Recent developments in military uniforms have revealed that the Russian army may soon be wearing helmets that could render them invisible due to “Chameleon-like” fibres.
It seemed the right time to look at the changing face of military uniforms through the ages and how the many and varied colours and styles have affected and protected the men who wore them.
Military uniforms have always been a necessity on the battlefield for the simple expedient of telling friend from foe. It wasn’t until the Roman army began clothing its men in generic armour and uniforms however that military uniforms began to take on a certain amount of regularity. The difference between regiments or units would be designated by the colour of helmet plumes or by shield design.
As armies grew in size, the need for uniforms became paramount. Even during the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years War and other medieval conflicts, the armies were differentiated usually by the family colours of the Barons who commanded large parts of them.
It wasn’t until the English Civil War that both sides began to wear uniforms specific to the side they were fighting for. Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army was generically clothed and equipped to make them stand out from other regular troops. As time progressed different countries adopted specific colours for uniforms. Red for the British, Blue or White for the French, dark blue for the Prussians, green for the Russians and white for the Austrians.
And all of these uniforms seemed to reach their zenith during the Napoleonic wars. Never before had there been such wide and varied colours seen on a battlefield. Hussars in multi-coloured, fur-trimmed jackets. Lancers in green and blue. Heavy cavalry white and dark blue with metal breastplates and brightly coloured crests and plumes. Never before had battles been so beautiful to look at but also so potentially lethal for the participants. Bright colours made it hard to hide on a field of battle and the idea of camouflage was more or less ignored until the late nineteenth century. Indeed, up until the Boer War in 1899, the British army was still clothed in its traditional bright red tunics which were horribly visible in the wide-open spaces and dusty terrain of South Africa.
The change to khaki coloured uniforms was precipitated by losses during the Boer War and the colour of the uniform was retained through the First and the Second World War.
As the nature of war itself changed, the need for camouflage was imperative. With the disappearance of massed ranks of men, the individual soldier became more of a valued commodity and many conflicts took place within urban settings rather than the open fields that had been battlefields in days gone by so uniforms were adapted to that.
With the advent of “chameleon-like” technology and the possibility of soldiers becoming ‘invisible’ on a battlefield the future of combat and uniforms is inextricably mixed.