London, Great Britain—The British army is considering a change in its facial hair policy.
The issue was raised by Captain Dave Somerville, serving in the Royal Engineers, in a letter to Soldier Magazine, an official publication of the army.
“We are an organisation that needs to recruit and putting up artificial barriers because of an inability to change isn’t what we are about,” wrote Captain Somerville.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Rachel Emmerson of the army’s Employment Branch, the facial hair policy is regularly reviewed to mirror operational and social realities. She suggested that the policy might change in the future.
“As the Service becomes more diverse and we update policy to support represented faiths, we expect the sight of serving officers and soldiers with beards to become more familiar. We must also ensure the Army attracts as many potential applicants as possible while maintaining the right appearance policies to protect the culture and ethos from which we derive our operational effectiveness,” said Lt Col Emmerson.
In the British army, facial hair falls under dress regulation. The protocol is for soldiers to be clean-shaven when in uniform. Exceptions can be made with the permission of each unit’s commanding officer.
However, Lt Col Emmerson did raise some reasonable points as to why facial hair is restricted to specific jobs or operational units. “Operational effectiveness cannot be jeopardized, and facial hair must be modified if required to ensure protective equipment does its job.”
She is referring to the requirement for respirator masks to fit properly and easily.
There are, however, some units in the British army that do allow beards. Normally, those units are comprised of soldiers from a certain religious background (Sikhs, for example).
But there is also a specific operational specialties that is authorized to have facial hair: The Pioneer Sergeant. Pioneers are allowed to grow a big, bushy beard. The tradition began in the 18th century when British infantry regiments would allocate a Pioneer Sergeant to every company. The Pioneer’s job would be to march in regiment’s vanguard, on parade and in operations, in order to clear the way. For that purpose, they carried—and still do—axes, saws, pickaxes, and billhooks, among other tools. Quite reasonably, they were also the biggest and strongest men in the regiment (they also doubled as regimental blacksmiths).
Modern Pioneer Sergeants are responsible for a unit’s woodwork, carpentry, and welding, among others, tasks. They also wear an apron on parade, which was used to shield their clothing.
The Royal Navy does allow properly groomed facial hair. The policy stems from a tradition: ships were deployed for months and even years, sometimes without reaching land—their replenishment happened via supply ships. Water, thus, was a precious commodity reserved only for hydration. Using even a small amount for shaving seemed a waste.
Interestingly, the Royal Navy doesn’t permit mustaches. The Army, however, had a mandatory mustache requirement of every rank for 56 years (1860-1916).