Beards, moustaches and the army

Did you know that from October 1916 it was no longer compulsory for men to have a moustache in the British army?

We all know the famous picture of Kitchener and his moustache and as this marketing website identified, he wasn’t the only one at the time to sport such a look. I’d recently discovered this myself going through photos in the Desborough collection in Hertford. So I thought it worth a little investigation and see others have done the same.

This obscure little forum gives some interesting developments regarding the moustache and beards, while Major Pillinger provides a more coherent history and some more general info at TodayIfoundout. The art of manliness shares shaving traditions from around the world, and Wikipedia gives an insight into the different country military requirements today. All rather fascinating.

Why the army changed the rule in 1916, the Wellcome Library provides an answer.

So this got me thinking … did Kitchener shave off his moustache when he disguised himself as an Arab in the early 1880s? A painting from 1922 by Sheridan Jones suggests not, but I’m not sure if he’s got K tanned enough. Although this image from V&A by Richard Caton Woodville is in black and white, it seems more realistic. Back in 1883, the Egyptian Army officers sported moustaches – not surprising given they were under British Army regulations, but if you scroll all the way down, you’ll see some drawings of local forces sporting moustaches not much different to their British counterparts. Again, not too surprising considering the British and in particular Kitchener was responsible for training the force. In 1899, Soudanese soldiers look clean shaven with moustached officers.

And in World War 1 Africa? A scroll through online images of the King’s African Rifles suggests the majority were clean shaven. The Zanzibar forces who served in WW1 are also clean shaven – I’m not sure about the tank being WW1 but nevermind, this is the first website/page I’ve come across focusing purely on the island’s war contribution. Similarly, Wavell’s Arabs. Local cultural and religious traditions would no doubt have taken precedence over military regulations with beards being a sign of maturity – I’m not sure British army regulations distinguished between colonial forces in 1914 (must check some time). Paging through The Unknown Fallen supports my assumption of beards being culturally and religiously determined. Today there is a guide on religion and belief in the army – 12 religious groups being recognised.

Reading today’s regulations, with exceptions for religious and health reasons or even at the officer’s discretion, one wonders why they are not generally allowed if the person wants to grow one?

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