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Seeing red


On the eve of the First World War, most of the combatant armies had neutral-coloured uniforms: the Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Italians, Serbs and Bulgarians wore various shades of grey, the British (and other British Empire troops), Americans, Russians, Turks, Belgians, Greeks and Japanese various shades of buff or khaki, the Poles and Portuguese dull blue, and the Romanians dull green. The only exceptions were the French.

I first became aware of this when I recently saw (for the second time in my life – the first was just after it came out in 1969) Richard Attenborough’s film of the stage play Oh! what a lovely war, which recaptures the mood of the First World War through the often ironic but often also heart-rending British songs written at the time. Early in the film we see a French army officer, finely played in wonderfully French-accented English by the actor Jean-Pierre Cassel – and to my amazement he is dressed in a sky-blue jacket and bright-red trousers, which were still the official French army uniform at the outbreak of war.

There was a time when armies went to war dressed as colourfully as possible – part of the myth of war as a glorious thing that all young men should be proud to take part in. The uniforms at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 were a splendid mixture of primary colours, gold and silver braid and dazzling plumes and pompons that surely caught the young women’s fancy as their menfolk marched by in serried ranks, and attracted those menfolk into the army in the first place. Another, more serious advantage of all this colour was that it enabled soldiers to tell who were their comrades and who their enemies – which was very useful on the battlefields of the time. In those days gunpowder emitted tell-tale puffs of smoke as it ignited in rifles or cannon, and soldiers generally fought in much the same serried ranks as they had marched off in, so being conspicuous was not yet thought of as a drawback; and a mass of colour – red, in particular, is now known to make people feel more aggressive – was a good way to strike fear into your foes.

As late as 1879, British soldiers were still going into battle dressed in the bright-red jackets that had earned them the nickname ‘redcoats’ (as they were known to the Americans during the War of Independence back in the 1770s). Until very recently the red colour had been made using an ancient dyestuff from the madder plant, which tended to fade with time to a less conspicuous brownish-pink; but in 1873 this had been replaced by a far brighter mineral dye that did not fade, and it was in these scarlet jackets that the British army invaded the kingdom of the Zulus, just north of their South African colony Natal.

Whether or not the conspicuous red coats contributed to their defeat, the British were routed by the Zulus at the Battle of Isandhlwana in early 1879. The 1964 British film Zulu, which depicts the heroic British defence of Rorke’s Drift at the tail end of the battle, shows the soldiers wearing scarlet coats that stood out like blazing torches against the dun-coloured landscape of the South African veld; and the Zulu king Cetshwayo is said to have sent his men forth with the command ‘March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.’ It is just conceivable that ‘red’ was a reference to the British soldiers’ skin colour, for they burned easily in the subtropical heat (the battle was fought in January, midsummer in the southern hemisphere), and the local Afrikaner (‘Boer’) population nicknamed them rooineks (‘rednecks’), to this day a rude word in Afrikaans for British people or English-speaking South Africans; but their clothing seems a more likely reason. Sadly for Cetshwayo and his people, the British returned in force later that year and crushed the Zulu kingdom forever. Today its name survives in the name of the modern South African province KwaZulu-Natal.

In any case, by the time hostilities broke out for the second time between the British Empire and South Africa’s white Afrikaner majority in 1899 (the ‘Boer War’, now also known as the ‘Anglo-Boer War’, or to Afrikaners die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog, ‘the Second Freedom War’), the troops shipped out from Southampton to Cape Town were all dressed in khaki, a word borrowed from the Hindustani (Hindi/Urdu) language of India and meaning ‘earth-coloured’, in turn derived from the Persian word for ‘soil’, khâk. As mentioned at the start of this post, within ten years of the Boer War ending most European armies had likewise adopted neutral-coloured uniforms. The reason was, quite simply, the advent of modern industrialised warfare; and it was the Boer War that made clear how fundamentally things had changed.

Whereas being conspicuous had previously not been considered a problem, from the late 19th century onwards it was an increasingly serious one. The invention of smokeless gunpowder in the 1880s meant that enemy riflemen could no longer be pinpointed by the puffs of smoke from their gun barrels; so snipers were suddenly a far greater danger. Although heavy artillery still emitted some smoke, battlefields were no longer obscured by thick clouds of it; so soldiers in brightly coloured uniforms could now be picked out at a great distance, especially with the steady improvement in optical instruments such as field glasses (binoculars). With the simultaneous improvement in long-range artillery (shells could now be fired over distances of many miles, and had highly accurate sighting), marching into battle in serried parade-ground ranks was increasingly risky, as a single well-aimed shell could kill or incapacitate hundreds of soldiers at one go. And whereas in earlier times soldiers had had to reload their rifles after every single shot, from the late 19th century onwards magazine-fed ‘repeater’ rifles were increasingly common and efficient, allowing the men to unleash an unceasing hail of bullets on their enemies. The terrifying noise would be compared to thousands of frying pans sizzling at once.

Long familiar with the local terrain, the Afrikaners were able to exploit the advantages of mobility, rapidly striking and retreating again; they could all ride on horseback, whereas most of their British opponents could not. And what particularly helped them despite their relatively small numbers – they began the war with fewer than 50,000 fighters – was the discovery of the world’s largest gold deposits near Johannesburg in 1886. Before long the Afrikaner ‘South African Republic’ (a.k.a. Transvaal) was the richest country on earth; and that meant it could afford the very best in modern armaments. These included the latest version of Germany’s Mauser repeater rifles (which came onto the market in 1895) and German Krupp and French Creusot long-range cannon. Sensing that it was only a matter of time before the British would again attempt to overrun his country, Transvaal’s president Paul Kruger ordered large quantities of both – just in time for the Boer War.

Used to fighting local wars against ill-trained, ill-equipped tribesman in far-flung colonies, the British army went into the Boer War on the assumption that they were facing a ‘mere handful of Dutch peasants’ and that the whole thing would be ‘over by Christmas’. To their shock, the war was to drag on for three whole years, with some of Britain’s worst military defeats in its history. The relatively untrained Afrikaners had mastered the art of surprise, knew how and where to hide in the vastness of the veld, and used their brand-new weapons to the best of their ability. Their telegraph communications with Pretoria in the north-east were at least as good as the British communications with Cape Town in the far more distant south-west. In short, this was no ‘mere handful of Dutch peasants’; and they were fighting tooth and nail for their independence.

Although the Afrikaners were eventually defeated – partly by General Kitchener’s barbarous expedient of rounding up their women and children from their farms and confining them in some of the world’s first ‘concentration camps’, where they died in their tens of thousands from disease and neglect – they showed the world’s armies where modern warfare was heading. Although they did not wear uniforms (since they were never a formal army), their rough tweed jackets, slouch hats and crumpled trousers enabled them to fade into the background of the veld. Serried ranks of men in brightly coloured uniforms were henceforth a thing of the past.

In 1914 France again found itself at war with its old enemy Germany; and there were immediate calls to abolish the classic French blue-and-red army uniform in favour of something more suited to modern conditions. But at first this was resisted on emotional nationalistic grounds: le pantalon rouge, c’est la France! (‘red trousers are France!’). Only when French troops, highly conspicuous on the new smoke-free battlefields, began to be mown down in droves by the enemy’s new magazine-fed rifles and artillery was it decided to replace the uniform with a more boring, but far safer, dull blue outfit. And by the Second World War even the French army had switched to a form of khaki, which is what almost all armies now wear.

Gone was the notion of war as a glorious thing that all young men should be proud to take part in. Today we know it for the horror it really is – and one that should surely make us all see red.

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