Hussif and Button Stick

We were issued with a Housewife on joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1979.  Why a housewife to a 16-year-old cadet? That too an item which was neither male nor female, and wasn’t even a living being.

It  was a simple Khaki pouch containing needles, thread, thimble, buttons, and a pair of scissors, meant for sewing on buttons, darning socks, and mending uniforms. It was called the Hussif by the officers at the Academy and Housewife by many Cadets and the soldiers who were the Havildar Quartermasters at the Squadron.

Housewife morphed into Hussif  and first appeared in print in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1749 suggesting that it had already been in common use. Hussif was later shortened to Hussy.

However, the term is now banned in modern armies which acknowledges that the gender specific term is not only outdated but also offensive to women.

By the mid 19th century these rolled-up sewing kits became standard army issue. Before the invention of safety pins, for a quick fix, sewing needles were used to remove splinters and, at times, even sew up the soldier’s wounds!

When I joined Sainik School, Amaravathinagar, TN at the age of nine we had to carry a small plastic box with contents like the hussif. 

I hardly used my hussif at the Academy during my three years other than for sewing some lost buttons. Behold! It had to be carefully maintained as it had to be produced during kit muster held at the beginning of each semester at the Academy and also during inspections. The hussif was part of the small pack we carried in  the Field Service Marching Order (FSMO.)

The name hussif comes from a time when it was common for mothers, wives and fiancés in the 18th and 19th centuries to personalise these kits with embroidery for their menfolk to take to war.  It was often packed  in the holdall and stowed within the man’s haversack. Few hussifs of those days were covered with flowers or other feminine motifs if the hussif was a gift from a needlewoman in their life.

The humble hussif played an important role in both the World Wars. Embroidery was widely used as a form of therapy for wounded soldiers, especially those recovering at the hospitals. The bright environment of the hospital was the perfect place for them to engage in  embroidery as an activity, which helped in their rehabilitation. The imagery and stories they stitched were  often reflective of pride in their regiment, the battlefields they had fought in, or messages of love to a distant sweetheart.

Military museum around the world proudly display many hussifs of soldiers, especially from the World Wars. The National Army Museum in London, England displays an ornamental hussif of Drummer Yeates (1867) with beautiful embroidery and bead-work with the motifs of the Queen, Union Jack, his regimental insignia and battle honours, and a message of nostalgia for home.

Armies and Navies, from Britain to Australia to North America, issued hussifs as part of the standard kit to their soldiers, at least up to the Korean War era. The British Army continued to do so, well into the 1960s and the Indian Army until the early 80s.

Australian soldier Henry John Harris who participated in the First World War wrote about an ingenious use of the hussif. “Owing to the extreme cold conditions and as there were a store of sandbags in the pillbox, I decided to sew several of the sandbags together to make a blanket, and believe me those sandbags did keep me and a cobber [comrade] warm for the four nights we stayed in that pillbox.

The standard Canadian Forces Sewing Kit from the 1990s is in green material with pockets inside and a piece of felt to which needles could be tacked.  The cover is secured by by Velcro to the body of the kit. Inside the pockets are two plastic bags, one with buttons, and the other with thread, a thimble and a needle threader. Needles and safety pins are attached to the felt.

Another remarkable object that is etched in my memory is the Button Stick. These were used by the civilian bearers or orderlies to polish all the brass buttons, shoulder titles etc of our various Academy uniforms, though I never saw them later in my Army career.  

Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes it as ‘a strip of metal or wood slotted in such a way that it will pass over a row of buttons (as on a military tunic) allowing each button to appear through a slit so that the buttons may be polished without soiling the cloth.’

These button sticks were used by soldiers to polish the buttons on their uniform without spilling  any of the polish on the fabric. During WW I, when soldiers were out of the trenches, they often had to ensure that the buttons of their uniform were polished using Brasso. While tedious and time-consuming, soldiers used this brass button polishing guard to avoid staining the fabric with excess polish which left a nasty brown stain on their Khaki or Olive Green uniforms. 

It could well be that the button sticks used by the orderlies of the NDA may date back to the World War days!

Why did the armies over the world have done away with the hussif? Repairing or darning the  uniform, stitching a lost button… are still needs of the day!

Indian Army Water Bottle

Water is one of the most important elements of a soldier’s life – it is vital for all human beings, animals and plants.  Our body is made up of almost two-thirds water. Blood contains  92 percent water; the brain is 75 percent water; muscles are 75 percent water; and bones 22 percent.

Hydration, or consuming enough water is crucial for humans: to regulate body temperature, keep joints lubricated, prevent infections, deliver nutrients to cells, and keep organs functioning properly. Being well-hydrated improves sleep quality, cognition, and mood.

Soldiers used to carry water for personal consumption in a water-bottle, attached to the belt. Today’s soldier needs a hydration system that is effective, allows freedom of action, and is easier to carry and use than the current water-bottles.  An ideal hydration system will encourage the soldier to drink more water, resulting in better performance in battle and facilitate in delivering personal combat power- surely not an obstruction.

My tryst with the water-bottle began on joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1979.  We were issued with the Field Service Marching Order (FSMO) with the all important water-bottle.  In the Scale A version of FSMO with the bigger backpack, the smaller haversack was attached to the belt on the left  and the water-bottle on the right.  Most soldiers were right-handers and for easy access the water-bottle was placed on the right.  In the Scale B version where the small haversack became the backpack, the water-bottle was attached to the back of the belt.

Scale B was used for most training as a cadet – for endurance runs, weapon and tactical training, etc – and the water-bottle hanging by the belt at the back kept pounding one’s butt as we cadets ran.  It was more of an encouraging tap on the butt that kept many of us going and the wet felt outer casing did cool our butts in the warm Indian afternoons.

This water-bottle, officially known in the Indian Army as  Bottle Water Mark 7, owed its origin to the British Army’s 1937 Web Equipment.  Made of blue colored sheet metal welded at the shoulder and at the bottom with outer side convex and  the inner side concave to fit with the contours of the human body.  The spout was closed with a cork stopper and the stopper was attached to an eye on the top of the bottle  with a string. The outer felt cover protected the metallic bottle and when kept soaked, evaporative cooling kept the water inside cool.  These enamelled water-bottles were manufactured in India mostly by the Bengal Enamel Works of Kolkata and also by the Madras Enamel Works of Chennai.

The British Army originally called the water-bottle a Canteen.  A canteen is a place outside a military camp where refreshments are provided for members of the armed forces. This very ‘place of refreshment’ became the water-bottle that the soldier carried on a march.  This canteen’s design and use have remained the same since 1937.  It appears that the technological revolution marched right past one of the Indian soldier’s most vital personal equipment – the water-bottle.

After we were commissioned in 1982, the Indian Army introduced the plastic cousin of the age old enamelled water-bottle, officially known as Bottle Water Complete M83.  This water-bottle continued with us as late as 2002.  While in command of the Regiment in operational area in Rajasthan when the Indian army was deployed along the Indo-Pak border in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, we ordered for the water-bottles, but the Ordnance Depot did not supply us with any.

The new plastic water-bottle consisted of a green, plastic, square shaped bottle  with a  screw-on cap.  It had a plastic cover on top with  handles made of aluminium, and could be used as a cup when detached. The whole set was inserted into a canvas carrier lined with a thin layer of foam. This helped to keep the contents of the bottle warm in winter and cold in summer .  Though the water-bottle had straps to be attached to the belt, most soldiers carried it in their backpacks,

These plastic water-bottles were manufactured by some unheard-of  private plastic manufacturers, located in and around Delhi.  Though it was supposed to be made of food-grade High Density Poly Ethylene (HDPE), the water stored inside these water-bottles had unpleasant odour and left an after-taste.  Cracks developed as a result of any accidental drop or extra-pressure exerted by the soldier on the water-bottle, especially while resting after a tiring long march.  That was why our soldiers carried their water-bottles in their backpacks.  By 2003, the Indian Army withdrew this plastic water-bottle.

The soldier of the future will have a heads-up display on his helmet, a sophisticated weapon and a computer wired to his pack frame.  The soldiers operating in such an environment will have little time for a nap or to get a drink of water.  A quickly accessible hydration system close to the soldier’s mouth will help the soldier take small sips on a regular basis.

The CamelBak hydration system is a plastic water bladder connected to a length of hose that fits into an insulated bag that can be strapped on the soldier’s back or attached to a backpack. The mouth of the hose is positioned close to the carrier’s mouth for easy access. The ‘bite’ valve at the end of the hose makes the water readily available to sip or drink.

The Indian Army could develop its own hydration system that would be less expensive than a CamelBak system.  A change to the current water storage and delivery system is long overdue. A potable, palatable, easily available hydration system that allow soldiers to move easily and quickly on the battlefield and encourage water consumption would be an important force multiplier.  Importantly, soldiers under fire on the battlefield should be able to get a sip of water without taking their hands off their weapons.