One could not imagine a typical British Empire soldier with his upright posture, neatly worn uniform, and even more neatly trimmed mustache. It wasn’t just because it was trendy to sport the look but because it was actually part of the mandatory things that the soldiers had to adhere to and remained so for nearly sixty years. Safe to say that the British took their mustache gaming seriously.

Mustache Era

The mustache tradition, before it became part of the British Empire, was picked from a number of different cultures. This was a result of the enormous empire that spanned over a quarter of the Earth’s total land area and a quarter of its population. According to The National Archives,

It covered around 25% of the world’s land surface, including large swathes of North America, Australia, Africa and Asia, while other areas – especially in South America – were closely linked to the empire by trade.

Meanwhile, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development gave the actual figures, “it also oversaw around 412 million inhabitants or around 23% of the world’s population at the time.”

During the Napoleonic Wars in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the British had their first “mustache encounters” with the French troops wearing styled mustaches that they believed were the “appurtenances of terror.” The macho image was adopted by some of the British officers, who then started to wear their mustaches.

At the same time in India, beard and mustache growth was rampant as bare faces were scorned and perceived as being child-like and unmanly. For them, a bearded face meant power, wisdom, virility, and masculinity. The British troops assigned to the Arab countries also  began adopting the look and, in turn, earned more respect from the Indian population.

By the 1830s, many British servicemen overseas were sporting the mustached look. However, back home in England, the British boys were “going native,” and Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie, wanted the practice to stop. However, the mustache fever could not be halted. In the 1850s, it had become a mark of ruggedness in civilians as well as soldiers and sailors.

Part of the Uniform

In 1854, the Commander in Chief of the Bombay army of the East India Company decided to make mustaches mandatory for the European troops under him. Then during the Crimean War, more British soldiers grew their mustaches to help warm them up in the extremely cold environment. After the war and returning back home, their bearded, worn-out look became the epitome of strength and courage. As Queen Victoria wrote that time, the troops “were the picture of real fighting men… They all had their long beards and were heavily laden with a large knapsack.” The civilians loved the image too and started to copy the mustached look.

Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener, Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, British Secretary of State for War. (Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was in 1860, four years after the end of the Crimean War, that the mustache officially became compulsory and part of the uniform for all the Armed Forces of the British forces and the British Empire as a whole. The Command No. 1695 of the King’s Regulations 1906 read: the hair of the head will be cut short, and the chin and under-lip will be shaved cleanly. Whiskers, if worn, will be trimmed and moderate in length.

Men being competitive types, and mindful of regs about it covering the the upper lip, the mustaches got wider and wider, some extending to connect with long sideburns called “Mutton Chops” to become what became known as the “Imperial Beard.”

Wax was used to smooth and shape their whiskers to keep them “neat” in appearance and special teacups were even designed to prevent one’s mustache wax from melting into a soldier’s hot brew.  It got pretty crazy.


Shaving the Rules

The mustache regulation would fall away by the time the First World War broke out. In 1916, it was dropped, and troops could shave their faces clean again. One of the main reasons was that facial hair could sometimes get in the way and prevent the effective use of gas mask seals. It was General Sir Nevil Macready who officially signed the order to abolish the mustache requirement on October 6, 1916. He happily did so as he was not a fan of the hairy look and perhaps one of those who immediately shaved off their mustache after signing the order.

Various types of gas masks used during the first world war. (Halsey, Francis Whiting, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Exceptions were made for those under religious groups like Muslims and Sikhs, although they should still shave somehow to make sure that their mustache would not get in the way of the gas mask to create an airtight seal.

Today, section 5.366 of the Queen’s Regulations states that “If a mustache is worn, it is to be trimmed and not below the line of the lower lip.”