The uniform of the British military, specifically of the infantry, has changed over time to serve almost the exact opposite purpose it originally did.Where once the uniform was bright, warm, heavy and easily-noticeable, the modern British military infantry uniform is designed to blend into the background in all conditions.
It has gone from offering a conspicuous point of reference for friendly troops, and enduring cold European weather, to offering as inconspicuous a target as possible, and being adaptable to the most sweltering of campaigns.
Perhaps surprisingly, given these dramatic differences, the switch in roles did not happen in one swift modernising movement. Instead, we can trace the changes made to the British military uniform through time and observe clear, gradual adaptations to changing times and changing methods of waging war.
If you’re looking for more background information on the development of the modern British military uniform, read on…
7 Years War
The Seven Years War is known as the first global conflict. The War arose because of the attempts of the Austrian Habsburgs to win back the province of Silesia, which was taken from them by Prussia during the War of Austrian Succession. Due to the various diplomatic alliances of the time the conflict grew to incorporate all of the major European powers, and included rivalries between Britain, France and Spain. Prussia was victorious in the conflict retaining Silesia, and Britain was established as the greatest colonial power.
The British infantry uniform of The Seven Years War was still very ceremonial, but practical considerations were taken into account. In 1758 Major George Scott wrote to Lord Loudoun, the Commander-in-Chief in North America, recommending kit. The coat he proposed had shorter skirts with lapels extending to the waist for warmth in winter. A light infantry soldier would also have worn short trousers for ease of movement. Ordinary soldiers wore broad brimmed hats that began to be turned up in three corners to accommodate the musket drill of the time. Grenadiers would wear a pointy hat known as the Grenadier’s Mitre, as the act of throwing a grenade would knock off a brimmed hat.
American War of Independence
The American War of Independence is often characterised as purely a civil war, but in fact the Americans were greatly aided by French support. During The Seven Years War the French had conceded territory to Britain in America, and they saw the conflict as an opportunity to reduce Britain’s power.
There was a gradual deterioration in relations between Britain and her American colonies, which eventually descended into armed conflict between patriot (anti-British) and loyalist (pro-British) forces. The conflict came to an end when the French army secured control of the sea at Chesapeake Bay, and subsequently successfully besieged York Town where the British commander Cornwallis was trapped.
The British soldiers were often called the ‘red coats’, but during the War of Independence they occasionally wore blue. The often suggested purpose of the red coats was to help soldiers identify one another through the smoke of battle. Different types of soldiers wore different styles of hats, and the colours of their flaps identified which regiment they were part of. The regularity of the British uniform was in stark contrast to the little-to-no uniform of the patriots, highlighting the wealth and dominance of Britain.
War of 1812
At the start of the 19th century Great Britain was embroiled in a bitter conflict with Napoleon’s France. There was a wave of anti-British feeling in America, which was partly caused by the practice of impressing American merchants into the Royal Navy. American forces attacked the British colony of Canada, and suffered a humiliating defeat. Whilst the Americans experienced some success, the defeat of Napoleon meant that Britain could focus on the war in the US, and they soon took Washington.
The war was resolved through an armistice; the Americans agreed to give up their goal of ending impressment, whilst the British agreed to abandon attempts to establish a Native Indian State in the Northwest, and promised that Canada’s border would remain unchanged.
At the time of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 the British infantry uniform had gone through a variety of changes. Soldiers were now wearing grey trousers, and a hat made of heavy velvet and leather known as the Belgic Shako. They also now wore the distinctive white crossover bayonet belt- the bayonet being a sword designed to be fixed the muzzle of a rifle or musket.
The Crimean war began when Tsar Nicholas I of Russia sent troops to Turkey, expecting the support of Prussia, Austria, and Britain. He was mistaken-neither Britain nor Austria wanted to see increased Russian power.
In 1853 Russia occupied the Danubian Principalities, provoking Turkey to declare war. Britain and France demanded that Russia leave, an ultimatum that Russia ignored. The Allies decided to land in the Crimea, and assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. They expected the mission to take 12 weeks. In actual fact it took 12 months, but eventually Russia was defeated. In the Treaty of Paris, Russia returned southern Bessarabia and the mouth of the Danube to Turkey.
In the Crimean War the British infantry uniform was still relatively similar to that of the 1812 and the Napoleonic wars. The traditional red coat of the infantry still remained the hall mark of the British army. However the uniform of the Crimea did start to move away from extravagance and towards practicality, with features such as looser fitting tunics.
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars the British had gained control of the Cape of Good Hope. A group known as the Boers disliked the British controlling the area. Between 1835 and 1845 about 15,000 Boers left the Cape for the interior of South Africa, and established two independent republics the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. After the discovery of diamonds in these areas, the British tried to extend their control to the whole of South Africa. The Boers resisted, and initially defeated the British army.
The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand re-ignited the conflict. After five months of battles the British began to gain control, compelling the Boers to retreat. Many Boers surrendered, but a large number continued to resist for nearly two years through guerrilla warfare.
The Boer War was a turning point for the British infantry uniform. In the first Boer War the uniform was still relatively old fashioned. However, in the second Boer war the British soldier was clad in the now familiar khaki. By the end of the conflict the uniform of choice was a slouch hat, drab tunic and trousers.
In 1914 a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary attributed blame to Serbia for the killing, and because Europe was linked by diplomatic relationships the conflict escalated into World War. Germany invaded neutral Belgium, causing Britain to declare war against them. An expeditionary force crossed to France to slow the German advance. The two sides became embroiled in a race to the sea, resulting in two lines of trenches, and stalemate.
The turning point came in 1917 when the US joined the war, and in 1918 The Allies successfully reclaimed most of France and Belgium. On 11th November an armistice was signed, and the Treaty of Versailles officially ended the war.
Although retaining its new khaki colour, the British infantry uniform had undergone another transformation to meet the demands of modern warfare. It was now a loose fitting garment with a turned down collar, rifle patches on the shoulders, and patches on the breasts. Soldiers were also given a hat called a ‘trench cap’. The original stiffened cap was re-designed to be made out of a soft material, so that it could be more easily stored away when it wasn’t needed.
The Second World War began in 1939 when Germany, under Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland. Britain and France immediately declared war, but initially took little action. Germany raced across Europe conquering Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Their first defeat was during the Battle of Britain when they attempted to invade by air. Germany’s downfall came when they invaded the Soviet Union. Although initially successful, the Germans were forced to retreat, and were pursued across Eastern Europe by the Russians.
In 1944 Britain and America launched the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and France was quickly liberated. Germany was now closed in on all sides, and in 1945 The Soviets reached Berlin and Germany surrendered.
During World War Two soldiers wore woollen service dress similar to that of the First World War. They were issued with a metal helmet known as the ‘Brodie’ helmet or the ‘shrapnel’ helmet. The helmet had first come into use at the end of World War One, and provided much greater protection against modern warfare than other designs. It was often covered with netting that foliage could be attached to for camouflage.
1st Gulf War/ Iraq and Afghanistan wars
There have been a number of modern conflicts in recent decades involving the Middle East.
In 1990 Iraq invaded the Gulf State of Kuwait, a conflict that eventually led to war with the West. Iraq ignored the United Nation’s ultimatum to withdraw, resulting in a number of countries sending troops to remove them by force.
The war in Afghanistan was triggered by the events of 9/11. American President George Bush gave Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban an ultimatum. Hand over those responsible, or “share in their fate”. The Taliban refused, and air strikes began against Afghanistan in 2001.Western troops still remain in Afghanistan today.
The Iraq War was a controversial conflict. The US and Great Britain justified the invasion by arguing that they believed Iraq was producing weapons of mass destruction. This turned out to be a mistake. Never-the-less the dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled from power, and a fragile democracy established.
The uniform of the British army infantry has now come full circle from ceremonial to practical. Whereas the traditional ‘red coats’ were designed to make the British infantry stand out, today’s camouflage uniform is designed to make soldiers blend in. The camouflage print is essential for modern desert combat, where there is little cover.