by Peter Suciu
British headdress in the Middle East
At the end of WWI, the British and French partitioned the former Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern territories and took these lands as mandates – a post-war transfer of territory that likely sounded better than “colonies.” In essence, these lands were not considered “able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.” Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement – a secret treaty between the allied powers – much of what is modern day Israel and Jordan fell under British control.
When the war ended, the British raised a local gendarmerie to help police the borders and bring stability to this region. By the mid-1920s, three distinct units had been created to maintain order in these British mandates, and these included the Arab Legion, the Palestine Police Force, and the Transjordan Frontier Force. These distinct units had overlapping responsibilities, and all three were raised from the local populace.
The Arab Legion was technically the army of the Emirate of Transjordan. Later, it would form the nucleus of the Royal Jordanian Army. During WWII, it took part in the Anglo-Iraqi War in 1941, and in the Syria-Lebanon Campaign to wrestle control of the Vichy French territories. The Transjordan Frontier Force actually grew out of the Arab Legion, and its ranks included Circassians, Sudanese, and even a few Middle Eastern Jews along with a majority of Arabs. It helped deal with Arab unrest in Palestine and policed the borders of Transjordan throughout the Second World War.
The largest of the three units was the Palestine Police Force, which, by 1928, grew in size to 2,085 troops that included 321 Jews, 1,293 Muslim Arabs and 471 Christian Arabs. The unit saw action in the 1929 Palestine riots and in the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. During WWII, the unit became a military force that was eligible for deployment inside of Palestine as well as in Syria and Iraq. In 1944, the Police Mobile Force was created under the command of the Palestine Police. It included an additional 800 British-trained servicemen who had served in Italy and North Africa.
Both the Palestine Police Force and the Transjordan Frontier Force were outfitted with British style uniforms and equipment, with one notable distinction. While British officers and NCOs typically wore field caps or the Wolseley pattern sun helmet, the Arab soldiers – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish alike – were issued the Arab-styled kalpak, The wool cap was based on Ottoman headdress and worn in parts of Russia and the Caucus. The Palestine Police Force’s kalpak featured a blue top with a lappet on the left side. The officer’s version featured strips of cloth along the top and down the left side in place of the lappet. A Palestine Police badge was worn on the front of the hat.
The kalpak for the Transjordan Frontier Force differed from the Palestine Police Force version in that it was likely influenced a bit from a European style busby or the Cossack bashlyk It featured a red felt-top and lappet on the right side. This style of headgear was typically worn by the ranks – although Arab and Jewish officers may have also donned the kalpak. It featured the Transjordan Frontier Force badge on the front. These kalpaks were locally produced in the British mandates of Palestine and Transjordan. When both units disbanded after WWII, the kalpak was largely removed from service, and many were sold off and worn as civilian hats.
Members of the Arab Legion, which tended to be more traditional in its uniforms and didn’t adopt the British battledress until much later, wore the traditional Arab keffiyeh – the Arab headscarf – usually in various shades of red, or reddish purple, and white. This headdress was worn by members of the Palestine Police Force, the Transjordan Frontier Force, and even to a lesser degree, the Sudan Defence Force. By the 1930s, however, the kalpak had largely replaced the keffiyeh with those former two units, while Indian-style turbans were adopted by the latter unit.
The British did make efforts to introduce a new form of headdress with the Arab Legion and this included a unique sun helmet that was made in London. This helmet has no official designation, but most examples seem to have been made by Hobson & Sons, a maker of military sun helmets as well as polo headgear (upon which the helmet seems to be based). It is notable for featuring a spike on the top – likely following traditional Saracen helmet design from the medieval period – along with a brim or visor at the front. A neck curtain was worn around the dome of the helmet to help shield the neck of the wearer.
These helmets were produced in khaki as well as black, with the latter being used by the post-WWII Jordanian National Guard as late as the 1950s, when they were removed from service, ironically in favor of the more traditional keffiyeh. Today, the keffiyeh remains the de facto walking out headdress of the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF).
Peter Suciu is author of Military Suns of the World and runs the MilitarySunHelmets website, where he continues to share new findings about military tropical headdress.