. 6781) and 1881 (no. 13339). In 1870 he had served as a regimental surgeon with the 1st Battalion, 60th Rifles, in the Red River campaign; there he had seen first-hand the combat requirements of soldiers. His goal was to furnish each man with enough ammunition, clothing and rations to make him independent of his base for a 24-hour period.
Oliver's early designs impressed his superiors, and in the early 1880s his pattern and another Canadian design, the Barrett pattern, were given extensive field trials. In the end, however, the Committee on Equipment rejected both patterns in favour of a modification of the British Valise pattern already in use. Oliver was not discouraged, though, and continued for several years to modify his system and lobby Army authorities.
Oliver was a deputy surgeon general stationed in Halifax when he patented his 1894 pattern, above. Its main characteristics included: a leather magazine brace, with straps passing over the shoulders and fastened to the belt, designed to put the weight of the ammunition on the shoulders; a canvas valise, carried in the small of the back and attached to the shoulder straps; and a brown leather 80-round ammunition pouch positioned in the centre of the waistbelt, which was to become the Canadian uniform's most distinctive feature. In keeping with his medical background, Oliver claimed that his pattern distributed the load and diminished the bulk carried so that "the spinal column of the soldier [would] not be subjected to injurious strain."
In the mid-1890s, new user trials pitted the Oliver pattern against two rival patterns, and this time Oliver prevailed. Oliver equipment was issued as of 1899, just in time for the Royal Canadian Regiment's participation in Britain's South African campaign, commonly known as the Boer War.
Unfortunately, the feedback from the field was hardly enthusiastic. Soldiers complained of too many straps and too much weight on their shoulders. The valise was rarely taken to the field and the ammunition pouch was awkward to use, prompting soldiers to add U.S.-style bandoliers, carrying 70 rounds each, across their chests. As well, the one-pint glass water bottle was deemed useless, and soldiers demonstrated their scorn by shattering them against stone walls.
Despite these complaints, the Army made few changes to the Oliver pattern, and continued to issue it to troops. Meanwhile, accoutrements made of tightly woven fabric known as webbing had been introduced in the American and British armies. Lighter and more flexible than leather, web was still being tested by the Canadian Army when the First World War began. In its rush to equip thousands of men, the Canadian military issued both web and Oliver gear; once the men arrived at the Salisbury training grounds in England, the leather Oliver gear was promptly thrown out by the British in favour of webbing. This marked the end of the reign of the Oliver pattern; webbing dominated fighting equipment for most of the 20th century, until equipment made with synthetic fibres was introduced in the 1960s.
Thanks to Eric Fernberg, collections manager of dress and insignia, and Tony Glen, manager of exhibitions and programs, at the Canadian War Museum, for their assistance with this profile.
Summers, Jack L. Tangled Web: Canadian Infantry Accoutrements, 1855-1985. Bloomfield, Ont.: Museum Restoration Service, 1992.