If you have ever been to London and witnessed the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace you have been fortunate. Watching the visually stunning troops in their resplendent scarlet uniforms and Bearskin hats, for which they’ve become famous, is a sight to behold. I witnessed the change of the guard many years ago on a Labor Day and it was well worth it.
Five Foot Regiments of Foot Guards, part of the Household Division, provide the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace. Those are the Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards, the Scots Guards, the Irish Guards, and the Welsh Guards.
The troops have two roles in the British Army: They are first and foremost conventional trained infantry soldiers who carry out operational duties worldwide. Yet, they also perform ceremonial tasks by participating in State and Royal ceremonial events. They are somewhat akin to the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) that is stationed in Ft. Myer, VA.
The wearing of the Bearskin hat isn’t only an English practice. There are 14 armies that still wear it, albeit today strictly for ceremonial purposes. Even the Governor’s Foot Guard of the Connecticut State Guard wears it. In the U.S. Army, only the Drum Major of the U.S. Army Band (Pershing’s Own) wears a version of the Bearskin Hat that is very similar to the British.
But the Bearskin wasn’t always just a ceremonial headpiece for military troops.
Bearskins first made their appearances on Europe’s battlefields in the mid-17th century. About a century later, both the French and Prussian armies had units wearing them.
During the American Revolution, British Grenadier troops wore a form of the Bearskin called a Bearskin Mitre Cap (see image below). Britain first authorized the wearing of Bearskins proper following the Battle of Waterloo. Initially, the honor was only given to the Grenadier Guards but later bestowed it on more units.
The purpose of the Bearskins was to make the troops appear taller and thus more imposing to their enemies. Each Bearskin today is 18 inches tall and weighs about a pound and a half.
Guardsmen were tall, to begin with: Prior to World War II, to be a Grenadier Guard in Queen’s Company, a recruit had to be at least six foot and two inches in height. (That is no longer the case but the unit still tries to recruit tall soldiers.)
But did you know that the Bearskin hats are actually made from North American black bears?
The fur is real bearskin. It comes from Canada’s annual culling of the North American black bear, which is conducted to keep the population of the bears in check.
To that end, approximately 20,000 bears are annually culled legally by the Canadian government, and the manufacturer of the British uniforms purchase animal hides to produce the iconic hat. The practice has come under fire from various animal rights organizations that want to end it.
Back in 2005 Labour MP, Chris Mullin called for a ban on the wearing of Bearskin Hats stating that they had, “No military significance and involved unnecessary cruelty.”
In response, the British Ministry of Defense began a two year trial of other man-made materials. Other countries also tried to move away from natural fur. Nevertheless, all substitutes were rejected. Today the Bearskin Hat continues to be made from the fur of the North American black bear.