The Soldier's Uniform (1902)
… the reply of the soldier who, when asked how he would like to be dressed if he had to fight in a second Waterloo engagement, is reported to have said "I should like to be in my shirt sleeves."
The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Australia, 8 March 1902
For some time past it has been rumoured that radical changes were to be made in the uniforms of the military. Several alterations have indeed already been made. It is now officially announced that the King has approved of the new design of service uniform for officers of all arms of the British army. Food and dress are two of the chief essentials to a happy and useful life, and the wise man who also has it in his power to act upon his judgment endeavours to adapt both to the requirements of his work. Although dress can hardly be said to be a natural necessity, yet it is the expression of a habit of civilised life that is in some respects more imperious in its demands than the craving for food. And it is remarkable that in spite of the kaleidoscopic changes in the fashion of dress there is the impress of a rigid conservatism in the main outlines. The same general ideas are to be seen in the dress of men and women to-day as might have been noted a century ago. There is a greater amplitude of material from which to make a selection, there is greater diversity in the shades of colour and in the designs, and these admit of such innumerable variation that it is hardly necessary to repeat exactly the same arrangement in any two articles of attire. But the radical alterations are exceedingly few. Even those which have been brought about by the changing conditions of life are for the most part modifications in detail only. And it is the strict attention to these that marks off the man or the woman of fashion from the individual who, either from choice or necessity or mere indifference, treats them with neglect. The changed conditions of modern warfare have led the naval and military authorities to pay special attention to the food and dress of those who may be called upon at any moment to fight in defence of the Empire. A few months ago an order was issued increasing the quantity and improving the quality of the food issued to the crews of the ships in his Majesty's service, in the belief that better results would follow from a more intelligent attention to this important detail. And following upon it is the order already referred to for several important changes in the service uniforms of military officers.
The very decided distinction between uniforms, and especially military uniform and the ordinary civil dress of the time, is of comparatively recent date. The serviceable buff coat of the Commonwealth era was the completion of the evolution from the mail and plate armour of earlier days. The changes which have taken place since up to the earlier part of the last century, and indeed some of a later date, were dictated by caprice and a desire for variety rather than by an intelligent attempt to adapt the soldier's dress to the exigencies of military life. Among the exceptions were those that were made at the instance of the Duke of Wellington. The great general probably felt the force of the reply of the soldier who, when asked how he would like to be dressed if he had to fight in a second Waterloo engagement, is reported to have said "I should like to be in my shirt sleeves." Since Waterloo, since the Crimean war, and in fact since the Franco-Prussian war, the conditions of warfare have been completely transformed. The munitions of war and military tactics have, in turn, become a cause and an effect of the modern methods of warfare. The formations of the troops on the battlefield that were effective a century ago are as thoroughly out of date now as the weapons that were in use before the invention of gunpowder. The pomp and panoply of war may look effective on the stage or at a review, but except as furnishing a target for the enemy's artillery would be useless on the battlefield to-day. Except in rare instances, the battlefield itself, in the old application of the word, has no existence. When the belligerents come to close quarters the dress and the accoutrements would have a marked effect, and might go a long wat towards ensuring victory if followed up by vigorous and decisive action. In these days of smokeless powder and quick-firing guns, throwing projectiles from an enormous distance, and when detached portions of the force may suddenly find themselves in the midst of a shower of bullets before they know from which quarter they are coming, dress and display count for little. Everything that is an encumbrance to prompt and rapid movement is thrown aside. The dress and the accoutrements need to be such as will facilitate and not impede the free movement of every part of the body, and the colour selected must be one that will not offer facilities for the distant and perhaps concealed marksman to take accurate aim. It is in these directions that the changes in the service uniforms of the officers point. The material is to be serge of a much darker shade than the khaki. The tunic will be close fitting round the waist, but easy elsewhere. Knicker breeches will take the place of trousers. Metal badges are to be discarded and coloured braid will be substituted. The official rank will be indicated by drab braid on the cuff. The coat, the cap, and the hat are all designed with a view to comfort and utility; while at the same time the whole kit will present a smart appearance.
The changes are significant in more ways than one. Hitherto the Imperial military authorities have not been too eager to march with the times. When subjected to an unusual and severe strain they have been found to be sadly deficient in qualities that make for success. There has been a disposition to cling to old traditions and continue useless methods of discipline. It seems as though all this is now to be changed as the result of the severe lesson that we have learned. So far, this is a cause for congratulation. There is another aspect of this question that gives rise to reflections of a mixed character. Long years of comparative peace created the tendency to regard the military profession as an ornamental rather than a practical pursuit. That illusion has been rudely dispelled. Though a soldier in time of peace may be out of place like a chimney in summer, of the fire brigade where there are no fires, yet each must be adapted and ready for the service required when the occasion calls. The military profession is to be coveted, not because of the gorgeous uniform which the member of it is entitled to wear on festive occasions, but because of the hard work in defence of the Empire which may fall to his lot when wearing his service uniform. And as the latter becomes more and more the badge of the soldier's work, the real reason for the existence and maintenance of a military force will appeal more strongly to the popular mind. "The apparel oft proclaims the man," and a military uniform specially adapted to the work which those who wear it have to perform will in the long run captivate the popular imagination more completely than the gold braid and gay colours which the thoughtless were proud to regard as the chief glories to be won.