Myth # 97: The British soldiers wore red coats because it wouldn’t show the blood.

History Myths Debunked

Ben Swenson, former history teacher and reenactor, said he often heard the myth that the British wore red because it wouldn’t show blood if they were shot. “Considering that the rest of their uniforms were usually white, this made no sense. . .  I seem to recall something about red being the cheapest dye for a country that had a substantial military budget.  Not 100% sure on that one.”

You’re on the mark, Ben. For more than a century, inexpensive synthetic dyes have been able to create any color on the color wheel, so the world has forgotten the message of power and wealth that intense color once conveyed. People from the past craved bright colors, but only the rich and royal could afford expensive dyes and the fabrics that showed them off. So tight was the link between the aristocracy and color that in many societies, laws restricted strong colors…

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10 replies

  1. You are correct, it had nothing to do with the blood stain myth, it was purely a mix of financial and availability issues!

    For a number of centuries the British Army was made up of regiments recruited, equipped and clothed by the Lords and Dukes of the various regions of the country. In funding such regiments from their own ‘purse’ they had little guidance to follow prior to 1594 when an order was issued that “coats be of such colours as you can best provide” So it was usual for the Lords and Dukes to purchase the cheapest clothing possible. The cheap cost and availability of red pigments coupled with the fact that the process of dyeing a garment red was a single stage process rather than a multiple stage process kept the costs down. Indeed the only cheaper alternative available was to leave the cloth undyed. Hence red became the most popular colour and thus the culturally accepted colour of British Servicemen, until the latter half of the 19th century. The advent of and smokeless powder meant that the smoke that had shrouded the battlefields was lifted and visibility increased. This coupled with the use of longer range rifles rather than muskets put soldier’s lives at risk so the bright colours of battlefield dress were consigned to history!

    • Thanks for the informative comment. And yes, some militaries did not adopt camouflage uniform until World War I. However, if I’m not mistaken, red colour used was not very high-quality, so “redcoats” would very soon not be in the vibrant red colors as in the films, but rather dull, washed-out colors – still not good for camouflage, but not as bad as TV would have you believe.

      Also, many militaries during the age of musket intentionally provided their troops with vibrant uniforms for identification reasons – due to bad visibility uniforms had to be both noticeable and very different to allow identification. The only exception to that rule I can think of were Austrians, who used white uniforms as a form of camouflage.

      • You are correct though the quality of the red used was dependent on the money provided by the Lord or Duke to equip their regiment!

        As a general rule though the lower commissioned officers would use a mock scarlet, a bright red derived from cheaper pigments than the cochineal used for higher ranking officers. Various dye sources were available for these middle quality reds but lac pigment extracted from shellac was probably the most common basis for these coats. The non commissioned officer’s red coat would usually be dyed with a mixture of cochineal and madder-red to produce a lesser scarlet, brighter than the rose madder red worn by lower ranks but cheaper than the pure cochineal dyed garments of the senior officers. Rose madder was used to dye the private’s coats as it was abundant and very cheap.

        As you pointed out though the reds would fade over time to a dirty pink / brown colour, the madder dyed coats much more so than the cochineal dyed coats.

        The bright regimental colours were used to help identify friend from foe at close quarters on smoke filled, confused battlefields. Though Britain introduced khaki drill for Indian and colonial warfare in the middle of the 19th century a British regiment last fought in scarlet in the Sudan in 1885. Immediately following the Second Boer War dark khaki serge was adopted as the service dress for the whole British Army consigning the red coat to continue only as a dress item.

  2. The Spartans supposedly used dark red to hide their wounds. Centurions of the Roman army carried spectacular head dress, parallel to their shoulders, above their helmets, to be seen from afar.

  3. I’ve always wondered what a function first army would look like in the musket era.

    On one hand, bright colours might be good for identification, and perhaps instill uniformity, but the enemy can see them too. That and the big problem is that I guess even a uniform can enforce culture. Rigidity may seem at first like a good thing, but if you think about it, from an OODA standpoint, it comes at the expense of other more desirable things. Perhaps it is because it was the era of aristocrats and officers wanted to be “superior” to the rest of society in their dress too.

    • Due to the weapons of the era, rigidity was partly required. Musket could not hit a man at hundred yards, so volley fire was rule of the day. Close ranks also allowed defense against cavalry. However, using loose order of battle reduced casualties against artillery, and was very effective against typical close-rank formations of the day, as French Revolutionary Wars demonstrated, and military rulebooks did lead to rigidity. But uniforms were a must as otherwise it would be hard to identify units in smoke-covered battlefield (or even otherwise, but smoke was a reason for typical vibrant colors).

    • I do agree that infantry squares were very good versus cavalry, but were very vulnerable to artillery.

      I suppose that is the reason why it led to trench warfare. Eventually artillery became overwhelming, as did the availability of rapid fire (first in the form of hand cranked Gatling weapons, them weapons like the Maxim machine gun).

      There must be some compromise between rigidity then and initiative. Perhaps excellent coordination on the group level? Have you read Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict describing the differences between early vs late Napoleon for example?

      • Trench warfare existed since middle ages, but yes it was artillery and machine-guns which led to modern trench warfare. World War I was the last time cavalry was utilized on a large scale in the West (in the East, it was still useful in World War II for guerilla-style warfare due to mobility).

        And yes I have read Boyd. Excellent piece, I should probably reread it ASAP.

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