Preface to Book
Military Uniforms – The Pictorial sources. European
contemporary print and painted series – from the
beginnings to the end of Full Dress.
The Duke of Wellington in his customary pithy manner once remarked on the subject of uniforms, “There is no subject of which I understand so little; …. I think it indifferent how a soldier is clothed, provided it is in a uniform manner; and that he is forced to keep himself clean and smart, as a soldier ought to be. But there is one thing I deprecate, and that is any imitation of the French, in any manner”. In practice he was as good as his word, as a quote by William Gratten shows. “Lord Wellington was a most indulgent commander … provided we brought our men into the field well appointed, and with sixty rounds of good ammunition each, he never looked to see whether their trousers were black, blue, or grey, and as to ourselves, we might be rigged out in all the colours of the rainbow if we fancied it.” He did however object to his Officers using umbrellas as being unmilitary.
Putting aside the strictures of the Great Duke, these pages present a history of European military uniform, through the medium of contemporary illustrated books, print series, manuscripts and pictures; up to, but not including, the adoption of drab service dress. The bulk of the work is a chronological sequence divided for convenience into four parts. The first three are taken from contemporary sources - covering the period ending late in the 18th Century; grouped around the Napoleonic Wars and up to 1914. Part Four is concerned with mainly 19th Century works that provide historical rather than contemporary images. In reality it is not possible to divide up all material as neatly as this and some inevitably stray over these arbitrary borders. Before each of the first three parts is a brief history of the period concerned, intended as a very general background for those without a detailed knowledge of the subject, in order that the pictorial sources rest in some sort of context.
Accurately identifying and recording military dress is not a straightforward matter. There are many contemporary uniforms in museums which should be completely reliable but they may have suffered from alterations and embellishment made in subsequent years. Colours cannot be relied on, particularly green, which notoriously turned to blue because of the fugitive nature of dyes prior to the industrial age. There are many other records such as detailed dress regulations issued by a Commander in Chief. The earlier the date the less likely there are to be any regulations at all; the more recent, the more likely it is to reflect what actually was enforced. Some regulations were at best only partially honoured, as the whim of the Colonel could trump any stipulation from a remote higher authority. Many orders were given concerning the dress of troops; often of a negative nature. Louis XV for instance issued several orders commanding that his Officers should actually wear their uniform rather than civilian dress when on service. Other records such as diaries, memoirs and deserters’ notices can give valuable clues as to what was contemporarily worn.
There is a host of drawings, paintings and prints. Portraits can be invaluable, others misleading, being designed to display the glory of the sitter rather than of his clothing. High ranking Officers are often shown in armour long after it had fallen into disuse. Battle scenes were very popular and produced commercially and promptly after the event. This usually precluded the artist from having been present at the engagement, or of knowing much of the troops present there. When artists did produce accurate representations of uniforms they were frequently from the wrong year, sometimes of troops not even raised at the time, or shown incongruously in full dress. There exist however battle scenes that should be treated with respect such as the Blenheim Tapestries and those by General Lejeune who had been present at Borodino.
These pictorial sources do not have the depiction of military uniforms as their primary aim but there are many series of paintings and prints that do. It is necessary to ask why these works were produced. In earlier times many were commissioned by a Royal or other important personage. These were not only a record of the various components of an army but used as a means of control. Commonly known as ‘schematic’ works, they distinguish the different lace and facings for each Regiment; thus providing a means of enforcing uniformity – an important issue in reducing sartorial and financial extravagance. A common prototype was prepared then altered to show different units, with a separate page for each entity, usually containing one or more figures and often giving details of Colonels and Proprietors. The sheer number of ‘schemas’ particularly from Prussia is staggering. Many such as those by the publishing house of Raspe in Nuremburg, although not artistically sophisticated, were published in some numbers. Others would appear to have been devised privately, perhaps to while away the hours for an under-employed Officer?
Later some of the best sources, notably in the ‘Napoleonic’ period were put together by individuals, not necessarily practised artists. They recorded, often for their own interest, what they saw of the troops that passed through their area, or when they themselves were serving in an army. Not all of these are unfailingly accurate, often incorrectly identifying units - but all are highly valuable.
Most pictorial works however were made to supply a market. The majority of print series were produced by businesses who sold them commercially. Their artistic quality can be variable but many customers would be soldiers themselves, thus encouraging a degree of verisimilitude. Naturally, demand would be much greater at times when large numbers of the general public were roused by patriotic feeling or conscripted into their national army. Similarly, sales would likely rise in times of national glory, or when this glory was recalled retrospectively. Thus there was a large market for instance in France in the Napoleonic Wars. After his fall the subsequent phenomenon of the ‘Napoleonic Legend’ caused a widespread fascination for his army and its dress. The quality and accuracy of such publications fluctuated, with the temptations of romanticism and exaggeration not always avoided.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars brought a large increase in lavishly illustrated books and print series of military uniforms; gathering pace when military service became common in the large, national forces later in the 19th century. Many of these books and print series, were very expensive to produce and in consequence, only made in small numbers and affordable to the connoisseur. I have included fewer examples from the enormous range of later 19th Century publications as there is little doubt as to what was worn at that time, as well as considerable duplications of material.
The authorship some pictorial sources is not always straightforward. Artists such as Anton Hoffmann, J Adam Klein and Edward Dayes are recognised for their artistic merit, others less so. Some works are anonymous but many are attributed to the engraver or publisher of the series who reproduced images originally drawn by one of a team of jobbing artists. It can be intriguing to speculate on the provenance of the original information used to create these images.
Several engraving techniques existed, involving making a mirror-image of a drawing on to a copper plate or wooden block with a sharp tool or acid. Ink was then applied and the plate or block put in a press to print black and white copies, which were then sent out to be coloured. Until colour printing techniques were introduced later in the 19th Century, not surprisingly, some print colouring is of a random nature and varies from one example to another. Another difficulty, particularly with earlier print series is in establishing whether a complete set has been located. Different examples of the same series have contents bound in differing sequences and can lack an authoritative index. Some sets are very large, running into hundreds of images; others more limited.
Definitions and nomenclature can be problematic. Different technical terms abound for the mechanics of the ever improving printing process and this is an area of study in itself. I have used the term ‘print’ to cover all methods for producing the printed image, ‘plates’ for an individual sheet or picture and ‘series’ for a collection of plates. The term ‘schema’ covers all series based on a common prototype.
Many different States and armies are touched on in this study and it would be unwieldy to attempt to apply the local language in use at the time. For instance a simple description of the ordinary ‘Rank & File’ soldier presents many choices. In France he was long termed a ‘Fusilier’ but this has a narrower definition in Germany and Britain. In Germany ‘Musketeer’ was much in use but also the term ‘Gemeiner’. I have often plumped for the British ‘Private’ to cover all the options. Private was incidentally originally coined to indicate that the ordinary soldier, unlike Officers and NCOs, had no responsibility for anyone other than himself. Many print series carry long and grand titles which I often reduce for the sake of brevity.
The question remains – do all these sources add up to a reliable record of what the soldier wore in times gone by? The answer is generally yes with certain provisos. A credible record of military uniforms can be established from the study of the many available pictorial sources. A number of reservations are outlined throughout the following pages. 17th century uniforms, provide the greatest difficulty because of the fragmentary nature of the record and although a generic view can be constructed even such basic issues as when pikes were discontinued and the familiar tricorn hat introduced cannot be ascertained with precision. The 18th century ‘schematic’ works however are very reliable from which a detailed view can be obtained of most European armies, albeit of the expensive ‘full’ dress’ which was not necessarily worn in their everyday (seldom illustrated) activities. An active print industry during the ‘Napoleonic Wars’ together with the many local artists who drew what they actually saw of the heterogynous forces that came their way make this period one of great interest and of considerable clarity. Finally the 19th century was a time of many high-quality print offerings that provide an exhaustive and accurate record of the soldier’s garb.
This work can have no excessive pretensions to high scholarship; this would be unrealistic as its canvas is very wide. Others have selflessly spent large portions of their lives studying the uniforms of a single country, period or smaller sub-division. The opportunity for error is therefore very great but where I have done so or miss-identified anything, I hope I shall be forgiven.