Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Wellington, helmets and shakos

A re-enactor wears the pre-1813 Light Dragoon uniform. Note the distinctive silhouette.

For a work project I’ve been reading through the Duke of Wellington’s official correspondence with the government back in the UK during the Peninsular War. As you might imagine most of this is fairly routine, but one very dramatic dispute flared up in the winter of 1812-13. And just for once the Duke did not get his way.

The point at issue was the uniform of the British light dragoon regiments serving with Wellington in Portugal and Spain. The arguments raged back and forth for months, and set me thinking about what uniforms were meant to do. What purpose do they serve?

But before moving on the more generic issues of uniforms, lets have a look at the dispute between Wellington and the Army HQ.

Until the autumn of 1812, British light dragoons wore a distinctive and rather attractive uniform. The trousers and jacket were dark blue with white detailing, the boots were black and of the Hessian style.  Each regiment had its own colour, which featured on the collar and cuffs. As ever the uniforms of the officers was more ornate than that of the other ranks, with additional embroidery and silver buttons. 

The headgear of the British light dragoons was known as the Tarleton helmet, named for the officer who had invented it. It consisted of a rounded helmet and peak over the eyes, both made from leather boiled in chemicals to make it exceptionally hard – tough enough to turn a sword blade. Along the top, running from front to back, was a fur crest. Officers sported a feather plume on the left side and a coloured cloth – called a “turban” – tied around the base of the helmet.

This Tarleton helmet was unique, used by no other nation, and highly distinctive. 
The Tarleton Helmet [officer]

Then the headquarters of the British Army wrote to Wellington telling him that the light dragoon uniform was changing. The blue trousers and jacket were staying, but instead of white detailing, the jacket was now to have a broad plastron in the regimental colour. A plastron is a piece of cloth that covers the front of a jacket, being buttoned down both sides and along the top. This annoyed Wellington as from the front the jacket no longer looked blue, but red, yellow, white or whatever the regimental colour might be.

The problem here was that Wellington was facing not only French troops, but also those of the allies of the French such as the Neapolitans, Wurttemburgers, Bavarians and so forth. The light cavalry of these states wore jackets of a variety of colours. Confusion was almost inevitable.

Even worse, HQ wanted to get rid of the Tarleton helmet and replace it with a shako that flared out at the top. The shako was made of felt with a leather peak. This was considerably less effective at giving the wearer protection against enemy sabres, but it was the shape that annoyed Wellington. The new-style light cavalry shako was exactly the same shape as that of the French light cavalry. Combined with the new plastron, the shako gave the British light cavalry a very similar appearance to their enemies.

Wellington was furious.

He fired off an immediate reply pointing out that the light cavalry often operated miles from the main army as they scouted around. It was essential, he said, that the uniform of the light cavalry could be recognised at a distance – often several miles away. The old all-blue uniform with Tarleton helmet was quite unlike anything else in Spain. But the new plastron and shako uniform could easily be mistaken for many other light cavalry uniforms worn by the enemy.

Army HQ was unmoved – possibly in part because the Prince Regent loved the more modern and more colourful uniform. Correspondence went back and forth, but in the end the new uniforms were issued in time for the campaigning season of 1813.

The point at issue here had been the appearance of the uniform – and in particular its appearance at a distance. Wellington was particularly annoyed by the change in the silhouette of the headgear, but the coloured plastrons also caused confusion. 
The new style British Light Dragoon uniform.
French light cavalry, note the similarity to the new British uniform.

Clearly one of the key functions of a uniform is to identify the wearer. In an army, that primarily means identifying the army to which he belongs. Details within the uniform give the rank, unit and specialist skills of the wearer.

In civilian life uniforms can be used to identify a police officer, firefighter, paramedic, judge or other profession. In all cases, the appearance of the uniform must be instantly recognisable to anyone who sees it. Given that many of these civilian uniforms are worn by emergency services, there is no point in wearing a uniform that requires a person to read words or look for detail. A police uniform must look very different from a paramedic, and both must be very different from civilian mufti. 

As with Wellington’s light dragoons, silhouette is crucial. A police helmet is distinctive and can be recognised at a great distance. Similarly the style of a police uniform and its blue colour needs to be distinct from that of others.

Of course there is far more to a uniform than its appearance. It must also be functional. Wellington’s soldiers were out in all weathers, day and night, for weeks on end. The opportunities for changing or washing were very limited. Police officers and firefighters, by contrast, may be out in terrible weather, but they are almost certainly able to look forward to a nice hot shower at the end of their shift, and a change into a clean set of clothes before they go on duty again. As a result modern day emergency services uniforms do not need to be as robust as those of Wellington’s soldiers.

And most police officers have a car or motorbike nearby where equipment can be kept, obviating  the need for all the packs, pouches and bags that soldiers used to lug about with them.

Nevertheless, some features of uniforms remain that same as they always were.
  • A uniform needs to be instantly recognisable.
  • A uniform needs to be distinctive and unique.
  • A uniform needs to be weather proof.
  • A uniform needs to be comfortable to wear.
  • A uniform needs to be practical.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

My Arrival in Fiji

Now I never really thought I had a particularly strange name. Unusual, yes, I knew that. But not strange.
Of course, some people get my name wrong just because it is unusual. I’ve been called “Bob” more times than I can remember. “Bose” is another favourite. An Italian friend insists on calling me “Boroo”. And when I went to Germany on business I was called “Bopsy”, but that might have been a joke because everyone at the meeting giggled.
Not until I came to Fiji did my name actually cause me any problems.
Like most people coming to Fiji, I arrived at Nadi Airport. I came in around dusk on Air Pacific and had been travelling for over 20 hours. I was tired, very tired. Knowing this was likely to be the case, I had a hotel room booked so I would not have to face anything too complicated on arrival. Get a taxi and head for the hotel. Then a quick bath and straight to sleep. Lovely! I’d leave finding the company flat in Suva until tomorrow. It could wait.
Like so many others, I made my way to the immigration hall, had my passport stamped and declared that I had no prohibited animal products in my luggage. Then I slipped past the white, glass-panelled doors and grabbed my luggage from the carrousel. After again assuring a smartly uniformed guard that I had no honey, meat or bonemeal in my suitcase, I emerged into the crowded arrivals lounge.
People swirled around the stark hall in an endlessly shifting pattern. Some walked with determined strides to where they were going. Others wandered about looking for family or friends. One elderly lady in a sari sat on her suitcase regarding everyone around her with complete disdain - including me.
That was when I saw my taxi driver. Very nice of the hotel to send a man to collect me, I thought. And a very smart taxi driver he was too. Dressed in the bright blue and red shirt which forms the uniform of Tulip Travel, he stood watching the passengers as we drifted out of the luggage reclaim room. In his hand he held a sign reading:
“Collecting Mr Bobo Worth”
It was fairly close. I’ve certainly been called by many names over the years. And I have seen my name written in a variety of ways. When you read them out they always sound pretty much like my name. This was close. I’d been told the Fijians were reliable. Excellent.
“Here I am,” I told the driver. “Beau Bosworth”.
The driver smiled broadly. “Bula,” he said. “Nice to meet you Mr Bosworth. I am here to collect Mr Worth.”
The young man had a small badge pinned to his chest telling me his name was Sanjay. “That’s right, Sanjay,” I smiled back. “That’s me. People always get my name wrong. Beau Bosworth - Bobo Worth. Same thing. See?”
Sanjay grinned again. He pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket and looked at it. He frowned. Then he smiled. “OK” he said. “No worries. You follow me, yes?”
Within minutes my suitcase was safely stashed in Sanjay’s car and we were off. The car glided past the long lines of people queuing to get into the airport’s departure area, past a clump of palm trees and out of the airport.
“Are you tired?” asked Sanjay.
I agreed that I was, almost too tired to do more than nod my agreement.
“It’s not far,” Sanjay said. “We at Tulip Travel look after our travellers. You need a nice room. This hotel has very nice rooms.”
I nodded again and peered out of the car window. It was almost dark now but I could see the shapes of tall trees gliding past and, every now and then, a brightly lit shop or house. Everyone seemed to be having a good time chatting to each other. I was, I thought, going to enjoy my time in Fiji.
Sanjay was still talking. “And if you want to go anywhere, you just ask for Tulip Travel. We have a man in your hotel. His name is Dhani. He is a very helpful man. We can take you anywhere. And at Tulip Travel we have guides to show you round Nadi or Suva.” Perhaps I looked uninterested - I was tired. “Or you might want to see the animals,” continued Sanjay hopefully. “Many people like the forest. Tulip Travel can take you to the forest. We have a very clever man who knows where the animals live. He will show you. Oh. Here we are.”
The car glided smoothly off the road along a short drive. As soon as the car stopped in front of a welcoming doorway, Sanjay was out of his door. He had my luggage out in a second and was smiling at me. “Here we are,” he declared. Then he pointed past the approaching member of hotel staff to an empty desk set against a wall. “That is the Tulip Travel desk. Dhani is not here. He will be here tomorrow. You ask him anything. Tulip Travel are always going to help.”
Well, Sanjay had certainly been helpful. I slipped him a few coins and thanked him.
He grinned. “You ask for Sanjay. I look after you. Yes?”
I nodded as my suitcase was expertly whisked off on a trolley by the hotel porter. I followed him to the reception desk and gave the woman on duty my name. She tapped expertly on a keyboard and studied her computer screen. She frowned and tapped some more.
The woman looked up at me. “I am sorry Mr Bosworth. You have no room booked here at the Domain Hotel.”
It was not what I needed. I needed a hot bath and a soft bed. I fished about in my jacket pocket and pulled out the slip of paper confirming my booking. I held it out to the receptionist.
“Here,” I said. “I confirmed the room by email before I set out. Here is your reply.”
The receptionist took the sheet of paper and studied it. Then she tapped on her computer again. Suddenly I realised what had happened. They must have me down as Mr Bob Worth, just like Sanjay did. That would explain it. “Try looking under ‘Worth’”, I said helpfully. “Sometimes people spell my name wrong.”
The receptionist smiled at me and went back to her keyboard and my sheet of paper. She tapped some more. She nodded. She frowned. She looked at me. She said something to the porter in Fijian, which I did not understand. He laughed and wandered off through a door leaving my suitcase looking rather lonely in the middle of the entrance hall. I was beginning to feel lonely as well. The receptionist tapped some more. Finally she looked up.
“Now I understand,” she said. “This is the Domain Hotel, part of the Tapoa Group of Hotels.” She looked at me as if this was going to mean something. It didn’t, of course, because I was almost asleep and wanted my room. She realised that she was going to have to explain more. “You are Mr Bosworth. You have a room booked at the Nadi Sun Hotel, also a part of the Tapoa Group of Hotels. Vilimoni will drive you there. It is not far.”
Even as she spoke the porter came back carrying a bunch of keys. He took hold of the trolley and began pushing it towards the front doors. I turned to follow him, eager to get to my hotel.
“Oh yes,” I heard the receptionist say. “Mr Beau Bosworth, a room at the Nadi Sun. Here it is on the computer. It is Mr Bob Worth who has the room here at the Domain. I wonder where he is.”
And that was when I realised what I had done. I had been so convinced that Sanjay had got my name wrong that I had not stopped to think. I suppose it was because I was tired. While I was being whisked off to my wonderful hotel room there was a Mr Worth standing around at Nadi Airport looking for his taxi.
I knew I should tell Vilimoni the porter to go to the airport to collect Mr Worth, but right now I needed a bath. I’d tell him when we got to the Nadi Sun. I hoped Mr Worth would see the funny side.
Well, perhaps.

Note that this is a fictional short story written for a newspaper in Fiji.

The Cog - a medieval ship

A cog, the type of ship used most widely in northern waters during the 14th Century. The ship was primarily a merchant vessel which had a large hold to carry cargo and needed only a relatively small crew to operate. In times of war these ships were fitted with temporary platforms at bow and stern, as here, from which armed men could gain the advantage of height over those on the decks of enemy ships.