U is for Uniform

Colour Sergeant's TunicUniform is the twenty-first code word in the phonetic alphabet for many international organisations, including NATO, the Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization. And CB radio enthusiasts.

But the uniforms I have in mind are of the more traditional variety from the Latin uniformis meaning “one shape” and associated with the military, emergency services, school children and paramilitary organisations.

Although we think of ancient warriors, such as the Spartans, Terracotta Army and the Roman Legions, being dressed uniformly, there were variations in detail within units to suggest that the concept of standardised dress and armour was more custom than deliberate practice.

Uniform dress became the norm with the adoption of regimental systems, initially by the French army in the mid 17th century, like the photo above that I took (through glass) at the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in Ashton-under-Lyne.

Grenadier WingsIt is the scarlet tunic approved for all ranks of the British Army in 1872, this example belonging to a Colour Sergeant of the 63rd Regiment, someone who had proven his courage in battle.

Some items of uniform appear to be more decorative than practical, but they did serve a purpose, like the Grenadier “wings” shown right.

Grenadiers were chosen for their strength and size and would lead the charge in battle. The “wings” would further emphasise their shoulders to make them appear even more formidable to the enemy.

Pith HelmetSometimes uniform had to be adapted to suit the conditions in which they used, like the pith helmet on the left. These lightweight cloth-covered helmets were made of cork or pith and were designed to shade the wearer’s head and face from the sun.

Memorably they were worn by soldiers during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and commemorated in oils and on film.

Originally covered in white cloth, the troops dyed theirs with tea, mud or other makeshift means of camouflage. Subsequently khaki-coloured pith helmets became standard issue for active tropical service.

BarracksAnd khaki became the colour of every season for soldiers once it was deemed foolish to wander round a battlefield dressed as a bright red target.

But history lingers on. Right is a reconstruction of where a squaddie would have hung his uniform at Ladysmith Barracks, headquarters of the Manchester Regiment until 1958.

It was built in 1843 but renamed Ladysmith following the Boer War to commemorate the siege of that small, but strategically important South African township during the Second Boer War.

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7 comments… Add yours
  • rog 8th June 2011

    one fights conformity sans uniform. uniformity, in some circumstances, can be good!
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • VioletSky 8th June 2011

    I never understood the concept of bright scarlet uniforms in a battlefield. Such a beautiful outfit that gets all covered in mud and blood and gore. Seems a waste.

  • Wanda 8th June 2011

    I like the khaki color ~ and more servicable I’m sure. But how can you enjoy a military parade without bright reds and blues.

    I just read about the Zulu war on another post. Very interesting.

  • Leslie 8th June 2011

    A unique post for this week! I, too, often wondered why the British wore bright red on the battlefield – the may as well have painted a brilliant X on their pith helmets! lol

    abcw team

  • Mr Parrot 8th June 2011

    The generally held belief is that the Britsh wore red uniforms so that blood from a wound wouldn’t show which is rather fanciful.

    Another explanation is that red uniforms made it difficult for enemy scouts to assess troop numbers.

    Personally, I think they just look better!

  • Gattina 8th June 2011

    That uniforms were very colorful in until the 19th century I see every two years here in Waterloo when the reconstitution of the Waterloo battle takes place and there are all European Uniforms present ! It’s so funny when the soldiers do their shopping wearing glasses and modern watches !
    ABC team

  • Yorkshire Pudding 8th June 2011

    I don’t like to see schoolchildren wearing uniforms – even though schools I have worked in have obliged me to waste precious time assisting in the enforcement of petty uniform regulations. We expect children to be creative, free thinking and individualistic and yet we force them to dress just the same as their classmates.


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