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The rise and fall of the military moustache

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20/11/2015

By | The Researcher’s View

Christopher Oldstone-Moore provides the sixth in our series of posts for Movember.  The series was commissioned by guest editor and “pogonographer-in-chief”  Dr Alun Withey.

In 1913, the British Army faced a minor revolt within its ranks. Some officers were petitioning to overturn regulations requiring them to grow moustaches, while others were simply disobeying, and facing reprimands from their superiors. Nevil Macready, a general on the Army staff investigated the matter, and composed a memorandum to the Army Council recommending that that the moustache regulation be abandoned.

Nevil Macready

General Sir Nevil Macready, c. 1915. Image source: Official British Military photograph. First published in “The Great War” Ed. H.W. Wilson, 1916. Wikimedia Commons.

He traced the origin of the military moustache to 18th century Croatian (he should have said Hungarian) Hussar cavalry regiments who decked themselves in tall fir hats, sheepskin saddles, colorful sashes and fierce, black moustaches in order to intimidate their enemies. He concluded, however, that Wellington’s clean-shaven troops had clearly demonstrated that moustaches were not necessary for discipline or victory.

The Army Council took no action at that time. In 1915, King George was compelled to remind his troops that king and country expected them to do their hirsute duty. In 1916, however, General Macready resubmitted his recommendations to the Council. In the depths of total war, the burden of facial hair had become a threat to morale. He was particularly distressed when he learned a soldier had been court-martialed for shaving his face. On the 8 October, a general order was signed rescinding the moustache requirement.

This, and similar actions in other European nations, marked the beginning of the end for the military moustache, a proud tradition that has in many ways shaped cultural interpretations of facial hair up to our day. At the beginning of the 19th century, military men adopted a colourful and showy style at the very moment civilian men moved in the opposite direction, towards the drab respectability of black suits, hats and ties.

Members of the 10th Regiment of Hussars in Napoleon’s Grande Armée

Members of the 10th Regiment of Hussars in Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Image source: Carle Vernet, La Grande Armée, 1812. Wikimedia Commons.

Officers and aristocrats embraced a romantic masculinity even as the bourgeoisie outwardly rejected it. The qualities of dashing heroism that the martial elite assumed for their kind became indelibly associated with their signature moustaches, and it was this sense of class distinction, rather than its supposed ferociousness, that ultimately explains the triumph of military moustache in 19th century Europe. Its demise in the 20th century, on the other hand, suggests the rise of a new set of rather more utilitarian masculine virtues in both civilian and military life.

The European adoption of the hussar style was manifest in Britain when, in 1806, the 10th Light Dragoons became the 10th Royal Hussars. Their new-fangled firs, feathers and moustaches were quickly imitated by the Life Guards and Horse Guards as well. The justification for this trend was the notion that facial hair and grandiose uniforms struck fear into the hearts of enemies. A more practical reason, no doubt, was to make men appear older. Those too young to grow impressive facial hair faked it. An anonymous writer to the Times in 1828, for example, complained about the cost in time and money of procuring and maintaining false moustaches for Life Guardsmen.

Moustaches became the most popular element of the Hussar style, and European armies generally permitted them in all ranks by the 1840s, and positively required them by the 1860s. For much of the early part of the 19th century, facial hair signaled the difference between soldiers and civilians, and on the continent became also a reliable feature of aristocracy. It was considered bad form for civilians to presume an ornament on the lip.

Iconic World War I recruitment poster featuring Lord Kitchener.

Iconic World War I recruitment poster featuring Lord Kitchener. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

When European men of all classes gravitated to bearded masculinity in the 1850s, the military lost is monopoly in facial hair, but the moustache persisted as its prescribed style. The ubiquitous images of illustrious late-century generals such as Gordon, Wolseley and Kitchener confirmed this link in the British mind. This did not mean, however, that civilians shied away. On the contrary, the civilian moustache reached its highest levels of popularity in the 1880s and 90s, indicating the prestige of military virtues. This was, after all, the era of team sports and military drills in British public schools.

After the Great War, shaving predominated even for soldiers, but dictators such as Hitler, Stalin and Franco summoned the heroic qualities of the military moustache in their quest to restore glory to their embattled nations. Their example, however, further undermined its appeal for subsequent generations. Opinions of moustaches in our day are correspondingly mixed. The qualities assigned to them–virility, dash, arrogance, or outdated romanticism–depends upon what aspect of our military history one calls to mind.

Author: Christopher Oldstone-Moore is a senior lecturer in history at Wright State University, Ohio. He is also the author of: Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair.

3 comments on The rise and fall of the military moustache
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  • William Biggar

    29/11/2016

    Fantastic read and your facts would be great to tell the ranks today who try everything to grow all types of facial hair. Loved it..

  • Jon Jenner

    08/04/2017

    I’ve grown a magnificent moustache moustache because my father never grew one and neither did my grandfather. One day my dad showed me some pictures of both of my great grandfathers and those two gentleman had large full moustaches, my grandfather’s father has a huge Kitchener type moustache and my grandmother’s father had a large bushy tache’ which he looked quite at home with.

    So I said to help with modern opinion and became the first male in my family since Edwardian times to proudly sport a well groomed moustache.

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