“Eliminate the red trousers? Never! Le pantalon rouge c’est la France!” (Former French Minister for war, M. Etienne)
As a small boy, one of the key aspects of military history that first attracted me to the subject were the illustrations of brightly-coloured 18th and 19th century uniforms. Of course, the reality of the brutality and horror of war was obscured by those radiant fabrics. Nevertheless, in this era, warfare had evolved in a manner that allowed fashion to blossom alongside function. As the 20th century loomed, these ‘lace wars’ were passing by, irrevocably changed by industrial progress and its deadly armaments. Concealment and camouflage was the only logical response to the modern battlefield and its increasingly deadly weaponry.
But there were some refuseniks to the harsh reality of modern industrial warfare. Romantic attachment to these old-style, colourful armies burned as brightly in the French imagination then as it did within me as a schoolboy. When the world went to its Great War in 1914, the French marched off looking much as they would have done fifty years or more before, with red trousers, red kepis, and blue coats.
Why had they done this? Great Britain had long since learned of the necessity of concealment from modern weaponry. In 1902, the French army had actually experimented with a grey-green uniform and helmet, parading with it through Paris, but it had not been adopted. At the inception of the war, some in the French military felt that a rushed change away from their traditional uniform in the name of concealment could be construed by the enemy as ‘cowardice’. Furthermore, the interests of French business which had a stake in the production of the old uniforms also played a part (red clothing dyers, chiefly!), but romance was surely key in ensuring that the French soldiers still retained their bright colour.
“[To banish] all that is colourful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect is to go contrary both to French taste and military function.” Echo de Paris.
In truth, it was probably far more about taste than function. But I can well imagine that I might be one of those seeking ways to justify my instinctive reluctance to abandon the iconic glory of their colourful uniform.
By 1915, with losses mounting, the French army bowed to the inevitable. The urgent need for less visible uniforms was being heeded and their initial emergency measures included coyly hiding those sacred red trousers under drab blue overalls. Soon, a new pale uniform colour was adopted (horizon blue) and, after first unsuccessfully trialling a metal skull cap worn underneath the red kepi, the all-metal Adrian helmet was adopted too.
A cherished romantic tradition died on the day that the red trouser was abandoned, but far too many soldiers had died to bring about that demise. It was a sacrifice which had demonstrated that it was not ‘le pantalon rouge’ that was France, rather it was the men that had worn it.
It will come as no surprise, then, that I will be painting some French WWI infantry in their 1914 guise. Caesar Miniatures is a manufacturer that I haven’t used before. At first glance their figures look excellent, in my opinion. The only downside being the curious omission of any crossbelt straps and the softness of the plastic. I’ll be reaching for the red paint to make a start very soon…