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Red coat (British army)

Red coat (British army)


Red coat or Redcoat is a historical term used
to refer to soldiers of the British Army because of the red uniforms formerly worn by the majority
of regiments. From the mid-17th century to the 19th century, the uniform of most British
soldiers,, included a madder red coat or coatee. From 1873 onwards, the more vivid shade of
scarlet was adopted for all ranks, having previously been worn only by officers, sergeants
and all ranks of some cavalry regiments. History The red coat has evolved from being the British
infantryman’s ordinary uniform to a garment retained only for ceremonial purposes. Its
official adoption dates from February 1645, when the Parliament of England passed the
New Model Army ordinance. The new English Army was formed of 22,000 men, divided into
12 foot regiments of 600 men each, one dragoon regiment of 1000 men, and the artillery, consisting
of 900 guns. The infantry regiments wore coats of Venetian red with white facings. A contemporary
comment on the New Model Army dated 7 May 1645 stated “the men are Redcoats all, the
whole army only are distinguished by the several facings of their coats”. There had been isolated instances of red military
clothing pre-dating its general adoption by the New Model Army. The uniforms of the Yeoman
of the Guard and the Yeomen Warders have traditionally been in Tudor red and gold. The Gentlemen
Pensioners of James I had worn red with yellow feathers”. At Edgehill, the first battle of
the Civil War, the King’s people had worn red coats, as had at least two Parliamentary
regiments”. However none of these examples constituted the national uniform that the
red coat was later to become. The English red coat made its first appearance
on a European continental battlefield at the Battle of the Dunes in 1658. A Protectorship
army had been landed at Calais the previous year and “every man had a new red coat and
a new pair of shoes”. The English name from the battle comes from the major engagement
carried out by the “red-coats”. To the amazement of continental observers they stormed sand-dunes
150 feet high fighting experienced Spanish soldiers from their summits with musket fire
and push of pike. The adoption and continuing use of red by
most British/English soldiers after the Restoration was the result of circumstances rather than
policy, including the relative cheapness of red dyes. Red was by no means universal at
first, with grey and blue coats also being worn. There is no known basis for the 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. Prior to 1707 colonels of regiments made their
own arrangements for the manufacture of uniforms under their command. This ended when a royal
warrant of 16 January 1707 established a Board of General Officers to regulate the clothing
of the army. Uniforms supplied were to conform to the “sealed pattern” agreed by the board.
From an early stage red coats were lined with contrasting colours and turned out to provide
distinctive regimental facings. Examples were blue for the 8th Regiment of Foot, green for
the 5th Regiment of Foot, yellow for the 44th Regiment of Foot and buff for the 3rd Regiment
of Foot. 1747 saw the first of a series of clothing regulations and royal warrants that
set out the various facing colours and distinctions to be borne by each regiment. An attempt at
standardisation was made following the Childers 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 in the Sudan on 30 December 1885. They formed
part of an expeditionary force sent from Britain to participate in the Nile Campaign of 1884-85,
wearing the “home service uniform” of the period including scarlet tunics, although
some regiments sent from India were in khaki drill. A small detachment of infantry which
reached Khartoum by steamer on 28 January 1885 were ordered to fight in their red coats
in order to let the Mahdist rebels know that the real British forces had arrived. Even after the adoption of khaki service dress
in 1902, most British infantry and some cavalry regiments continued to wear scarlet tunics
on parade and for off-duty “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. 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. The Royal Gibraltar Regiment
has a scarlet tunic in its winter dress. 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 British Empire. These include the Australian, Jamaican, New Zealand, Fijian, Canadian, Kenyan,
Ghanaian, Indian, Singaporean, Sri Lankan and Pakistani armies. The Royal Canadian Mounted
Police also wear a Red Serge jacket, based on a British military pattern tunic.
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
Navy and United States Marine Corps bandsmen, and Serbian generals had red tunics as part
of their gala or court dress during this period. In 1827 U.S. Artillery company musicians were
wearing red coats as a reversal of their branch facing colour. 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 veritable icon of the British Empire. The significance of military
red as a national symbol was endorsed by King William IV 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. 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 Revolution 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 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 1776, Gen. George Washington uses the term “red coats” in a letter to Joseph
Reed. In an earlier letter dated 13 October 1775, Washington used a variation of the expression,
stating, “whenever the Redcoat gentry pleases to step out of their Intrenchments.” Major
General John Stark of the Continental Army was purported to have said during the Battle
of Bennington, “There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or
this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!” Other pejorative nicknames for British soldiers
included “bloody backs” and “lobsters” The earliest reference to the association with
the lobster appears in 1740, just before the French and Indian War.
Rationale for red 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. However,
in the days of the musket 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 battles of the
time were also commonly fought in large, conspicuous lines and columns on the battlefield with
volley fire, the individual soldier was not a target by himself, making the obviousness
of his presence immaterial. 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. In his book British Military Uniforms,
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, cultural, and simple chance.
Before the Tudors red as uniforms or rather, cloth livrees was used and provided for the
household personnel -included guard troops- by most European Royal Houses and Italian
or Church principalities, as a matter of official rich distinction and gala of palatine royal
office in traditions dating back to the Roman Empire itself, and continued all through the
Middle Ages by the hierarchy of colors distinguishing the Roman Church.
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 pigmeant 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.
In financial terms the only cheaper alternative was the grey-white of undyed wool — an
option favoured by the French, Austrian, Spanish and other Continental armies. The formation
of the first English standing army saw red clothing as the standard dress. 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 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, 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. 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.
Material used 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.
Infantry NCOs, some cavalry regiments and many volunteer corps used various mock scarlets;
a brighter red but derived from cheaper materials than the cochineal used for officers coats.
Various dye goods were used for these middle quality reds, but lac, pigment extracted from
the vegetable resin shellac, was the most common basis.
Officers’ superfine broadcloth was dyed true scarlet with cochineal, a dye derived from
insects. Much more expensive, but a colour world famous and the speciality of 18th-century
English dyers. 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. 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 until the occupation of Norway by the Swedes in 1814. Most Danish
Army infantry, cavalry and artillery regiments continued to wear red coats until they were
replaced by dark blue service tunics in 1848. The modern Royal King’s People of Denmark
continues to wear the historic red on special ceremonial occasions.
The Irish Brigade of the French Army wore red coats supposedly to show their origins
and continued loyalty to the cause of Jacobitism. Red coats were also worn by the Swiss mercenary
regiments in the French Army from the mid-17th to early 19th centuries.
Venezuela At the beginning of the 19th century, the
Ejército Libertador, inherited from the British Legion the red hussar cavalry uniforms used
by the Company of Honor Guard of the Liberator Simon Bolivar.
In present-day Venezuela the red coat is part of the parade uniforms of the Regimiento de
Guardia de Honor; the Compañia de Honor “24 de Junio” and the new National Militia Bolivariana. Gallery
17th century 18th century
19th century 20th–21st century
Sources Barnes, Major R. M.. History of the Regiments
& Uniforms of the British Army. Seeley Service & Co. 
Barthorp, Michael. British Infantry Uniforms Since 1660. Blandford Press. ISBN 978-1-85079-009-9. 
Carman, W.Y.. British Military Uniforms. Hamlyn Publishing Group. 
See also Thin Red Line References


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