Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Guest Post: Khaki; Or, How India Invented Camouflage by G.D. Falksen

Two Punjabi infantrymen by Lovett

(G.D. Falksen is an author, lecturer, and impresario who specializes in writing literature for a variety of genres. It's his work on steampunk, however that's gained attention from the likes of MTV, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times. His work has appeared in Steampunk Tales, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, and he frequently blogs for His various essays on global steampunk possibilities were really what got the ball rolling on multicultural steampunk and inspired this very blog.

In addition to being one of the most recognizable names and faces (and boy, is it a nice one) associated with steampunk, Mr. Falksen is also a huge aficionado of Indian culture and military history- two interests that he combined in this article. Miss Kagashi thoroughly approved as one of her interests is drooling over military uniforms.)

Throughout the 19th century, colorful uniforms were the order of the day, a practice inherited from the 18th century.  Beginning with the general adoption of drab colors shortly before the First World War (or during it, kicking and screaming, in the case of the French) and continuing through the development of pattern camouflage in the decades that followed, the 20th century witnessed the adoption of camouflage uniforms as a battlefield standard, replacing the earlier fashion-conscious model.  But in fact, the practice of using camouflaged uniforms began half a century earlier, in the middle of the 19th century, in the dry and dusty regions of northwestern India, with the creation of a not particularly glamorous shade of brown known as “khaki.”

The 10th Bengal Lancers by Simkin.

“Khaki”, an Urdu word derived from Persian, means “dusty”, and the original khaki was a dirty tan color that indeed very much resembled the dust of the North-West Frontier, a rugged region of British India (now in modern Pakistan) that bordered Afghanistan.  This area was extremely important to the security of India, as it bordered the strategic Khyber Pass that had throughout history served as the key method of entry into India for every would-be conqueror from Alexander to Timur.  The British raised numerous units of Indian soldiers to defend the subcontinent and to fight overseas, and the North-West Frontier region was no exception.  One of these was the Corps of Guides, raised in late 1846 by Lieutenant Harry Lumsden.  In 1848, the Guides were equipped with cotton uniforms incorporating smocks, baggy trousers and turbans, which were dyed a drab dusty color intended to blend in with the terrain.  Khaki proved to be remarkably effective for camouflaging the soldiers in the rugged, dusty terrain of northwest India and its use was soon expanded to other Indian units.

The "Queen's Own Corps of Guides" from 1878

The reason for the adoption of a drab color was simple.  On the frontier, the British (then used to fighting conventional wars on an open battlefield) were faced with hostile tribesmen whose tactic of choice was often guerrilla warfare using a long-barreled long-ranged firearm known as the jazail.  Jezails were used to great effect against British troops during engagements on the frontier, and they were responsible for the devastation of British and Indian forces in Afghanistan during the later portion of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842).  The adoption of a drab uniform by Indian frontier soldiers helped reduce their visibility and made combat in the rugged terrain much less suicidal.

Khaki was so successful that its used was expanded to other units over the course of the 19th century.  Other Indian frontier soldiers quickly adopted it as well, and by the 1880s it had become standard for the Indian Army.  Even British troops in India began wearing it as well, although this was not extended to the British Army outside of India until the end of the century.  The Second Boer War (1899-1902) saw the first use of khaki as the standard uniform color for the British Army, which was replaced with a darker color known as khaki drill in 1900.  From then on, the British used camouflage and were soon followed by other nations until today, camouflage is the standard for field uniforms.  And all thanks to a dusty color developed in the northwest of India.

The colorful uniforms of various regiments by Lovett


  1. Very informative, filled in quite a bit that I didn't know.

  2. Interesting in regards to khaki, but colours specifically selected to blend with nature were first officially adopted by British units during the Seven Years War (1755-63), by the Royal Green Jackets and Roger's Rangers. During the Napoleonic Wars British skirmishers of most regiments wore green or brown. Other nations had used low visibility colours for decades; greys, browns, and black.

  3. Very well written and researched. The U.S. Army first adopted khaki during the Spanish-American War in 1898. And khaki would become the standard uniform for both the Army and the U.S. Marines in tropics into the early part of the 20th century in one form or another.

  4. I am sorry to say this but as far as we were taught at school, Khaki was invented in South Africa and was worn by the farmers during the Anglo-Boer wars as well the Border wars between the Afrikaners and English. It was inspired by the Zulu's traditional war time dressing in leathers and furs of animals that blend into the African Landscape.
    I may be wrong but that's what I was taught.

  5. @Chandre: But wait a minute the Boer War was between c.1899-1904. The tradition of wearing khaki was already established long before this. The word itself derives from a Urdu word from Persia (Modern Syria), the language is derived from sandskrit. A written language dating back to before Alexander the Great. The Zulu language wasn't even written down until what, the 1930's?

    I don't want to sound snarky or be mean, but your assumptions have no basis in historical fact,

  6. Khaki was indeed an Indian invention. The author is correct to a great extent. It was Harry Lumsden, who raised the Corps of Guides (which later became the Queen/King's Own Corp of Guides), who realized the importance of camouflage clothing. The first Afghan War was disastrous for the army due to the guerrilla tactics of the Afghans and their long-range jezails (most of them flintlocks). The British Brown Bess proved ineffective at long range and since the Afghans were shooting from mountains. The Guides were primarily involved in intelligence-gathering missions and it was important for them to stay under cover. In about 1846, khaki was developed by dyeing white linen clothing with tea leaves. The British Army officially adopted it during the Boer War.

  7. The article and some of the comments were mostly close but mostly no cigar. I thought I'd add a few points to clarify.

    British troops in India and in South Africa had been improvising serviceable clothing for hot weather campaigning since the 1830s if not before. As most of their opponents were using spears or bows with a few obsolete firearms, camouflage per se was not a priority. The tribesmen on the Northwest Frontier of India (now the Pakistan-Afghanistan border) did employ matchlock jezails for sharpshooting but preferred mass charges with swords until almost the end of the C19th century. Comfort together with convenience: standing up to hard service and not showing the dirt too much; were probably of more importance to begin with. Camouflage, however was useful for scouting missions.

    By the way, R.F. Fleming is partly correct in that some light troops employed on scouting missions during in mid-C18th America frontier wars were supplied with brown coats and provincial ranging companies are known to have worn green hunting frocks. This was hardly official policy, however, but rather short-term measures employed by sensible men on the ground. The 60th (Royal Americans) formed for frontier defense in 1758 (They only became part of the Royal Green Jackets in 1966) remained a red-coated regiment till a battalion of green jacketed riflemen was attached to them in 1797. This was the first official green uniform in the British army. Only the riflemen of the 60th and a special rifle regiment - the 95th Rifles, founded in 1800- wore green during the Napoleonic period. They were usually distributed in detached companies among Wellington's infantry brigades as skirmishers and outpost troops. Other light infantry wore traditional red. Portuguese light troops serving with Wellington in Spain wore brown.

    Following the example of Lumsden's Guides, cool, servicable clothing of a subdued colour in a range of shades was adopted on an ad hoc basis by British troops from the 1850s onwards, and not only in India. Usually this was improvised from the white cotton drill summer clothing. A range of materials are reported to have been used over the years, producing a range of colours: tea leaves, river mud, ink, camel and cow dung, even curry powder. In South Africa they used mimosa bark and iron sulphate. In the Punjab, the Guides are said by some sources to have used fuller's earth of the Multan district. Others state that they used dye made from the local mazari palm. Whatever source was employed, it appears to have been unusually successful, remaining in use for almost sixty years.
    2182, 2165

    During the Indian Mutiny British troops resorted increasingly to what was known as 'khakee'. The predominant shade at this stage seems to have ranged between grey-brown and a pale blue although there was also frequent reference to a more ambiguous colour of 'earth' or 'stone.' After the Mutiny, high command experimented briefly with khaki drill as official summer uniform instead of white. Problems with finding a colour-fast dye led to a return to white in 1864. Troops in India continued to wear improvised 'khakee' on campaign, most notably on the Abyssinia expedition of I868 and during the Afghan War of 1878-80.

    The general hue at this stage was was still more muddy grey than sandy brown.


    Troops serving in the Transvaal (or 1st Boer War) War of 1881 wore Rifle Green and Indian khaki as well as traditional red (which after exposure to sun and rain isn't as conspicuous as one might expect) and suffered as badly. The problem was a failure to employ correct tactics against a skillful enemy with modern rifles. Arguably the main lesson learned, grudgingly, was of simply keeping one's head down.

    Meanwhile experiments with commercially produced uniforms of grey and khaki uniforms continued in the Sudan and in India. In 1884 a 'mineral' dye able to produce colour-fast khaki cotton was patented in Manchester, and in 1885 a regulation uniform of khaki drill was authorised for troops in India. At this stage khaki began to take on the tan-sandy shade recognised today.

    In 1896, khaki drill Foreign Service dress was extended to all British troops fighting in hot-weather theatres. Some regiments in India continued to source khaki cloth for their uniforms locally for some time after 1885. The Queens Corps of Guides, as they came to be known, continued to dye their ‘mud coloured’ uniforms regimentally until 1904.

    It is true that the first campaign to see all British troops engaged dressed in khaki was the Boer War of 1899-1902 but the conversion of the whole British army to khaki Service Dress took place in the latter year of 1902, not 1900, when a uniform of wool serge Khaki Drab- not 'khaki drill'- was authorised. This uniform for service in temperate zones was of a greener shade than the khaki drill developed in India and used extensively in Africa.

    Khaki was an undoubtedly a word borrowed from Hindustani or Urdu but the notion of providing khaki uniform for troops in the field was unquestionably British (albeit in the face of much official and public resistance, including that of Queen Victoria) because it was the British who required an officially dirty (or dusty) uniform for their troops on campaign. It was only when Frederick Gatty of Manchester, a Frenchman by the way, living in Lancashire, developed his 'mineral khaki' dye in 1884 that the requirement could be fulfilled. The cotton cloth was made up and exported by E. Spinner & Co. also of Manchester. It came to be exported around the world. So much so that Americans in the Phillipines referred to the khaki drill they imported from traders in China as ‘chino.’

    Hope that is of interest, maybe of use. Arthur