When we look at modern-day soldiers and the uniforms that soldiers of the 18th and 19th centuries wore than there is one big difference.
While modern-day uniforms do their best to camouflage the soldier – just think of the tigerstripe uniforms that were used in the Vietnam war by American special forces – the soldiers of the 18th and 19th centuries wore colorful and extravagant uniforms.
But why? Why were Napoleonic uniforms so colorful and noticeable?
The battlefields of the 18th and 19th centuries were shrouded in the smoke of gunpowder (that was called black powder for a reason). Colorful uniforms helped the generals to follow the movements of their troop formations on the battlefield and the lavishly decorated officer uniforms helped messengers to deliver orders without too much delay.
Let`s find out more!
Why were Napoleonic uniforms so colorful?
The main reason why Napoleonic uniforms were so colorful can be found in the way battles were fought during that time.
The bigger battles of the 18th and 19th centuries were fought by tight formations of men advancing on a hostile tight formation and firing their muskets in volleys.
The muskets of these men were loaded with black powder and round musket balls. That had two results. First of all, after the first canon and musket volleys, the battlefield was shrouded in a thick black fog that made it hard to see.
Reports of battles even claim that that thick fog would not disappear for hours after the battle.
The second result of that kind of warfare was that soldiers were deployed in long lines standing shoulder to shoulder. That was necessary since the muskets were smoothbore weapons.
Or in other words:
The reason why soldiers in the 18th and 19th centuries fought in lines and tight formations was the lack of accuracy of Muskets. You needed many men in a tight formation to deliver the necessary firepower.
These tightly packed formations would be sent to their positions on the battlefields by generals who were standing at the end of the battlefield, usually on a hill for better view.
From their position behind their battle formation, the commanding generals would see the battlefield that was shrouded in the thick black fog of black powder.
In order to evaluate options and decide on what actions the individual units had to take the generals needed to see their units.
The size of the armies was another reason for fighting in tight formations. Just an example: The French infantry at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 consisted of around 50.700 men.
Having a few large units made it much easier for the generals to plan and overview maneuvers than having to direct hundreds of smaller units to their places. In a way, one could say that the use of large formations reduced the need to micromanage the battles.
The generals would just have to send the large units in their provided positions and everything else would be taken care of by the officers inside the unit.
And that brings us to the first reason why Napoleonic uniforms were so colorful:
Visibility of formations in the fog of war
Have you ever played a videogame where you can maneuver units, send formations into combat, and retreat them by the click of a mouse? All these games have one thing in common. You can clearly see your troops and the opposing forces. The sight of the battlefield is clear, you don`t have to worry about a limited view. (That limited view is also something that many movies misportray)
In reality, the commanding generals had a hard time seeing their troops. The battlefield was shrouded in thick black smoke. Because of that colorful uniforms helped them identify their position on the battlefield.
And the brighter the colors of the uniforms were the easier it was for the generals to see their troops and to plan further orders.
These orders, more precisely the way they were delivered, were also a reason why the uniforms of officers were especially lavishly decorated.
Visibility of officers during battles
Now you might wonder why it was so important for officers to be clearly identified. Modern-day uniforms are often depicting the rank of the soldier in a more inconspicuous manner
Apart from the demonstration of status Officers of the Napoleonic era also wore their extremely lavish uniforms to be recognizable during battle so that messengers with new orders wouldn`t have to search for the responsible officer.
The need to be easily recognizable as an officer is closely connected to the way orders were passed from the commanding general on the edge of the battlefield to the officers who actually commanded the units during battle.
In an age without modern communication devices, the quickest way to send a new order to a unit was to send a messenger on horseback.
That messenger would ride from the position of the generals over the battlefield to the unit for which he had new orders.
When the messenger had reached the unit he would have to find the commanding officer. And he had to do all of that during the heat of battle and within the fog of the black powder.
Under these circumstances, a lavishly dressed officer was much easier to spot than an officer that was wearing his rank in a more subtle way (like modern-day officers).
Now you might ask yourself if such a lavishly decorated uniform would not draw the attention of sharpshooters on the officer. And you are right, some units were tasked with sniping of hostile officers.
More on these units like the Prussian Jaegerkorps (the hunters) in a later paragraph.
Another reason for colorful uniforms is intimidation. Just imagine, you are standing on a battlefield of the 18th or 19th century. Everything is foggy and you can`t see much apart from the flashing muzzle flashes of the hostile canons.
But then you see a wall of colorful uniforms slowly emerging from the fog…
Think about it, wouldn`t you say that a wall of uniformly colored uniforms in red or white or blue has a much greater intimidation potential than a formation that is either made up of differently colored uniforms or of washed-out civilian clothes?
The sight of an approaching, well-disciplined, and uniformly dressed formation in colorful uniforms had a certain moral impact on the opponent. Especially against less disciplined or freshly recruited units.
Another reason for equipping soldiers with uniformly colored uniforms was the boost in professionality.
Wearing the same colors gave the units a much stronger sense of unity and helped to create cohesion within the formations.
As already mentioned, battles in that age were fought in tight formations where the soldiers stood shoulder on shoulder. So good sense of cohesion certainly helped.
Together with the introduction of standardized drills, the uniformly colored uniforms helped the professionalization of the military and the cohesion within the units.
Please check out the following paragraph where I go into more detail on when and why colored uniforms were introduced.
What colors did French uniforms have during the Napoleonic Wars?
Depending on the units and the branch (Infantry/Cavalry/Artillery) the colors that a French soldier during the Napoleonic wars wore could vary quite a bit.
For the purpose of simplicity, I will focus on the so-called Fusiliers, soldiers who made up the bulk of the regular line infantry.
Each French Fusilier of the Napoleonic time would wear white trousers, a white surcoat, and a coat in a dark blue. The blue coat had white lapels as well as red cuffs and a red collar. After 1807 the French Fusilier would wear a shako with a colored pom-pom as his hat.
After the original hat, the so-called bicorne had been abandoned in 1807 the Fusiliers would wear the shako with a colored pom-pom.
The color of these pom-poms differed depending on the company of the soldier. The soldiers of the first company had a dark green one while the pom-pom of the second company had a light blue color.
The following video shows a few surviving and artificially colored photographs of Veterans of the Napoleonic wars. Please note that not all colors are exact. But I still think that the video gives a good first insight.
Why did British soldiers wear red uniforms?
While the French uniforms portrayed in the video above are impressive the most known uniforms of that era are the red coats of the British soldiers.
But why did Great Britain equip its soldiers with red uniforms? Was there a reason?
While it is often said that the color red was chosen since it camouflaged the blood if a soldier was wounded that theory is wrong.
You certainly did not have to see the blood to realize that a soldier was hit!
The real reason why British soldiers wore red uniforms is pretty simple and not really exciting:
Since around 1600 British soldiers wore red uniforms because the color red was cheap and available. It didn`t have anything to do with the supposed concept that blood would not show on a red uniform!
It was around the year 1600 that red uniforms were introduced for the British army. And since the order of these uniforms was done by the government they wanted the uniforms to be as cheap as possible.
And red was both affordable and available in large quantities. So red it was.
Camouflaged units during the Napoleonic Wars
Now we just spent a lot of time with the advantages that colorful uniforms had in the battles of the 18th and 19th centuries.
But surprisingly not all units wore these types of colorful and recognizable uniforms.
The Prussian Jaeger-corps (the hunter corps) wore green uniforms because they were not created to fight in open field battles like the units with colorful uniforms. They were sharpshooters tasked with the picking off of officers.
The purpose of the Jaeger-corps was to pick off enemy officers. Without the officers, the hostile formations would struggle to find their contemplated place on the battlefield.
And since officers were not only responsible for putting the formations to their assigned position on the battlefield but also for giving the commands to load and fire every dead officer decreased the fighting power of an army.
By the way, the strategy to pick off enemy officers was also used by Soviet snipers during World War II. But that is a story for another time.
To pick off officers the Jaeger-corps was equipped with rifled muskets that were more expensive but also more precise than regular muskets. They would also operate in loose formations without the strict commands the line infantry had to follow.
Because the Jaegers were not used in open field battles like the line infantry with their colorful uniforms they did not have to be easy to identify.
When & Why were colorful uniforms introduced?
The troops of Napoleon Bonaparte were certainly not the first ones to adopt colorful uniforms. The history of colorful uniforms actually goes back to the Middle Ages, more on the 3 periods of the Middle Ages in my article here.
During the Middle Ages, warriors would often wear wraps in the colors of their employer over their armor. Like in later periods that helped with identifying friend and foe.
As you might imagine, a medieval battle could become quite confusing, especially if helmets with face covers were worn.
Colors helped to identify who was a friend and who was a foe.
That practice of wearing the colors of the employer/commander of a unit was continued into modern times.
During the middle of the 18th-century units in Great Britain would still wear the personal coat of arms of their Colonel on the banners. The colonel’s coat of arms was also emblazed on the Grenadier caps.
Now there were several downsides when a unit had the personal coat of arms of the Colonel on their banners like a lack of unity.
Also having an army that was made up of units with different colors certainly didn`t help the professionalization of the military.
Between 1675 and 1700 all European powers implemented standing armies. These armies were usually dressed in colorful uniforms. The uniform colors as well as enforcing strict discipline helped both the professionalization of the army and its cohesion.
When & Why were colorful uniforms abandoned?
So now we just learned that colorful uniforms were an important element of the warfare of the 18th and 19th centuries. But what changed?
In short: The way of warfare changed.
Technical innovations like smoke-free gunpowder, more precise firearms, and modern communication methods like telegram and telephone made colorful uniforms not only unnecessary but dangerous to wear.
That lesson had to be learned by the French soldiers of WW I the hard way.
During the beginning of World War I the French infantry was still dressed like during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71.
The French uniforms of early WW I consisted of red trousers, sky blue coats, and a hat with red parts.
While that kind of colorful uniforms had been beneficial during the previous centuries they were highly unpractical for the trench warfare of WW I.
Red trousers made the French soldiers prime targets for the German machine guns.
Because of that, the uniforms were changed in the spring of 1915 to a light blue that would help the soldiers to blend in with the horizon.
So technical innovations ended the need for colorful uniforms and started the age of camouflaged uniforms. But till this day colored uniforms (or at least colored parts of uniforms) did not completely disappear.
And that brings us to the last point…
Are colorful uniforms still used today?
Nowadays colorful uniforms are mostly used for official purposes and representative guard duties like for example the Swiss Guard or the guards at Buckingham Palace.
But there is one unit that in a way still uses the idea of being visible due to a colorful uniform. The UN Peacekeepers are also called the Blue Helmets.
Their helmets are colored in a light blue. Because of these uniquely colored helmets, it is easy to tell an UN-Peacekeeper apart from a local soldier.
But the creation of the UN Peacekeepers is a story for another time.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the colorful world of Napoleonic uniforms.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
R. M. Barnes: A history of the Regiments & Uniforms of the British army.
P. Hofschröer: The Prussian army of the lower Rhine 1815 (Men-at-Arms) (2014).
D. Smith: An Illustrated Encyclopedia: Uniforms of the Napoleonic Wars (2006).
R. Holmes: The Napoleonic Wars (2019).