They say your clothes speak for you, which is true on some levels. Sometimes, depending on what someone wears, we can somehow tell if someone is young or old, conservative or liberated, rich or poor. This also applies to the military and the uniforms that the soldiers wear. What they wear are reflections of their rank, while the decorations speak for their experiences and promotions. Military uniforms could also send out certain messages and impressions to the enemies. At the grassroots, uniforms should protect the wearers from weather, bullets, and the other dangers of war without restricting them. Unfortunately, that is not always the case and what’s sadder is that these design mistakes could cost the lives of the soldiers.
High, Stiff Leather Collar
In Europe during the 18th century, impractical uniforms were a thing that rules were implemented on hairstyles, towering helmets, and heavily buttoned boots with the purpose of maintaining discipline among the soldiers, regardless of how impractical these were. One of these was the high, stiff leather collar called the stock worn by Britain’s Royal Marines and the US Marine Corps. The collar was thick and three and a half inches wide. Its intent was to force the wearer to keep their chin high and their neck unbent. It might have also been useful in warding off sword and cutlass blows to the neck. In practical use, however, the collar made it difficult for Marines to turn their heads to use the sights on their rifles and limited also limited their mobility when using edged weapons. They were adopted around 1798 and finally discarded in 1875.
The modern Marine Corps dress uniform has retained a semblance of the neck stock in its collar to keep the head and chin of the Marine high, though it is not so high that the Marine cannot turn his head.
The collar was worn by fastening two buckles at the back, which were 2.5 to 3.5 inches tall in the front and tapered toward the back. Failure to wear the uncomfortable collar would result in punishment. As General George Elliott remarked, the “effect of the stock when buckled around a man’s neck was to hold his head high in the air, like geese looking for rain.”
Red Uniforms and White Crossed Bands
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the British army often used white bands that would run across their red coats which basically made them an easy target for the enemy riflemen. It seemed like a great idea when the British iconic red uniform was introduced. None like it was used yet in the past, and they sure looked share, but the bright red color also made it impossible for them to conceal their movements on the field. Even when lying down in the prone position they were still visible. The X crossed leather belts worn over the uniform worked like a bullseye marker for enemy soldiers to easily aim for their chests. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that they realized the hazard of their uniforms.
There has been lots of speculation about why these uniforms were red, including the claim that it concealed the blood of wounds from other soldiers in the ranks to keep up their morale. The truth is probably much more simple. Generals would conduct the course of a battle on high ground watching their troops in their formations on the field. The red color probably just made them easier to identify not only for the generals but also for friendly artillery gunners looking through the haze of smoke trying to make out whether the body of troops in front of them was on their side or the enemies. The soldiers wearing that uniform were also in a “royal” army commanded by the king or queen and the colors of Great Britain was Red, White and Blue in that order.
During World War I, they also made the same mistake when they shifted to a more subtle, not screaming red uniform. However, they gave their men white armbands to make it easier to identify friends from foes at night. This happened during the Gallipoli campaign when Britain, France, and Russia sought to weaken the Ottoman Empire. You know who else found it easier to identify friends from foes using the white armbands? Turkish sharpshooters.
Le pantalon rouge, c’est la France
Speaking of changing to neutral colors that would blend in, most European countries had already changed their traditional brightly colored uniforms by 1914. Most of the soldiers were already wearing grays, khakis, and some other related shades, understanding very well that the color was a matter of life and death for their troops. Not the French.
France was the last to resist change, and they had to learn the hard way first. During the Balkan Wars if 1912 to 1913, the Minister for War, Adolphe Messimy, realized that their smart uniforms were getting their soldiers identified and killed very easily. He suggested having the uniform changed, which resulted in outrage and accusations that it was ruining the national pride and good appearance of the uniform. As Echo de Paris wrote that time,
To banish all that is colorful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect is to go contrary both to French taste and military function.
And so the French went to war with their red trousers, basically marching their way to their deaths. It was only after thousands of them died that they truly understood the need to change the color.