Ever wondered why the iconic symbol of British Empire and military prowess – the’Red Coats’ – are red? The answer might surprise you!
Why did the British Army Wear Red ?
Its official adoption dates from February 1645, when in the middle of the English Civil War, the English Parliament passed the New Model Army ordinance.
Before the New Model Army Act each regiment had their own, often rather cobbled together, uniforms, with red, blue, green, brown whatever colour coat the colonel could rustle up. On the battlefield it was hard to tell friend from foe, so the Colonels and Generals met before hand to agree a ‘battlesign’, a temporary and makeshift badge. Sometimes it was a bit of paper in the hat band or on the helmet, sometimes a sprig of broom or other local plant, sometimes code words were agreed for troops to shout out at each other in case of confusion.
The New Model Army standardised provision of equipment and supply to some extent, and this included uniforms. As it happened a decent amount of red dyed cloth was going cheap in London when the quartermasters in charge of military coats were looking for material so that is what they bought. Having all your men kitted out identically also helped to reduce mistakes in the fog of battle via ‘friendly fire’. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 it was continued – mainly because red dye was cheap.
When did the British Army Stop Wearing Red ?
Technically they haven’t. Even today on ceremonial duty many regiments still wear red coats. But if you mean when did they stop wearing them in combat then the ‘official’ answer was when Khaki Uniform(or Khaki drill) was introduced in the Boer war.
However it wasn’t a sudden change. The British Army had been using Khaki on and off for years before that.
The conditions of warfare began to change in the 19th century with the introduction, in the 1850s, of rifles, instead of the less accurate smooth bore muskets, and smokeless powder after 1880. The previous advantage of the visibility of Red coats through the smoke of war was eroded and with more accurate firearms the Red coats became sitting targets.
The value of drab clothing was quickly recognised by the British Army, who introduced khaki drill for Indian and colonial warfare from the about mid-19th century on.
The Red Coats remained until the first Afghan War when lighter sand colour uniforms were worn. The British Army obviously stood out against the back drop of the desert sand, (the thin red line) so a change of colour was called for.
However, despite the change in the colour the Regiments of the British Army for Dress occasions still retain their more formal “coloured” coats, some are red, some are green, some are black, some are navy. Each regiment has its own uniform and dress code, but in battle, they all wear the same uniform.
There was a joke at the time of the red coat … the British wore redcoats to hide blood…and the French Infantry wore brown trousers to hide…you get the picture.
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