The British Army of 1914: Its History, Uniforms and Contemporary Continental Armies

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In the United States, "Redcoat" is associated in cultural memory with the British soldiers who fought against the colonists during the American Revolutionary War : the Library of Congress possesses several examples of the uniforms the British Army used during this time [18] Most soldiers that fought the colonists wore the red coat though the Hessian mercenaries and some locally recruited loyalist units had blue or green clothing. Accounts of the time usually refer to British soldiers as "Regulars" or "the King's men", however, there is evidence of the term "red coats" being used informally, as a colloquial expression.

During the Siege of Boston , on 4 January , Gen.

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George Washington uses the term "red coats" in a letter to Joseph Reed. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow! Other pejorative nicknames for British soldiers 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 , owing to the fact that a boiled American lobster is always bright red and near perfect match to the colour of the late 18th century uniform.

The earliest reference to the association with the lobster appears in , just before the French and Indian War. From the modern perspective, the retention of a highly conspicuous colour such as red for active service appears inexplicable and foolhardy, regardless of how striking it may have looked on the parade ground.

British military uniforms from contemporary pictures : Henry VII to the present day

However, 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 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 uniform of a lighter colour.

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 is that coats "be of such colours as you can best provide". During the English Civil War red dyes were imported in large quantities for use by units and individuals of both sides, though this was the beginning of the trend for long overcoats.

The ready availability of red pigment made it popular for military clothing and the dying process required for red involved only one stage. Other colours involved the mixing of dyes in two stages and accordingly involved greater expense; blue, for example, could be obtained with woad, but more popularly it became the much more expensive indigo.

As Carman comments "The red coat was now firmly established as the sign of an Englishman". On traditional battlefields with large engagements, visibility was not considered a military disadvantage until the general adoption of rifles in the s, followed by smokeless powder after The value of drab clothing was quickly recognised by the British Army, who introduced khaki drill for Indian and colonial warfare from the midth 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 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. The British military authorities were more practical in their considerations than their French counterparts, who incurred heavy casualties by retaining highly visible blue coats and red trousers for active service until several months into World War I.

Whether scarlet or red, the uniform coat has historically been made of wool with a lining of a loosely woven wool known as bay 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. The cloth for private soldiers used up until the late 18th century was plain weave broadcloth weighing 16 oz per square yard, made from coarser blends of English wool.

The weights often quoted in contemporary documents are given per running yard, though; so for a cloth of 54" width a yard weighed 24 oz. This sometimes leads to the erroneous statement that the cloth weighed 24 oz per square yard. Broadcloth is so called not because it is finished wide, 54" not being particularly so, but because it was woven nearly half as wide again and shrunk down to finish 54".

This shrinking, or milling, process made the cloth very dense, bringing all the threads very tightly together, and gave a felted blind finish to the cloth. These factors meant that it was harder wearing, more weatherproof and could take a raw edge; the hems of the garment could be simply cut and left without hemming as the threads were so heavily shrunk together as to prevent fraying. Officers' coats were made from superfine broadcloth; manufactured from much finer imported Spanish wool, spun finer and with more warps and wefts per inch.

The result was a slightly lighter cloth than that used for privates, still essentially a broadcloth and maintaining the characteristics of that cloth, but slightly lighter and with a much finer quality finish. Colours; The dye used for privates' coats of the infantry, guard and line, was madder.

A vegetable dye, it was recognised as economical, simple and reliable and remained the first choice for lower quality reds from the ancient world until chemical dyes became cheaper in the latter 19th century. With the Russians advancing in the east, the Germans now had a two-front war on their hands. In October , two months after presenting his memorandum, Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. During the war, in when the Gallipoli Campaign he supported turned into a complete disaster, he was removed as First Lord.

He then returned to active duty with the Royal Scots Fusiliers and actually spent some time in the trenches on the Western Front.

Red coat (British army)

He would assume many other duties during his lifetime, but, of course, his greatest role would be as Britain's wartime Prime Minister during World War 2. Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites. Thanks again, Gary.


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I've read a lot about Churchill over the year and am somewhat familiar with his brilliant grasp of strategies as well as his failures , but his memorandum borders on the uncanny. Churchill is on my very short list of "if I could share a dinner with anyone" options.

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I assume that I've read about the memorandum before, but your Hub managed to finally make my hard head grasp its incredible foresight. My thanks, and two thumbs yup!


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  • Thanks for your kind comment, peachpurple. I tend to write about things I hadn't heard of before that strike my interest and this was definitely one of them. We never learn about the american history, such a shame, glad that i had read this hub, voted up.

    Thanks much for your comment and sharing, Larry. Churchill was a fascinating person and a man of contradictions. He had traits I admire and loathe, but he was always interesting. Had he disappeared after WW1, he would have led a life full of accomplishments and setbacks enough for any person. But, of course, he would go on to his biggest role as British war leader in WW2.

    You have quite the knack for finding obscure and fascinating historical accounts. This article gives some real insight into Churchill's brilliance. Great read. Had to laugh at "Cholmondeley" pronounced "Chumley". The English language is a marvel in the hands of the natives. Nothing to do with SOE that was ferrying agents into occupied territory , another one of Churchill's 'babies'.

    Chumley , RAF, in a little basement office in Central London as part of 'Operation Barclay' in the Double-Cross system and the target was the Abwehr indirectly Adolf Hitler, dubbed by Allied generals as 'our byest general', that's why they didn't want him killed. Very interesting, Alan. This sounds like something the Special Operations Executive might have cooked up.

    The story about opening a second front in the Balkans was part of 'Operation Mincemeat', in in which the dead body of a tramp was used to hoodwink the Germans into moving their men and armour to Greece to repel a landing on German-held territory. The tramp had died from drinking rat poison suicide, read the full story in the book or see the film in a disused London railway warehouse.

    His corpse was dressed in the uniform of a Royal Marine major with paperwork, letters and 'wallet-litter' to convince the Germans an invasion was planned on Greece from North Africa. On Sicily. Thanks, Mel. You're right about Churchill wanting to open a front in the Balkans, but by then the Americans were basically calling the shots and Britain, after standing alone for so many years, were nearly bankrupt and in a weaker position.

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    Winston had it right. Brilliant man, and it makes me wonder how World War II might have turned out differently if we had followed his European strategy. I think he supported opening up a second front against the Germans in the Balkans, didn't he? Might have been a good plan, and it might have stopped the postwar occupation of Eastern Europe by the Russians.

    Winston was looking ahead, as always. Great hub! I agree heartily; Sir Winston was ahead of that time and capacity, but shone regardless. Thanks for a fine read and response. Thanks JPB-- glad you liked it. I appreciate the comment. Yep, Gallipoli was a real disaster. Yet, had the navy forced the straits it likely would have been a strategic blow to the Central Powers and the British, French, Australian and New Zealand troops would not have been sacrificed in their narrow beachheads throughout Sir Winston, whom England can thank for its very existence in present day anything.

    Still, superb work on a favorite subject; much needed and enjoyed! Thanks for voting and sharing, Jaye. Churchill was capable of working with people who disagreed with him-- even insulted him-- because he had supreme confidence in himself and anyone who's read up on Winston knows he could insult with the best. It seemed that he would rather try to fail, rather than not try and so not fail. I didn't realize he had so many interests and hands in so many different pots. Quite an interesting man and true leader!

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    Thanks much, Suzette. Churchill had so many interests besides politics: writing, painting, bricklaying, landscaping, flying, etc. When he served in the trenches in , he would take every opportunity to borrow a plane and fly himself across the channel to England-- as if Clemmie, his wife, didn't have enough to worry about with him at the front, she then had to worry about him crashing his plane.

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