Red coat (British army)


Red coat (British army)

Red Coat or Redcoat is a term often used to refer to a soldier of the historical British Army, because of the colour of the military uniforms formerly worn by the majority of regiments. The uniform of most British soldiers from the late 17th century to the 19th century, (other than artillery, rifles and some cavalry), included a madder red coat or coatee. From 1872 onwards, the more vivid shade of scarlet was adopted for all ranks, having previously been worn only by officers, sergeants and cavalry troopers.

History

The red coat has changed throughout its history from being a British infantryman's ordinary uniform to a ceremonial garment. Its official history begins on February 1645, when the Parliament of England passed the New Model Army ordinance. The new English Army (there was no 'Britain' until the union with Scotland in 1707) was formed of 22,000 men, divided into 12 foot regiments of 1200 men each, 11 horse regiments of 600 men each, one dragoon regiment of 1000 men, and the artillery, consisting of 50 guns. The infantry regiments wore coats of Venetian red with white facings. However, the uniforms of the Yeoman of the Guard (formed 1485) and the Yeomen Warders (also formed 1485) have traditionally been in Tudor red and gold and indicate that the tradition of English Infantry wearing red coats may long predate the formation of the New Model Army.

Oliver Cromwell wrote to Sir William Spring in 1643: "I had rather have a plain, russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else" ("Oxford Dictionary of Quotations")

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. Blood does in fact show on red clothing as a black stain.

From an early stage the facings (lapels, cuffs and collars) of the red coat were varied, depending upon which regiment the uniform belonged to. Examples were scarlet for the 33rd Regiment of Foot, yellow for the 44th Regiment of Foot and buff for the 3rd Regiment of Foot. An attempt at standardisation was made following the Cardwell Reforms of 1881, with English and Welsh regiments having white, Scottish yellow, Irish green and Royal regiments dark blue. However some regiments were subsequently able to obtain the reintroduction of historic facing colours that had been uniquely theirs.

British soldiers fought in scarlet tunics for the last time at the Battle of Gennis on 30 December 1885. [Haythornthwaite, Philip J. (1995) "The Colonial Wars Sourcebook", London: Arms and Armour Press, ISBN 1854091964, p. 35]

Even after the adoption of khaki field dress in 1902, most British infantry and some cavalry regiments continued to wear scarlet tunics on parade and for off-duty occasions ("walking out dress"), until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Scarlet tunics ceased to be general issue upon British mobilisation in August 1914. The Brigade of Guards resumed wearing their scarlet full dress in 1920 but for the remainder of the Army red coats were only authorised for wear by regimental bands and officers in mess dress or on certain limited social or ceremonial occasions (notably attendance at Court functions or weddings). The reason for not generally reintroducing the distinctive full dress was primarily financial, as the scarlet cloth requires expensive cochineal dye.

As late as 1980, consideration was given to the reintroduction of scarlet as a replacement for the dark blue "No. 1 dress" and khaki "No. 2 dress" of the modern British Army, using cheaper and fadeless chemical dyes instead of cochineal. Surveys of serving soldiers' opinion showed little support for the idea and it was shelved.

Modern use in Commonwealth armies

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. Officers and NCOs of those regiments which previously wore red retain scarlet as the colour of their "mess" or formal evening jackets. Some regiments turn out small detachments, such as colour guards, in scarlet full dress at their own expense. e.g. the Yorkshire regiment before amalgamation.

Scarlet is also retained for some full dress, military band or mess uniforms in the modern armies of a number of the countries that made up the former British Empire. These include the Australian, Jamaican, New Zealand, Fijian, Canadian, Kenyan, Ghanaian, Indian, Singaporean and Pakistani armies.

Red Coat as a symbol

The epithet "redcoats" is familiar throughout much of the former British Empire, even though this colour was by no means exclusive to the British Army. The entire Danish Army wore red coats up to 1848 and particular units in the German, French, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Bulgarian and Romanian armies retained red uniforms until 1914 or later. Amongst other diverse examples, Spanish hussars, Japanese army bandsmen and Serbian generals had red tunics as part of their gala or court dress. However the extensive use of this colour by British, Indian and other Imperial soldiers over a period of nearly three hundred years made red uniform 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 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.

American War of Independence

In the United States, "Redcoat" is particularly associated with those British soldiers who fought against the colonists during the American Revolution. It does not appear to have been a contemporary expression - accounts of the time usually refer to "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" (most notably in Boston around the time of the Boston Massacre) often anachronistically changed in later books to "lobsterbacks".

It was not until the 1880s that the term "redcoat" as a common vernacular expression for the British soldier appears in literary sources such as Kipling's poem, "Tommy" - indicating some degree of popular usage in Britain itself.

However an isolated earlier use of this term relating to the American War of Independence appears in “The Riflemen’s Song at Bennington,” an old folk song that supposedly goes back to the 1770s.The first verse is: "Why come ye hither, Redcoats, your mind what madness fills?In our valleys there is danger, and there's danger on our hills.Oh, hear ye not the singing of the bugle wild and free?And soon you'll know the ringing of the rifle from the tree".

Rationale for red

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.

As noted above, 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. 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 (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".

High visibility was not considered a military disadvantage until the general adoption of rifles in the 1850s, followed by smokeless powder after 1880. The value of drab clothing was quickly recognised by the British Army, who introduced khaki drill for Indian and colonial warfare from the mid-19th century on. As part of a series of reforms following the Second Boer War, (which had been fought in this inconspicuous clothing of Indian origin) a darker khaki serge was adopted in 1902 for service dress in Britain itself. From then on, the red coat continued as a dress item, only, retained for reasons both of national sentiment and its value in recruiting. On the whole, the British military authorities showed more foresight in their balancing of emotional and practical considerations than did their French counterparts, who retained highly visible blue coats and red trousers for active service until several months into World War I.

Material used

Whether scarlet or red, the uniform coat has historically been made of wool with a lining of linen to give shape to the garment. The modern scarlet wool is supplied by "Abimelech Hainsworth" and is much lighter than the traditional material, which was intended for hard wear on active service.

Other military usage

Members of the United States Marine Band wear red uniforms for performances at the White House and elsewhere. This is a rare survival of the common 18th-century practice of having military bandsmen wear coats in reverse colours to the rest of a given unit (U.S. Marines wear blue/black tunics with red facings so U.S. Marine bandsmen wear red tunics with blue/black facings).

Detachments from some units of the Canadian Forces wear ceremonial scarlet uniforms for special occasions or parades. In addition the scarlet uniform is the ceremonial dress for cadets at the Royal Military College of Canada.

The Brazilian Marine Corps also wear the red coat as a part of their ceremonial uniform.

The combined Danish-Norwegian army wore red uniforms from the 17th-century to the Norwegian independence in 1814.

Notes

References

*Barnes, Major R. M.. "History of the Regiments & Uniforms of the British Army". Seeley Service & Co Ltd 1951
*Barthorp, Michael. "British Infantry Uniforms Since 1660". Blandford Press 1982 Ltd 1982. ISBN 1 85079 009 4
*Carman, W.Y.. "British Military Uniforms". Hamlyn Publishing Group 1968.
*Lawson, C.P. "A History of the Uniforms of the British Army". Kaye & Ward Ltd 1967.


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