Red Coats: A Different Look at the Battle of Waterloo

Thursday will mark 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo and the British press is, understandably, eager to remind the world of the singular service the Anglo-Prussian alliance provided to humanity by finally ending the bloody career of the French megalomaniac dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte. Tucked in one of the articles was a sentence that caught my attention. Following the battle in which 55,000 men were either killed or wounded, the “dead… were hastily stripped and buried.”

 Why would anyone bother stripping the dead, when every hour increased the danger of putrefaction and disease?

The most likely reason was that prior to Industrial Revolution, clothing was extremely expensive. As such, the uniforms were, presumably, washed, patched up and reused. Consider that in 1760, Britain imported only 2.5 million pounds of raw cotton. By the 1830s, it imported 366 million pounds of cotton and the price of yarn fell to one-twentieth of what it had been. This was revolutionary!

As Carlo Cipolla observed in Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700 “In preindustrial Europe, the purchase of a garment or the cloth for a garment remained a luxury the common people could only afford a few times in their lives. One of the main preoccupations of hospital administration was to ensure that the clothes of the deceased should not be usurped but should be given to lawful inheritors. During epidemics of plague, the town authorities had to struggle to confiscate the clothes of the dead and to burn them: people waited for others to die so as to take over their clothes – which generally had the effect of spreading the epidemic.”

Last but not least, why on earth did the British wear red coats? After all, red is conspicuous and easy to target. Again, economics suggests an answer. As Cato’s Connor Ryan reminded me, “Red coat [was] issued …[to Oliver Cromwell’s] New Model Army. The NMA was the first to try and standardize equipment and equip its soldiers with a standard coat. Red was the cheapest dye you could get, apart from natural grey which the Scots army had already adopted.”

Thankfully, today we can provide anyone with cheap clothing and our soldiers with sophisticated camouflage.