Hats, Felt, Gurkha has become synonymous with the Gurkha soldier and was first introduced into Gurkha Regiments for field service wear. The hat went on to be worn by Gurkha units on the frontiers of India and in all the operational theatres during both World Wars. Today it is no longer worn in the field and its wear is now primary confined to parades and ceremonial duties.
The origin of Hats, Felt, Gurkha dates from the beginning of the 20th Century when a substitute form of head dress was being sought to replace the Kilmarnock Hat for wear on field service. The Kilmarnock had very little to commend it when worn in the field. It neither gave protection from the burning sun nor the heavy monsoon rain. Attempts to modify the Kilmarnock to make it more practical were unsatisfactory.
At the time of the 2nd Boer War in South Africa, the slouch hat, worn by the Dominion Forces of the British Empire, was becoming an increasingly popular form of head dress with British troops in the field. This may have influenced the introduction of a hat of similar design within Gurkha Regiments. It was during the Waziristan Blockade in 1901 that the 1st Battalion 2nd (Prince of Wales Own) Goorkha Rifles tried out a new hat advocated by one of its officers, Lieutenant Bechar. It consisted of a several layers of cloth covered on both sides with puttoo or home spun tweed. It was criss-cross machine stitched, giving it a certain amount of stiffness to help maintain its shape. Sometimes known as the Kashmir hat, it was fitted with a light puggaree, ventilating holes and a chin strap. The whole effect resembled a slouch hat, affording protection both from the sun and the rain. Similar head dress was introduced into other Gurkha Regiments during the same period. Initially procured from unofficial sources, it was eventually sanctioned by Army Headquarters and issued through ordnance channels under the nomenclature of ‘Hats, Felt, Gurkha’.
The Zakka Khel Expedition on the North West Frontier of India in 1908 was the first campaign when the new field service head dress was worn by 5th and elements of 6th Gurkha Rifles. Regiments and Battalions soon began to fashion the hat to their own designs. Some wore it with either the left or right side hooked up; puggarees were added with Regimental coloured piping; and Regimental badges and or flashes were incorporated. In the years following the 1st World War the brim became flat and stiffened, as we know it today, and the hat was worn well tilted over one ear and a size or two smaller than necessary for effect.
This laid most of the skull bare to the elements thereby defeating the original object of the hat to give protection from the sun and rain. Initially Hats, Felt, Gurkha were only worn by Gurkha officers and soldiers but photographic evidence suggests that British officers began to wear the hat in the 1920s. By the end of the 2nd World War the hat was being worn by all ranks in most Gurkha Regiments.