When our lovely Samantha Grace asked the question in our critique group about what color would a military soldier wear during the regency era, I knew I’d found my next blog. Whether you’re reading or writing regency this blog will be very beneficial for you. Or at least I hope it is.
Military subjects are complicated at best so I’ll try to keep this as simple as I possibly can. Instead of delving too deeply into the ranks I’m going to focus on two separate subjects: the difference between the branch uniforms of the British armed forces and ship ranks. If you’d like for me to write a more in depth blog on a similar subject please write to me at Suzie Grant Author at gmail dot com. I’ll be glad to write more blogs on regency military since these are my passions. Guns, cannons, and men in uniform…what’s not to love?
So let’s get started. All too often we hear the term “redcoats” and believe that all British uniforms are red. However, the Royal Navy is the oldest service branch of the armed forces, tracing its origins back to the sixteenth century. It has a fascinating history and much of its beginnings are still obscure. Well into the twentieth century the British Royal navy was the most powerful force in the world. It was able to maintain its superiority through good finances, superior technology, tactics, training, dockyard facilities and logistical support. Americans modeled much of our own navy on these very subjects.
Prior to 1748 there was no standardized uniform. The first uniform regulations were issued by Lord Anson in 1748, “to overcome the inconveniences arising from the want of an establishment of rank and precedence between His Majesty’s Sea and Land Officers as well as from the want of a due distinction among the Sea Officers themselves.” There were two types of uniforms created. “Best uniform” and “working rig.” The “working rig” was considered the everyday uniform and was a simpler design. By 1795 epaulettes were created as an ornamental shoulder piece to reveal rank. They wore navy blue frock coats with white breeches.
Ranks aboard ship in the Royal Navy: Captain, Lieutenants, Midshipmen were essentially the lowest officer rank. Others included, Petty officers, Warrant officers, leading seaman, Seaman, Boatswain’s mates, Sailmakers, Cooks, Armourers, Surgeons mates, Carpenter’s mates, Clerks, Chaplain and Schoolmasters.
The title of captain was universal to the most senior officer whatever his actual rank. His duties included keeping reports, recruiting, keep inventories, preparing the ship for sailing and was overall responsible for everything aboard ship: discipline, feeding, health, maintaining the log, delegating authority and directing the ship’s activities during battle. In other words, on board ship he was God and you had entered his universe. Whatever he says goes, even if a higher ranking officer were aboard ship as a passenger. His word was law.
Here is the Naval hierarchy explained in great detail. I love this site.
Surgeons were in their own rights, lords of their domain. The rank didn’t actually come about until the nineteenth century but they were masters of their trade. They answered to no one save the captain. And even then, there was leeway with what he could and could not order. In the movie Master and Commander (which is as historically accurate a movie as you can get imho) the captain and the surgeon were friends, commandants, as was often the case.
The Royal Marines were formed in 1775 as marine infantry for the royal navy. The Royal Marines, unlike the Royal Navy which was a permanent service, were raised at the beginning of wars and disbanded afterward. Regiments of Marines existed since the 17th century, however, it was not until 1755 that the Marines were established as their own corps.
And their uniforms are red, hence the term “redcoats.” Whereas the Royal navy uniforms are blue. Here is an example. Marines had dual functions during the Napoleon era. They ensured the security of the ship’s officers and supported the discipline of the ship’s crew. And in battle, they engaged the enemy’s crew and fought in boarding parties. On board ship, the marines were under the command of the naval officers. Off ship, they were under the command of their marine officers. Even Marine officers were under the captain’s command. There was no higher rank on board ship. The farthest a Marine officer could advance was to Lieutenant Colonel until 1771 when the first Marine was promoted to Colonel. Do note: During the Napoleonic war the Royal Navy suffered from a lack of men so regular infantry units from the Army were supplemented on board ships.
Key notes about the marine uniforms: Before 1802 the Marines had a uniform very much like the Army’s red coat with white trousers. After 1802, the jacket was faced with blue as befitted a corps with a Royal title. Note the blue collar and cuffs here. The royal Marine jacket consisted of eight loops of lace matched in pairs.
The origins of the British Army and their uniforms. The British army originated with the merger of the Scottish Army and the English Army following the Acts of Union 1707 and the uniforms for the most part were red with a few exceptions through history. At the beginning of the French Revolutionary war the Army was still relatively small with only 40,000 men. By its peak in 1813 it had grown to a force of 250,000 men. Here is an interesting little link that provides us with a count of the men and where they were stationed during this era. This could come in handy for those of you who write regency.
Key notes on the Royal Army uniform: The basic uniform consisted of a red long-tailed coat with white collar and cuffs. Buttonholes were decorated with gold or silver lace and they wore white breeches, though sometimes blue pantaloons.
The very handsome Prince Harry is a captain in the Royal British Army. So there you have it, some quick ways to know the differences between the uniforms and what branch they’re from. Now what are some of the most memorable books you've read with British Soldiers? And tell me what made them so memorable.