STARS, STRIPES AND CHEVRONS
The purpose of this article is to describe the history of stars, stripes and chevrons worn on British Army uniforms in Victorian times and until 1919. Their uses as rank badges are excluded except where essential for completeness. A chevron is taken to be as the French word intended: in the shape of rafters supporting a roof, and thus with the point uppermost. Where the sides “right” and “left” are used, these refer to the wearer, not as seen by the reader. References are included in the text as they occur, to avoid footnotes and endnotes. They are occasionally abbreviated; a full list will be included at the end of this article. The subject is treated chronologically, even though this means that photographs of garments and badges in any quantity only appear from about the time of the Crimean War. Contemporary photography was of very variable quality: some early examples provide superb detail, but most of the later ones have the inbuilt disadvantage of using an orthochromatic process. In such photographs the red end of the spectrum is rendered very dark grey, and the blue end much paler. Where slight exceptions to badge use existed, they will usually be discounted: there always were and are exceptions, and they often involve the Foot Guards, the Rifles or the cavalry.
Earliest uses of badges.
In the latter days of the 18th Century and the early days of the 19th the more enlightened military commanders (some of whom were not high ranking) of the principal European armies were beginning to absorb the lessons learned in the Americas and on the frontiers of Asia. The natures of the savage foes and the terrain sometimes made rigid formations and drill movements inappropriate. Small groups of soldiers, or individuals, often found themselves isolated and without an officer or non-commissioned officer (NCO) within sight or sound. Voltigeurs, Jaegers, Light Infantry and Riflemen, trained and trusted to use a modest degree of initiative, were one manifestation of adaptation. Another less obvious British reform was the invention of the unique Regimental Number to identify each soldier from enlistment to disbandment, retirement or the grave. Both evolutions gained pace around the time of the great European struggles and the American War of Independence, and it is in that period that the use of stars, stripes and chevrons was born.
Dawnay (Badges of Warrant and Non-Commissioned rank in the British Army) and Carman (Badges and Insignia of the British Armed Services) point to the original introduction by the French Army of ‘galons d’ancienneté,’ from 16th April 1771, as a sign worn on the left arm that a soldier had re-engaged for service once (one chevron) or twice (two chevrons) after eight or sixteen years respectively. There is pictorial evidence that at least one British Cavalry regiment was using chevrons (point down) as rank badges (Dawnay). The chevron was also introduced by General George Washington on 7th August 1782 for the Continental Army of the United States, as an “Honorary Badge of Distinction” to be conferred on veteran non-commissioned officers and soldiers who served more than three years with ‘bravery, fidelity and good conduct’. It was described as a narrow piece of cloth of an angular form, to be worn on the left sleeve.
As was often the case, regulation followed piecemeal introduction. Chevrons (point down) were introduced by the British as NCO badges by an Army Order of 1st July 1802 almost exactly at the time that Regulations for the Rifle Corps were introducing a “ring of white cloth” for the right arm as a badge for “chosen men”, who were, in modern terms, unpaid lance-corporals. After decades of threatening and using “stick” (flogging for many offences) the “carrot” of privileges was to be offered. A system of unpaid rewards for length of service or good conduct and increasing responsibility began to spread. Standing Orders of the 85th Light Infantry 1813 have chosen men with a white chevron (not ring) on the right sleeve. The Journal of the Military Historical Society (MHS) notes the 72nd Regiment using regimental lace in 1816 around the top of each cuff for privates to signify 7, 14 and 21 years’ service; the 35th using chevrons in the same place for the same service in 1821 and the 72nd to be the same as the 35th in 1824. These periods were driven by the terms of enlistment, which were “for life” or for “limited service” of seven years, with optional seven year extensions. To cloud the picture, Royal Marine defaulters were required to wear a white ring signifying bad conduct round the left sleeve in 1828. (MHS).
Two points to note: we have “rings” and “chevrons” co-existing, and we have them made variously of white cloth or regimental lace. Regimental lace adorned the infantry coats and was also used to make corporals’ rank badges (whereas sergeants had white lace, the most senior regimental ranks gold) Each chevron, point down, was made of double lace, mounted on a strip of facing cloth, and then sewn separately on cloth of the coat colour. Regimental lace ceased to be worn after 1836, a time of great change.
Soldier's coat 26th foot c. 1810
Detail of double lace.
Extract from Rifle Corps Regulations 1800/
Dawnay's sketch of corporals' rank lace.