Of redcoats, mad dogs and Englishmen…
The British Army of early times was a well funded, trained and equipped military force. Attired in sharp looking uniforms considered impracticable by today’s standards; the army had a history spanning over 350 years and was involved in numerous European, colonial conflicts and world wars.
The army played an important part in shaping Britain’s history and helped established the former British Empire.
The Infantry army of the British Army, may be said to be exceptional in two ways.
Firstly, despite the economic stringency resulting in amalgamations of regiments, changing methods of warfare and the reduction of British power in the world, the infantry has survived essentially for a good three centuries which in turn has given it much of its moral strength and prestige.
Secondly, the British infantry has a long history of experience in campaigning in more parts of the world than any other infantry of any other country. From the Americans, Burmese, Chinese to the Zulus, indeed, from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ the British infantry has fought them all.
The most salient, indeed the most visual feature of the uniform of the British infantryman has always been his scarlet or red coat.
The prominent military writer and researcher, Michael Barthorp professes that even though “there have been exceptions to this, and in our more utilitarian age duller colours predominate, but even today it can still be observed in the full dress of the Foot Guards and, occasionally, on drummers and bandsmen at ceremonial marches.
This fine, martial colour has been worn by other elements of the British army, and indeed by some other armies, but its visual effect on enemies and allies alike has generally been to signify the presence of the British Infantry.
Before Ramillies, Louis XIV exhorted Marshal Villeroi ‘to have particular attention to that part of the line which will endure the first shock of the English troops’. When Villeroi observed the red ranks massing against his left, he reinforced according from his centre – with subsequent catastrophe for himself.
Nearly 180 years later, at Ginniss in the Sudan, the infantry were ordered to resume their red uniforms, the better to overawe the Dervishes; this was the last occasion when red was worn in action.”
Long before the notion of clothing an army uniformly became common, the colour red in the late Middle Ages, was beginning to be recognised in Europe as the symbol or mark of an English soldier.
This was on account of the red St George’s cross displayed as a national identification sign, or the use of coats of that colour (russet) by contingents sent to the French wars.
The first standing or permanent troops of the Crown, the Yeoman of the Guard, formed by Henry VII, initially wore the Tudor livery of green and white, but in the next reign of Henry VIII, scarlet or red became customary.
As a token of this venerability, the Yeomen still wear Tudor style red and gold uniforms.
When the first permanent army was raised in 1645, red became the mainstay colour.
At that time, every European army adopted certain colours as their national colours; the French soldiers started out with white tunics but by the time of the Napoleonic Wars were dressed in dark blue, the Russians wore green and the British wore red.
Thus the British foot soldier came to be referred to as Redcoat because of the colour of the military uniforms formerly worn by the majority of regiments.
British soldiers were also more inclined to be referred to as “regulars” or “the King’s men”.
Abusive nicknames included ‘bloody backs’ (in a reference to both the colour of their coats and the use of flogging as a means of punishment for military offences) and “lobsters” or “lobsterbacks” (most notably in Boston around the time of the Boston Massacre.
Yet though the term ”redcoats” is familiar throughout much of the former British Empire, this colour was by no means exclusive to the British Army.
Up to 1848 saw the Army of Denmark wearing red coats while particular units in the German, French, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Bulgarian and Romanian armies retained red uniforms until the onset of World War 1 in 1914.
The extensive use of this colour by British, Indian and other Imperial soldiers over a period of nearly three hundred years however made the red uniform a symbol of the British professional fighting man and a virtual icon of the British Empire.
The significance of military red as a national symbol was endorsed by King William IV (reigned 1830-1837) when light dragoons – mounted troops armed with carbines – and lancers had scarlet jackets substituted for their previous dark blue, hussars adopted red pelisses and even the Royal Navy were obliged to adopt red facings instead of white.
Most of these changes were reversed under Queen Victoria (1837-1901). A red coat and black tricorne remains part of the ceremonial and out-of-hospital dress for in-pensioners at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
From the late 17th century to the 19th century, British foot regiments other than artillery, rifles and some cavalry, wore madder red (madder red is an ancient dyestuff, extracted from the root of the madder plant) coats or coatees.
A more vivid shade of scarlet, having previously been worn only by officers, sergeants and cavalry troopers was adopted for all ranks from 1872 onwards.
Why the colour red?
What was the reason for adopting the colour red?
The adoption and continuing use of red by most English soldiers after the Restoration (1660) appears to have been a historical accident, aided by the relative cheapness of red dyes.
There is no basis for the historical myth that red coats were favoured because they did not show blood stains.
Interestingly, blood shows on red clothing as a black stain.
No historical basis can be found for the suggestion that the colour red was favoured because of the supposedly demoralising effect of blood stains on a uniforms of a lighter colour.
The colour red as a sign
In his book “British Military Uniforms” (Hamylyn Publishing Group 1968), the military historian W.Y. Carman traces in considerable detail the slow evolution of red as the English soldier’s colour, from the Tudors to the Stuarts.
The reasons that emerge are a mixture of financial (cheaper red, russet or crimson dyes), cultural (a growing popular sense that red was the national English colour) and simple chance (an order of 1594 is that coats “be of such colours as you can best provide”).
The formation of the first standing army, that of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army in 1645, saw red clothing as the standard dress. As Carman comments (p24) “The red coat was now firmly established as the sign of an Englishman.” Articlesbase.com)
Red, a symbol for bravery
During the Napoleonic War, at the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812, the British General Picton gave this particular address to the 88th Regiment, ”It is not my intention to expend any powder this evening. We’ll do this business with the cold iron (steel bayonets).”
The 57th Regiment of Foot earned their nickname of “the Die Hards” after their participation in the hellish firefight between at Albuera.
The commanding officer of the 57th Foot, Inglis, was struck down but refused to be carried to the rear for treatment. ”He lay in front of his men calling on them to hold their position and when the fight reached its fiercest cried, “Die hard the 57th, die hard!”.
The casualties of the 57th were 422 out of the 570 men in the ranks and 20 out of the 30 officers. The Allied commander of the Anglo- Portuguese force Field Marshal Beresford wrote in his dispatch, ”our dead, particularly the 57th Regiment, were lying as they fought in the ranks, every wound in front”. (- wikipedia.org 2010)
The French were surprised by the rigid class lines that divided the British soldiers from their officers.
There is a record of Wellington coming upon aristocratic officers making their men carry them over a river.
The Duke, who raised the reputation of the British army to a level unknown since Marlborough, ordered the soldiers to drop them on the spot.
“Historians will say that the British army … carried on war in Spain and Portugal until they had eaten all the beef and mutton in the country, and then compelled to withdraw.”
(- Larpent April 1813, in Longford’s “Wellington”)
The wearing of smart attractive uniforms served to attract (recruits and for sure, many a fair lass) while supposedly striking fear to enemies.
“The English are the only nation who have maintained in their army the red coat, the “proud red coat” as Napier calls it. This coat, which makes their soldiers look like dressed-up monkeys, is supposed by its brilliancy to strike terror into the enemy … The Danes and Hanoverians used to wear the red coat, but they dropped it very soon.
The first campaign in Schleswig proved to the Danes what a capital mark to the enemy is offered by a red coat and white cross-belts …” (“The Armies of Europe” in Putnam’s Monthly, No. XXXII, published in 1855)
“Despite the best efforts of Sir John Moore, when it came to choosing a new uniform in which to fight, conservativeness won the day. While the 95th Rifles were permitted to adopt the green clothing and black leather equipment of the German regiments in British service, the Light Infantry regiments were ordered to conform to the regulations for light companies – retaining red jackets.”
But to modern day observers and even observers 160 years ago, the soldiers of that time, formed up in line and attired in bright red coloured tunics and supplemented with white crossbelts over their chests, surely made easy pickings as they stood out as easy targets.
Apparently not, battle tactics of the late 18th and 19th century were much different from those applied today, on account of weapon technologies.
Before 1866, the British soldier was armed with muzzle-loading weapons. To load these weapons required a soldier to stand upright to load a gunpowder charge and ram down a round into the muzzle.
Owing to the inaccuracy of such muzzle-loading weapons, he and his companions were trained to stand close together for volley firing and move very close to the enemy in order to hit them.
The chances of hitting a target with a musket was low and firing off a quantity of rounds as a volley ensured at least some hits. Obviously, camouflage was the last thing on their minds.
Red enhanced morale of the troops
Articlesbase.com provides more food for thought: From the modern perspective, the retention of a highly conspicuous colour such as red for active service appears inexplicable, regardless of how striking it may have looked on the parade ground. It should be noted, however, that in the days of the musket (a weapon of limited range and accuracy) and black powder, battle field visibility was quickly obscured by clouds of smoke.
Bright colours enhanced morale and provided a means of distinguishing friend from foe without significantly adding risk. Furthermore, the vegetable dyes used until the 19th century would fade over time to a pink or ruddy-brown, so on a long campaign in a hot climate the colour was less conspicuous than the modern scarlet shade would be.
However by the late 19th century, things were changing.
The embrace of khaki colour as camouflage reflected the exigencies of colonial wars in India and the Sudan, and to become less conspicuous, the British army had no choice but to abandon red altogether on active service.
The redcoat in movies
In recent Hollywood movies, the British redcoat has been derided by politically correct – or as termed by writer Roger Kennedy, “gibberish” movies. Hollywood serves to entertain and often adopts rather simplistic views on history.
British redcoats appeared in many a war movie, recent offerings include The Last of the Mohicans – a 1992 historical epic film set in 1757 during the French and Indian War. It was directed by Michael Mann of Miami Vice fame; Rob Roy, The Patriot, Pirates of the Carribean – The Curse of the Black Pearl and The Four Feathers starring the late Heath Ledger.
Red and the modern British Army
Like most European military uniforms, British army uniforms evolved in much the same ways.
Originally, red was the standard color for the infantry and cavalry while dark blue was worn by the Royal Horse Guards and Royal Artillery.
However by August of 1914, the bright, colorful uniforms were done away with as the British entered World War I, and khaki became the colour of choice.
By the 1930s, British soldiers wore khaki uniforms except for special occasions when they wore blue.
These khaki uniforms were among the first camouflage worn by military, the acceptance of drab colors was born more out of necessity that preference.
Many of the other armies like Germany and France had already toned down their original uniforms to be more practical. This left the British with their original red uniforms and required a drastic change if they wanted to be less conspicuous on the battle field.
In the modern British army, scarlet is still worn by the Foot Guards, the Life Guards, and by some regimental bands or drummers for ceremonial purposes.