Looks or Use?

By Major B. L. M. Burns, M.C., p.s.c., Royal Canadian Engineers
Canadian Defence Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 1; October, 1931

The first requirement in military uniform is that it should, like ordinary clothing, protect the body from the weather and conceal such portions of it as is decreed by the prevailing mores. The second requirement is that it should make it easy to distinguish authorized combatants. These are the primary and useful attributes of uniform, but in course of time military clothing has also come to be looked on as a means of making its wearer appear more handsome, robust and important, and as a means of increasing the visible differences between regiments, which is supposed to foster esprit de corps. Often, and especially during long periods of peace, the primary uses are overshadowed by those last mentioned. Everyone knows that this was true in the past, but we are rather apt to assume that since the present khaki service dress is more sensible than the uniform of the eighteenth century, it is thoroughly practical, and not susceptible of improvement. I suggest, however, that it has many and important defects.

These defects are attested by the fact that not one professional soldier out of a hundred (in British countries) wears uniform except when it is necessary in the course of duty. No one would ever think of trying to play such a game as tennis or golf in uniform, and even for office work, plain clothes are acknowledged to be more comfortable. Uniform tailored in the prevailing style hampers activity, and if this is a serious matter in games, it is a more serious matter in fighting. Let us now consider the component parts of an officer's uniform.

First of all, there is the staff cap. This is a ridiculous piece of head furniture, particularly the stiff pattern. It will not keep the ears warm when there is a cold wind, nor the back of the neck from blistering in a hot sun. It is so insecure that it must be held down by a chin-strap when one rides a horse—even the top-hats worn by fox-hunters are superior in this respect. During the war some of its defects in comfort were avoided in the soft or gorblimey pattern, but the horrible appearance of this headgear and the fact that it is really no better protection from the weather than the stiff kind rules it out from possible adoption. The tam o' shanter or beret has no discernable advantages except for those who work in confined spaces, such as armoured fighting vehicles.

A soft felt hat with a wide brim would be the most sensible headdress for soldiers. Such a hat is worn by the Australians, New Zealanders, Gurkhas and our own Mounted Police. It is comfortable, and protects from wind and rain. The Yukon pattern cap is, of course, suitable for cold weather, having been proven in civil use before adoption by the military.

The defects of the service dress jacket are principally due to the fact that it has to be worn with the Sam Browne belt over it. Also, it is generally assumed that to be smart-looking it must fit tightly. The tight waist and shoulders combine with the flaring skirt and breeches to give the wearer a somewhat ridiculous appearance, to anyone considering the garb without prejudice. It lends to those who still possess waists the elegant and malignant aspect of the wasp, while it certainly does nothing for those whose abdomen has expanded with increasing age. These defects could be easily cured by" avoiding tightness. There is precedent for this. Look up pictures of the eminent generals of South African War days, and you will observe that the fit of their jackets was like that of a rhinoceros's hide. But for real reform of the jacket it will be necessary to abolish the Sam Browne belt.

As everyone knows, this accountrement was designed by a distinguished officer as a convenient means of carrying a sword on the North-West Frontier of India. It may have been useful for the original purpose, but nowadays, why carry a sword? It is futile as a weapon in war, and is no longer used for settling private differences. It may be said that it is a symbol of the military profession and serves notice to the world that its wearer is a gentleman, entitled to bear arms, that it is a mystic repository of personal honour, and so on. All of which, it seems to me, is very ancient rubbish. Military officers now no more need to advertise their profession in this way than surgeons need to set up a red and white striped pole in front of their offices. Let the sword join the bow, the pike and the espantoon in the museums.

And let the Sam Browne belt disappear also. Even from the standpoint of style and what the couturiers call "exclusiveness" there is little case for its retention: it has now been adopted by most foreign armies, not to mention speed—cops and certain snappy taxi-drivers.

But if the Sam Browne is abolished, on what will the officer hang his field glasses, his prismatic compass, his message and map case, his revolver and other paraphernalia? For those officers who fight on foot or on horseback, a suitable harness with pockets to hold these objects can be devised, and indeed, the officer's web equipment nearly meets the case for the infantry. For the increasing number of officers who will do their fighting from some sort of a vehicle, land or air, no such harness is needed. When they get out of their machine, they can sling what adjuncts are required over their person with the straps and cases provided.

The revolver is perhaps a special case. But it is doubtful whether the revolver is much of a weapon, and it would probably be better for officers to be armed the same as their men. In any case, a revolver in a holster on a belt at the waist is very awkward to get out: I understand from fiction which treats of such subjects that, for a rapid draw, the rod should be carried either under the armpit or strapped to the thigh.

Let us now descend to the small-clothes. Breeches, tight at the knee, are most inconvenient for any activity except riding, and even for that, it is doubtful whether they are the best thing possible. Certain classes of men who, as the phrase is, "lived in the saddle" did not wear them, e.g., the pastoralists of Western and Southern America and South Africa, nor, I suppose, did the Tartars whose mobility we are nowadays called upon to emulate. The infantry and tank corps have adopted plus fours, which is very sensible. In hot weather, shorts are most comfortable, provided they are cut wide, as in the Indian Army. The kilt is claimed by those who wear it to be admirably adapted to the free functioning of the body.

There is not a great deal to be said about leg and foot wear. Everyone recognizes the importance of comfortable boots. A high boot, such as worn by the German and Russian soldiers in 1914 is probably the most convenient form, but it is expensive in leather, and by the end of the war most armies had adopted ankle boots and puttees.

All brass and gun-metal which glitters, and must be polished, should also be eliminated from the soldier's uniform. This was done in the earlier part of the Great War. Later, some expert in military psychology discovered that shining brass somehow kept the morale of the troops at concert pitch. Of course, a dirty soldier is a bad soldier, but is it necessary, in the interests of cleanliness, that he should be covered with twinkling points, like a Christmas tree? I suspect that the 1918 emphasis on button-cleaning, posh guards and other superficial attributes of military efficiency arose simply from the fact that it was far easier to see whether a soldier had his buttons cleaned properly, and could execute a right-turn in an orthodox manner than it was to remedy defects in his weapon training and tactical skill. Therefore, so that there may no longer be this excuse for doing nothing in a noisy and consequential manner, let us abolish brass. Buttons and badges with any desired regimental pattern, of excellent appearance, can be made from dull bronze or copper, and anyone putting a brush to them should be liable to "death, or such less punishment … "

It is not inherent in the nature of uniform that it should be inconvenient and idiotic. Uniform may be smart and yet comfortable. Consider the dress of naval officers, and of sailors (except for the want of pockets). Perhaps it might be improved, but it is at any rate as sensible as civilian clothes. The Air Force uniform is not bad, but although they have done away with the sword-carrying belt, its influence remains to cause the waist to be unnecessarily constricted. In India, after a century and a half of campaigning in red tunics and stocks, enlightenment came, and now the practically universal uniform is shorts and shirts open at the neck. Here is one case where the army is definitely in the lead in the science of habiliment, for the dress reformers everywhere are shouting for the adoption of this garb for men.

Another eminently sensible Indian uniform is that worn by the South Waziristan Militia, a semi-military, semi-police organization. They set out to stalk the wily Mahsud clad in a sort of smock shirt, baggy trousers, puggaree (turban) with a bandolier and a water-bottle by way of accoutremcnt, and with sandals on their feet. They know that activity means life or death to them, and dress accordingly. One might think that this had never occurred to soldiers in more civilized lands.

The question of full dress uniform remains to be discussed, and here it is somewhat difficult to preserve judicial calm. Full dress, as it was known before the war, is not authorized for the generality of units, but some regiments have it, at any rate for part of their personnel. One frequently hears pleas that a greater proportion of the militia should be allowed to resume their grand pre-war trappings. The arguments com monly advanced in favour of these proposals are that a better show will be made on ceremonial parades, tattoos or other entertainments, and that recruits would be attracted in larger numbers if the scarlet and gold were brought back again. Both these arguments are utterly invalid.

It is no doubt right that the military forces should parade to honour the Royal House, the King's Representatives, and other distinguished persons, both military and civil, and also right that military demonstrations should be given to the public, to stimulate interest and, if possible, pride in the forces. But is anything gained by dressing the soldiers in a way that is imitated nowadays only by commissionaires of the flashier hotels, movie ushers, Knights of the Glorious Order of Godknowswhat, and the organ-grinder's monkey ? What conclusion will be drawn by the sensible civilian who sees the militaires attire themselves in this way? Surely that the soldier is a childishly vain fellow, a negligible popinjay. The really impressive factor in military parades is the demonstration of power, which can be exercised in defence of the people, and for the suppression of any naughty elements among them. No one nowadays will give the impression of being an effective defender of the country by dressing up in a scarlet coat and a bushy eighteen inches high, and brandishing a sword.

It may be said—"Oh, but the crowd likes the bright uniforms." Admitting for the moment that the crowd does like bright uniforms, let us ask ourselves whether that would be a sufficient reason for wearing them. It is always degrading to seek the approval of the witness. But it is by no means certain that the crowd is fooled. I quote from a recent popular song:

"The King's Horses and the King's Men!
They're in scarlet, they're in gold,
All dolled up, it's a joy to behold

The King's Horses and the King's Men!
They're not out to fight the foe,
You might think so, but Oh! Dear No!
They're out because they've got to go
To put a little pep in the Lord Mayor's Show."

Popular songs, it may be said, are not made on themes which are contrary to popular beliefs.

It is scarcely necessary to add that the recruit who is led to enlist by the notion that a gay tunic will set off his manly figure and enhance his S.A. 200 per cent is hardly promising material for building up a useful unit.

In conclusion, the contentions of this article are summarized as follows: the soldier should be as unfettered by his clothing as a man indulging in some active sport, while at the same time being protected from the elements, and the present service dress uniform should be redesigned to bring it into line with these requirements; secondly, all frills and adjuncts to conspicuous honorific display should be eliminated if we wish the public to believe that the average soldier is more than a fop and a fool.

Follow The Regimental Rogue on facebook.

QUICK LINKS