1882 | London

Scarlet Tape

Camouflaging the redcoats.

Colonel Barne rose to call attention to the dress of the army, and said that, had the Forms of the House permitted, he should have been glad to have moved the following Resolution:

“That the present conspicuous color and tight-fitting dress of the army interferes with the efficiency of the soldier and causes the unnecessary loss of many valuable lives.”

He had brought forward the subject last year, when the secretary of state for war admitted a change ought to be made in this respect, and suggested that he should bring the matter on when the estimates for soldiers’ clothing were discussed. First, with regard to the colors worn, it had been found by the emperor Napoleon that the most conspicuous were white, black, gamboge, and then scarlet; thus the dress of our army was composed of the most conspicuous colors that could be found. The rifle corps, for instance, who ought to be the least visible, were clothed in black, which was the second most conspicuous color. Modern warfare consisted largely of battles between two lines of skirmishers, each armed with weapons of precision, so that the loss of life was necessarily conspicuous among the more conspicuous body. This was proved by the experience of our men in the conflict with the Boers in South Africa, and more recently by the testimony of the Austrians in Herzegovina. Our losses in the Transvaal War were, generally speaking, due to the superior marksmanship of the Boers, and their ability to pick out our men, whereas the English soldiers complained that they could see nothing of the enemy except their heads. It was found that the gray dress of the Rifles was far less conspicuous. That color was also advocated by military and volunteer officers who had tested the point. He also advocated a change of color on the ground of economy, for the scarlet dye took the oil out of the wool and impaired its durability. He objected to the tight-fitting tunic, because it did not allow the lungs to expand in a natural way when a man began to ascend a hill, or to do any kind of hard work. The regulation trouser was also objectionable because it gave an immense drag at the knee, especially if it got wet through. He should like to see the British troops dressed in a Norfolk jacket, breeches loose at the knee, and gaiters, with a light helmet, which would not impede the men in their work.

Venus at Her Toilet (detail), by Jan van Kessel the Elder, c. 1650. © Johnny van Haeften Gallery, London / Bridgeman Images.

Lord Elcho said he entirely agreed with the honorable and gallant member Colonel Barne that an unnecessary expenditure had been thrown upon officers by the alteration in the collar and shoulder straps, also that soldiers should wear a dress thoroughly adapted to the work they had to do, and did not think he could add anything to what he had said.

He believed it was a fact that if two men, equal in all other respects, were set to walk, one dressed in knickerbockers or a kilt, and the other in the present uniform of a soldier, in course of the day the former would very considerably outwalk the other; and, besides, trousers were not so fitted for work as other descriptions of clothing. The secretary of state for war was the person really responsible for the efficiency of the uniform; and he wondered how he could bear to see the sentries with trousers so tight at the knees and baggy below that it seemed impossible for them to go up- and downhill without splitting them. The trousers were, in fact, the very reverse of what they ought to be. It was the custom to ridicule the “pegtops” worn by the French troops; but they were much more sensible than the trousers of the English soldier. Then, in the cavalry, the clothes were so tight that the men could hardly mount, and only did so at imminent risk of splitting their trousers. As regards the color, the War Office Volunteer Committee had reported in favor of volunteers being clothed in red. He had on his right his honorable and gallant friend the member Sir Robert Loyd Lindsay, who was a member of that committee. He was a great advocate of scarlet and, having won his Victoria Cross in red, naturally thought there was no color like scarlet for the British soldier. But Lord Elcho did not share in that partiality; he had great hopes that, instead of all the volunteers becoming red, there was some chance from something he had heard that the working dress of the army would be made gray. He was told that experiments were being made at the present with a view of testing what really was the effect of color at distances in Woolwich marshes and elsewhere. With the small army we were able to put into the field these were matters of the greatest importance, for it simply meant whether in action a greater or less proportion of our men were to be hit or not. Recently, wishing to try some experiments with a rangefinder, and sighting a Martini-Henry rifle, he had a target erected at two thousand yards distance. Had that target been gray, he would not have seen it at the distance; but he covered it with red Turkey twill and saw it flaming at the other end like a danger signal on a railway. Whether they could see men or not at that distance would depend on the color of their dress; and with the view of effecting a saving of life, as well as on the score of convenience and comfort, the question of uniform was one that should be thoroughly gone into.

About This Text

From a debate in the House of Commons. In 1645, during the first English Civil War, Parliament mandated scarlet uniforms with the cost to be docked from soldiers’ pay; “the men are redcoats all,” read a newsletter’s report. By the first Boer War, in 1880–81, new military tactics had made bright dress a battlefield liability. “I should be sorry to see the day when the English Army is no longer in red,” said Prince George in 1883 at a banquet. “I am not one of those who think it at all desirable to hide ourselves too much.” By 1900 active British troops were sporting khaki.