British Military Uniforms

Dominic Hayhoe

History of British Military Uniforms.

The colour Red was the uniform colour adopted by the first permanent regiment of the British Army, the Yeoman of the Guard, the Beefeaters, during the reign of Henry VIII. In 1645 this colour was adopted when the first permanent army was raised. Red was not used in order to hide blood stains. Rather, every army adopted certain colours as their national colours. French soldiers tended to wear blue; Russians wore green; British wore red.

With the infantry wearing a bright red colour, with white crossbelts and shiny brass, weren't they easier targets? However, in the 1860s battle tactics were much different from those applied today. Before 1866, British longarms were muzzle-loading weapons. To load these weapons required a soldier to:

1) stand upright to load a gunpowder charge and bullet down into the muzzle. 2) get very close to the enemy in order to hit them, due to the inaccuracy of the musket. 3) stand close together for volley firing.

It was the quantity of projectiles that mattered, not camouflage.

By 1867, however, warfare and the times were changing. With the advent of breech-loading rifles to the British Army in 1866, the quality of small arms changed considerably. Faster rates of fire, from a much more accurate weapon, which could be loaded in the prone position, slowly began to change the tactical doctrine of the Army. The change in tactics was not as swift as it might have been because during the last half of the 1800s, the British Army did not fight a modern, similarly equipped army. In essence, the tactics used were ones that made sense with the older style of firearms; the tactics still had to evolve to take advantage of the newer weapons.

It was surprising that the lessons of the new weapons recently demonstrated in the American Civil War (1861 1865) were not absorbed by the British. Although most European nations had observers on both sides, lessons that should have been learned were dismissed, as it was felt that this war was an isolated case determined by a geography unlike any in Europe. Further, it was deemed an `unseemly brawl between undisciplined armies.'

It was not until the late 1800s that a Khaki uniform was issued, the British Army finally realizing that drab coloured uniforms provided better camouflage in response to more accurate, faster firing weapons using smokeless gunpowder. Once again, tactics continued to lag behind and it took the carnage of the First World War to convince authorities that there was a requirement to seek cover and remain hidden as opposed to standing up in battle formations.

Women's Uniform

Women of the garrison had a less authorized uniform but one that fitted the class structure and social order of the time. The wives of the men in the ranks wore a plain cotton dress with apron and a hairpiece called a `snood.' Their shoes were made of plain leather common to the period. It was in distinct contrast to the more ornate dress worn by an officer's wife, in keeping with her position as an upper-class citizen.

Similarly, the civilians employed by the Army of 1867 had their own type of clothing to wear which designated their role within the Army. The schoolmaster wore a black, knee-length frock coat, while the schoolmistress wore a skirt, blouse and jacket cut in a style known as a `zouave' jacket, similar to the uniforms worn by the `zouave' units who served in the American Civil War.

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