To the question asked, what is the colour of the uniform of 19th century British soldiers, everyone immediately answers: red. From the wars of the 17th century to the Zulu conflicts or the Boer War, British soldiers are inevitably depicted in their red clothing, a colour that has symbolised England since the Tudors…
However, it could have been otherwise… By the end of the 18th century, many English soldiers had realized that their uniforms made it much easier for them to be seen, and therefore touched more easily. It was Colonel Charles Hamilton-Smith who was the first to conduct a scientific study on the subject, while he was a young officer at the 60th foot.
On the strength of the observation that the increasing use of acrobats in front of infantry lines gave pride of place to the precision of the shooter, unlike the line fire that had prevailed until then, and that a more colourful uniform necessarily attracted more attention, our precursor developed a series of tests to support his reasoning.
After a few preliminary tests on white and black targets that clearly showed that the dark target was easier to hit, Colonel Hamilton-Smith designed an original study protocol. He gathers 6 of his best shooters, gives them all 6 balls, puts them in front of a red target, a grey target and a green target, and gives them the order to shoot at will. The operation will be repeated every day. At the end of the third day, the red target falls apart, but the grey one is still in good shape.
The colonel will then find that the greater the distance, the more difficult it is to hit the grey target. He then concluded this experiment by recommending that rifle and aerobatic units be equipped with grey uniforms, and that red be kept only for the parade.
Nevertheless, red would remain… with the exception of the riflemen of the light infantry regiments, who would gradually be equipped with dark green uniforms and the famous Baker Rifle, which had caused so much damage among French troops.
The most interesting story is undoubtedly that of the 60th’s aerobatic companies. Initially equipped with a grey uniform, it will be replaced by a green one, just before the beginning of our officer’s tests. There is no doubt that this change in colour was at the origin of the study. The green colour remained nevertheless, and it was not until the First World War that the English army adopted more neutral uniforms.