Visual Identity: History of the British Army Uniform – Redcoats

Of redcoats, mad dogs and Englishmen…

Scots Guards, Battle of Alma, Crimea 1854

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.

Storming of Badajoz by the 88th Regiment of Foot. Picture by Chris Collingwood.

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.”


The British Army – Royal Mail commemorative stamps. The Royal Mail in 2007 released six new stamps celebrating almost 350 years of British army uniforms.

The stamps, in se-tenant strips of 3, feature in reverse chronological order: 1st class – a military police NCO from Kosovo, a tank commander from the Second World War, and an artillery observer from World War One; 78p – a rifleman from the Peninsula War, a grenadier from the battle of Blenheim and a trooper from the Earl of Oxford’s Horse from around the time of the restoration of King Charles II. The set tracks the changes from the colourful uniforms of the 17th, 18th and 19th century to the present day disruptive pattern camouflage.

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.

The current Standard of The Body Guard was presented by Queen Elizabeth II in 1985. Source: yeomenoftheguard.com

Ceremonial duties for these Yeomen of the Guard include posing with Kylie Minogue, awarded an OBE “for services to music” in 2008. Credit AP

Seeing red

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.

William Britains collectible toy soldiers: Musketeer – 1st Guards – 1686; Black Watch Highlander, Culloden, 1742; Black Watch Highlander, Crimean War, 1854

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.

Her Majesty’s 16th Light Dragoons (Lancers), Battle of Ghuznee, First Afghan War, 23rd July 1839. The 16th Lancers wore scarlet tunics and the Polish tzapka hat and carried carbines, swords and lances. Source: http://www.britishbattles.com

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.

HM 16th Queen’s Lancers charging the Sikh square at the Battle of Aliwal, First Sikh War. 28th January 1846. Punjab, North West of India. Source: http://www.britishbattles.com
.

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.

William Britains collectible toy soldiers: British Coldstream Guards Light Company at Port Arms; Private, 24th Foot At Port Arms; Guardsman, Grenadier Guard with Enfield 1950′s

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.

Robert Gibb’s “The Red Line” – Scottish Highlanders stand firm and repulsing Russian calvary, Crimean War

“The Thin Red Line” by All the Queen’s Men.

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.

“This simply will not do, Lt. Watson. Afternoon tea calls for full dress.” Four Feathers, 2002

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

Well turned out British Foot Guards, Napoleonic War reenactors by Dmitrii Zgonnik of Ukraine.

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)

British infantry regiments form squares against French cavalry at the epic Battle of Waterloo.

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”)

Battle of Waterloo

Unleashing volley fire at Battle of Waterloo. Note the clouds of gunpowder smoke

The charge of the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo

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.”

(http://www.army.mod.uk/infantry/regts/the_rifles/)

Reenactors in the uniform of the 33rd Regiment of Foot (Wellington’s Redcoats), who fought in the Napoleonic Wars between 1812 and 1816, here showing the standard line 8th Company.© WyrdLight-McCallum http://www.wyrdlight.eu

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.

British infantry muskets. Source: Brent Nosworthy – “With Musket, Cannon, and Sword.”

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.

Last of the Mohicans starring the magnificent Oscar award actor Daniel Day-Lewis

Poster for ‘Zulu’ starring Michael Caine in a red officer’s tunic before he became butler to Batman. The actual officer Caine portrayed wore a dark blue uniform during the Zulu attack.

Poster for ‘The Four Feathers’ 1929.

Zoltan Korda’s 1939 remake of the movie ‘The Four Feathers’. This was considered by many to have been the best of the film versions, the characters well portrayed and characterised and lavishly filmed in colour on many of the real African locations.

Heath Ledger in the 2002 remake of 'The Four Feathers'

Heath Ledger in the 2002 remake of ‘The Four Feathers’. There were a total of 5 remakes of this 1915 movie, this being the latest.

The red tunics of the British make a striking scenein the  2002 remake of ‘The Four Feathers’ as the units form a defensive square at the Battle of Abu Klea. In reality, the soldiers were attired in khaki uniforms, the film director felt red tunics conveyed a more impactful look. Sources:’The Four Feathers’ 2002

“By Jove, Harry… Can you just pretend we are invisible in these khaki uniforms? Now stand firm and keep your chin up. The Dervishes can hear your bloody teeth clattering!”

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.

The Changing of the Guards, Buckingham Palace, London

Pomp and pagentry

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.

About ranman

Design educator with a Masters of Design degree. 32 years of design experience. View all posts by ranman

12 responses to “Visual Identity: History of the British Army Uniform – Redcoats

  • O. P. C,

    Good article, but it´s Ciudad Rodrigo, not Cuidad Rodrigo. Ciudad means city in Spanish, while cuidad means (ye) take care of.

  • wesoon77

    Just love your article so much. have been trying to gain more insight on the british redcoats. thanks !

  • Jason Barney

    Hi,

    My name is Jason Barney and I am high school history teacher and graduate intern with the Turning Points history program. I am creating an online exhibit about the War of 1812 and the Champlain Valley for the town of Swanton, Vermont. I have been using the internet to find helpful information, and was hoping you would give permission for me to use the following image:
    English Soldiers Marching

    The final product is likely to be a 10-15 minute online presentation for the Swanton, Historical Society. Pictures may be slightly altered if permission is given.
    If you give me permission, I will make sure to include your web page in the credits at the end of the presentation.
    Please email me back and let me know if I can use your material.

    Thanks,
    Jason Barney
    admiralriker_jay@yahoo.com

  • gemmahistory

    Thanks for posting this!

    I am currently writing a wikipedia page on the life of a redcoat soldier, and the information you have given here has proved extremely useful!

    • Beryl

      Some other information that u like, the British Regiments have all different Uniforms, and can be identified by the colour Plume in their Bearskins, and if worn on right or left, also the number of Buttons on Jackets. U will notice One Button SPACE. Two Buttons then Space, Three Buttons then space, Next time you see them Marching have a look at the different Regiments as they March Pass.. I will provide u with more update later.

  • elie Lambert

    G morning,like to be presices,a band at Pontefrac race course?Bleus and royal? and the differant uniformes.
    I am a artiste and I am working on a canvas from a race day when a band was performing.
    Pleas help me.
    The canvas will be part of my exhibition in june 12 at the Osborne studio Gallery under the patronage of Sir Peter O’Sullivan.
    Elie Lambert http://www.elielambert.com

  • Batley Royston

    Red Coat cloth has now been manufactured to the specifications used during the Napoleonic Wars once more: http://www.historicaltextiles.com

    Whilst the Infantry are often described as being clothed in Scarlet, surviving Dyer’s pattern books from the Napoleonic period show that soldier’s coats were dyed red with Madder, Sergeants with Lac and Officer’s with Cochineal. The dyer’s were very proffesional and were capable of a high degree of uniformity when dyeing cloths.

  • Mercur Group Holding. Zoltan Gyarmati owner of Mercur. Zoltan Gyarmati for AICB

    Thanks for some other great post. The place else could anyone get that type of information in such an ideal means of writing? I have a presentation subsequent week, and I’m on the search for such information.

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