These days, when we think about dangerous military uniforms we mean shoddily made body armour or badly coloured camouflage. But far more disastrous uniforms have been used at many points in history, with deadly results for the soldiers wearing them.
1 The Stock
18th century Europe marked the high-water mark of impractical uniforms. Rules about hair styles, tall helmets, tight jackets and heavily buttoned boots all contributed to uniforms that helped maintain discipline but were massively impractical.
The epitome of this was the stock, a high collar of stiff leather worn by the soldiers of many countries. It dug into the chin and neck, reducing the agility and situational awareness of soldiers. This was not much of a problem on the mass battlefields of the old world, but in the forest skirmishing of North America, it became a hindrance, like everything about these uniforms. Men unable to adequately manoeuvre were easily killed by more agile enemies.
2 Hessian Headgear
The Hessian mercenaries employed by the British in revolutionary America wore spectacular tall hats decorated with silver badges. These became caught on trees, hindering movement and being knocked off by low branches. The gleaming badges provided perfect targets for American snipers planning head shots.
When introduced in the seventeenth century, the red uniform for British soldiers was a great boon. It added a level of uniformity that had not previously existed and made for an intimidating sight.
As times changed, the red uniforms became less advantageous and more hazardous. Fighting the French, native and colonials in North America, the uniforms of the redcoats provided easy targets for snipers and made it almost impossible to sneak through the woods or hide in cover when ambushed. Yet it was not until the late nineteenth century that the British realised just how hazardous the uniform was and changed it, just as other powers were doing the same.
4 First World War Headwear
In the First World War, head wounds from shrapnel were one of the biggest killers. The Germans dealt with this through helmets that protected most of the head and neck without obscuring the soldier’s view. British helmets, not running as far down, left more of this vital area exposed, leading to deaths. Worse was in store for French forces, who initially were equipped not with steel helmets but with stylish soft hats.
5 Le Pantalon Rouge
By 1914, most countries in Europe had changed from their traditional brightly coloured uniforms to khakis, greys, and other neutral colours that would blend in. This saved soldiers from being easy targets for guns of growing accuracy and range.
The French resisted this change to the very last. It was only in the Balkans War of 1912-13 that Adolphe Méssimy, the Minister for War, acknowledged that their smart uniforms, including their bright red trousers, were getting French soldiers killed.
When he tried to change the uniforms, the popular press whipped up a storm of outrage at his undermining of good taste and national pride, and so the French marched into World War One in their red trousers. It was only after thousands of more deaths that they accepted change.