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Military Uniforms

The most savage tribes have been of one accord with civilised nations, as to the expediency of a special garb for war. The red and yellow ochre that besmear the grim face of a Cheyenne brave, as he takes up the tomahawk against the detested whites; the black and vermilion blazonry of an Apache chief; form no unmeaning display in the eyes of the wearers, since every streak and shade has been dictated by immemorial tradition. It was the same with the tinted feather-work armour and gold gorgets, of the Mexicans who vainly confronted Cortes. Every Indian there knew his own tribesmen by the fillet bound around the head, and his cacique by the nodding crest and hauberk, gorgeous with the plumage of the humming-bird and paroquet. But the first actual uniform of which we read was that of the Great King's body-guard—those Persian Immortals, with golden suns flashing on their broad breasts, whom it was the proudest boast of the Greeks to have crushed at Marathon.

The Greeks themselves — soldier-citizens, from the mounted dandy who fonght on horseback, to the sober spearman who left his shop, to take his place in the front of the bristling phalanx—went to war, as they went to labour, in close-fitting tunic and greaves; and it must have been difficult, save by the device on the shield, to have known the militia of Argos from that of Athens, or the Spartan from the Theban. It was easy to point out the Roman legionary, laden like a beast of burden, shod with nailed shoes, and conspicuous by his tall helmet and the long buckler, with S.P.Q.R. upon it, that protected almost his entire person from Jewish javelins or Gaulish arrows.

The colors of the clan tartan, at Killiecrankie and Prestonpans, no less than when Agricola marched against the wild Scots, rendered it facile for one Celt, in the confusion of battle, to recognise a kinsman or an enemy; but during the long struggle on English ground between Danes and Englishmen, it was very difficult to tell friend from foe, so alike, at a little distance, were the peaked helmets and gleaming mail-shirts of the combatants. In strictly feudal times the same inconvenience was often felt.

No one could, of course, pretend to give uniforms to a forty-days' army, the units composing which might very possibly, six months later, be arrayed in rebellion against the very monarch under whose standard they marched. Hence it became of the utmost importance to remember the personal badges of the principal knights and lords, since a falcon-crest, a dragon-shield, or a lion-broidered banner cculd alone serve as the rallying-point of regiments and brigades.

Entering on the gunpowder period, the time when there were nearly as many arquebusiers as pikemen in the ranks of the infantry, white shirts were worn over the steel armour or the leather jerkin, in great request as a means of distinguishing the stormers, when a night attack was made upon a town. This was notably the case at Geneva, where mummers yet rehearse the all-but-successful escalade of the Papist Savoyards; while Scott has made picturesque use of the practice, in Quentin Darward, as an incident of the recapture of Liege by Charles the Bold of Burgundy. "Save me from my friends!" was the motto of assailants thus attired; nor was the precaution useless, for, even at Waterloo, blue-clad officers of British light cavalry were shot down, as Frenchmen, by the 67th of the Line.

The Free Companies that, in mediaeval Italy, earned their bread at the expense of the peaceful population—half-robbers and half-mercenaries—were too loosely held together by the bonds of discipline to be dressed alike. But the Swiss in the pay of Italian princes—those formidable hirelings, prized by their masters, but hated by the natives of Italy with a hate such as the English, whose hearthstones had never resounded to the swaggering step of a foreign soldier, can scarcely realise — wore the quaint distinctive High German garb.

The Pope's Swiss halberdiers wear it, slightly modified, to this day. The English bowmen — half of them supplied by the city of London — who won Agincourt, made no attempt at uniform. When they marched down Cheape, no doubt, they were decently clad, with flat caps, gray or blue hose and jerkins, armbrace, bow, and quiver. But they were in rags, without cap or shoe, when their clothyard arrows turned the scale of victory.

The redoubtable Turkish Janizaries — the "new soldiers," as their name denotes: long the finest body of disciplined troops in Europe or Asia — were perhaps the first to wear a regular uniform. The very sight of their high head-gear, decorated by a sleeve, in remembrance of Hadji Bektasb, their founder, once carried consternation among the opponents of the Crescent, on the Danube or beside the Bosphorus. The Yammacks, too, a sort of Turkish Marines, abolished by Sultan Mahmoud at the time of the massacre of their better-known comrades, wore a blue and gold jacket, only too familiar to the unwarlike Levantines.

Presently, as monarchs grew richer, and power more centralised, certain colors came to denote the armies of various continental countries. The Spanish yellow, the Austrian white, the Swedish blue, were proverbial long before the Bourbons began to attire their grenadiers in white coats, and before anyone in England dreamed of a permanent uniform.

During the civil wars, Royalist and Parliamentarian dressed anyhow, and a field of battle must have been as many-colored as an old-fashioned flower-garden — Sir Byng's Greens, or my Lord of Derby's Blues, coming into collision with Harrison's Red Lambs, or the Hazlerigg Cuirassiers, in sad-tinted cassocks. But what the officers of both factions wore, when they could beg, borrow, buy, or steal it, was the buffcoat, proof against sword-cut and spentbullet, worth some eighty or a hundred pounds of onr money, and the loss of a specimen of which, in a lawless raid of pillaging Cavaliers, the husband of Lucy Hutchinson so piteously bewailed. At last Cromwell's taste in military tailoring prevailed, and the red coat was definitively established as the wear of British soldiers. The insular scarlet, first seen beyond seas at the siege and taking of Dunkirk, had the merit of being unique. No continental infantry, with the exception of the Swiss regiments in French pay, wore red. The Scandinavian countries, then of greater political weight than they were later, dressed their troops in blue. The semi-disciplined host of the Grand Duke of Muscovy, or, as some began to style him, His Czarish Majesty, wore gray gaberdines, or greasy sheepskins. The far mightier emperor at Vienna ordered white coats for Croat and Pandour, Bohemian and Illyrian.

During the eighteenth, and the first few decades of the 19th century, the authorities at the Horse Guards appeared to regard the British soldier as a live doll, to be dressed so as to combine the minimum of comfort with the maximum of display. The pattern, to be sure, was a German one, but successive commanders-in-chief and their zealous subordinates were always trying to improve upon their model, to stiffen the spines, to tilt up the chins to. a more unnatural angle, and to tighten the belts of the smartly-drilled defenders of their country. It reflected no small credit on these soldiers, that in strangling stocks, strapped, braced, and buckled to the uttermost, and excruciatingly tight about the knees, they contrived to scramble up the Heights of Abraham, and, at Lincelles and San Sebastian, found their way over breach and wall.

Around the year 1800, a young recruit, whose hair had been carelessly cropped by the regimental barber, was often unable to shut his eyes on account of the remorseless dragging back of the forelock to serve as a fulcrum for the artificial pigtail, without which he dared not come upon parade. Serious petitions at about the same date were presented to the king, praying that his Majesty, on account of the dearth of bread, would excuse the suspension of the general order that the army should appear with, powdered heads, and entering into elaborate calculations as to the amount of flonr daily wasted in whitening the locks, not of the regulars alone, but of the militia, pensioners, fenoibles, yeomanry, and the many regiments of red-coated volunteers which then converted England into the likeness of a monstrous camp.

The gay Hussar uniform, and with it, for light cavalry alone, the moustache, were borrowed from the enemy during the long war with France, and the innovation was greeted with sneers, of which we may see some faint reflex in the minor poems of Sir Walter Scott. The experience of Waterloo augmented the picturesque appearance of our Household Cavalry, by the adoption of the French cuirass. Gradually the light of common sense began to filter through the chiaro-oscuro of Horse Guards' tradition. First the pigtail was lopped off; then the hair-powder was brushed out; next went the tightness at the knees, and the preposterous gaitors.

In the heat of the Crimean struggle, and sorely in despite of sundry respectable Peninsula martinet generals, the sacred stock itself was tampered with, the belts loosened, and the upper lip, and for that matter the lower lip too, of the foot soldier, was exempted from the razor. Of later years it may be safely said that every change in soldiers' clothing and accoutrements, on both sides of the Channel, had been made with a view to his improved health and greater efficiency. Abroad and in England, much ingenuity was expended in lightening the knapsack, in preventing the pressure of the cross-belts on heart and lung, and in devising tunics, caps, and great-coats, which should bo sightly, and yet comfortable.

A perfect uniform may perhaps never be devised, although the late Emperor Napoleon, when he attired his famous Zouaves in oriental apparel, believed that he had found one; but it is at all events fortunate for those who fight battles that armies have got out of the old-world groove of pipe-clay, impossible shakoes, and tight coatees.

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Page last modified: 20-05-2012 19:07:31 ZULU