Why the British Wore Red —- Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army.
In Georgian and Victorian Era Britain red was always the color of the British Army. Over time British soldiers earned the nickname “redcoats” or “lobsters” because of their bright red attire. During colonial wars such as the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, these bright red coats were often a liability as they stood out in the frontier wilderness, making them an attractive target for French, Native Americans, and Colonial Militia’s. So how did red become the color of choice for the British Army? The redcoat can trace his origins to the mid 1600’s, before the formation of the United Kingdom and in the midst of the bloody English Civil War.
In 1642 England was split between the Royalists who supported King Charles I and the Parliamentarians who were staunch Puritans. The Royalists believed that the king held absolute power granted by God, and as such the king had the right to dictate how people worshiped within his realm. The Parliamentarians believed that power should be wielded by the English Parliament. Furthermore the Parliamentarians were on a religious mission to end the highly stylized religion of the Church of England and replace with it a simpler Puritan religion. Both armies were of equal size and equal quality. As a result neither side could gain a decisive advantage. After two years of bloody warfare one Parliamentarian general decided that something had to be done.
Oliver Cromwell was a brilliant and ambitious military commander and a fanatical believer in the Parliamentarian cause. While perhaps the most talented general in England, he often found that his abilities were limited by the army he commanded. In the 1600’s there were no professional armies in Europe, rather the military was a hodgepodge force of local militia’s, each with varying degrees of training, different weapons, and different uniforms. Some of the militia’s had very poor training and inferior equipment, carrying old and out of date weaponry and wearing regular clothing rather than uniforms. The biggest fault of the Parliamentarian army was the lack of a professional officer corps. Officers were chosen by their social rank and wealth, not because of their expertise. As a result the army was led by a corps of over-priviledged nitwits who had no military experience and were clueless when it came to running an army. The weaknesses of the Parliamentarian Army was made apparent in 1644 at the Second Battle of Newbury. There Cromwell devised an ingenious plan to ambush, trap, and destroy the Royalist forces, decisively ending the war. His plan almost succeeded if not for the incompetence of one of his commanders, the Earl of Manchester, who failed to carry out Cromwell’s orders. The ambush collapsed and the Royalist forces escaped.
Cromwell realized that if he was to end the civil war he would need a better army and he went to Parliament to institute new reforms. The first was a new law called the Self Denying Ordinance, which forced all government officials who held military command to resign. Instead of status, officers were chosen based on their skills, ability, and proven merit. This shook Europe to the core, as officership of nobility was considered a right at the time. Now it was not uncommon for officers to be former cobblers, tailors, blacksmiths, and others sorts of commoners. A second act by Parliament established a full time standing army manned by professional soldiers rather than part time militiamen.
Cromwell also had other demands when it came to his “New Model Army”. The first was personal; his soldiers were chosen from the ranks of the most fanatical Puritans; they were required to attend daily worship services and were forbidden from drinking, having sex outside of marriage, and swearing. The army was even taught a special creed, used as a war cry,
Officers: No mercy!
Men: No mercy!
Officers: No Popery!
Men: No Popery!
Officers: No bishops!
Men: No bishops!
Officers: Who is our king?
Men: King Jesus!
Secondly Cromwell instituted an intense regimen of drill and training, transforming his army from a ragtag band into a disciplined and deadly fighting machine. Finally Cromwell standardized the equipment of the army. Rather than having a plethora of different weapons and equipment, everything the army used would be standardized to ease the logistical demands of the army. Soldiers carried the same types of pikes, muskets, and swords, and wore the same type of armor.
A part of Cromwell’s reforms was the creation of a common uniform for his army. Cromwell chose red because it was the cheapest dye available at the time. Not only was Cromwell trying to save a shilling, but the use of a cheap dye helped strengthen the Puritan ethic of his army; to avoid anything that may seem to be vain, proud, or ostentatious. Cromwell’s New Model Army were history’s first redcoats.
The end result was a highly organized force of religious zealots who were well armed, well trained, disciplined, and fearless. Imagine today the Taliban, armed with the best weapons and equipment and trained like Army Rangers. In 1645 Cromwell led the New Model Army in a crushing defeat of Royalist forces with only two decisive battles: the Battle of Naseby and the Battle of Langport. King Charles himself would be captured, and after instigating a failed counter-revolution was beheaded. Cromwell would be named Lord Protector of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and became a virtual military dictator. His army would go on to crush rebellions in Ireland and Scotland. After Cromwell’s death in 1658 the Parliamentarian government collapsed, and Charles II became King of England. The New Model Army was disbanded but its legacy continued. The ideal of a well trained and professional army was maintained thenceforth, although the tradition of appointing officers based on wealth and privilege returned. The red uniforms of the army continued with the English, and later British Army until it was replaced with green and khaki uniforms in the early 20th century.