Tuesday, August 16, 2011

British Infantry in Belgic Shakos

A vexing question that one confronts when researching the Niagara campaign of 1814 is the type of headwear used by various units of the British army (at least according to Rolling Stone magazine . . . what a bunch of hipsters we are). After a considerable number of emails and a lot of trips to obscure Yahoo group bulletin boards, I feel I still have not arrived at a really satisfactory answer, so I will present the arguments and allow you to draw your own conclusions.

(An officer, NCO, and center company men from among my new releases)

The Belgic shako, sometimes called the "Waterloo" shako, was adopted by regulation in 1812, but did not find its way into the hands of infantrymen in the Iberian Peninsular until nearly the end of hostilities, if at all, and is usually associated with the Hundred Days campaign, ending with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

A British infantryman's cap (shako) was meant to last him two years. If an infantryman was issued a stovepipe shako in 1812, it would not be replaced until 1814 unless the entire unit was re-equipped. It should be a simple matter to examine the written orders in Canadian or British archives to determine which caps were in service. As it turns out, the orders provide very little guidance as the headgear is simply referred-to as "caps", or "felt caps."

Grenadiers (tufts blending in with the white background)

For example, consider this order by the Military Secretary's  Office to the commander of the Upper Canada Militia in January of 1813:

(I found this on a reenactor's bulleting board, quoted from a document entitled Clothing for the Upper Canada Militia 2 January 1813 (C3526 / Vol C1220 / P 83.)

Green Jackets
Red Cuff and Collar,
White Lace
Blue Gunmouth Trousers
Felt Regulation Cap

Is a "Felt Regulation Cap" a stovepipe or Belgic shako? One could suppose the latter, since the order was written in early 1813, and the "regulations" at the time specified Belgic shakos. But were there not vast stores of stovepipe shakos, and did militia units really receive the latest and best? Further documents mention 600 "bucket caps" returned to storage at Kingston after an issue of supplies in 1813. Were they stovepipe shakos returned because they had been replaced by Belgic shakos, or were they the shorter bucket shakos worn by the Caldwell Rangers, replaced by stovepipe shakos still in wide circulation?

Dressing the line; the spontoon still in use by some units.

Arguments, therefore, revolve around speculation about what equipment might have been in stores, assumptions about Horse Guard's attitudes toward equipping provincial units in far-flung quarters, and isolated and obscure eye-witness accounts, many of which are open to interpretation.

The consensus among reenactors, seems to be that regular units of the British Army, even in North America, were equipped with the Belgic shako by the time the Niagara campaign commenced. There remains some debate about the Incorporated Militia regiment so that portraying them in either headgear can find some justification. The remainder of the militia, especially the Sedentary Militia, are presumed to be wearing primarily castoffs and items brought from home, and one might presume this meant stovepipe shakos or round hats.

Ensigns trooping the legendary "Invisible Colours" of 
the "King's Own Mysterious Fusiliers." 
What's a real mystery is where I'm going to find time to paint flags!

If you have additional information about this topic, especially information drawn from primary documents, please post your comments below.

Also, for some lively reading on this and other topics concerning uniforms of the War of 1812, visit the yahoo group, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/WarOf1812/