The pantalon rouge (French for 'red trousers') were an integral part of the uniform of the French army from 1829 to 1914. Some parts of the Kingdom of France's army already wore red trousers or breeches but the French Revolution saw the introduction of white trousers for infantrymen. Following the 1814 Bourbon Restoration white breeches or blue trousers were worn but red trousers for infantry were adopted in 1829 to encourage the French rose madder dye-growing industry.
By the early 20th century other European nations had adopted drab combat uniforms as a response to the changing nature of warfare. An early 1914 attempt by minister of war Adolphe Messimy to modernise the French infantry uniform was rejected after opposition in the press that it was "contrary both to French taste and military function". The bright French uniform contributed to the high casualty rate in the first months of the First World War. The lack of supply of the German-supplied artificial alizarin dye, which had replaced the traditional rose madder, led to the French adopting, in December 1914, a less conspicuous horizon blue uniform, based on Messimy's proposal.
During the later Kingdom of France uniforms varied significantly between regiments but red breeches were worn by generals, members of the royal household, most of the dragoons and the Maréchaussée (until 1763). Some infantry regiments wore red breeches but most wore blue, white or grey. After the revolution breeches were replaced with trousers in the army and during the French Revolutionary Wars infantrymen wore white trousers. Infantry wore a number of colours of trouser during the Napoleonic Wars but red was worn only by cavalrymen of the Imperial Guards of Honour, the lancers, three regiments of hussars and the 3rd Regiment of Scouts of the Imperial Guard.
The Bourbon Restoration of 1814 brought in departmental legions in white breeches. When line infantry regiments were restored in 1820 they were issued blue trousers. Red breeches or trousers featured more heavily in the cavalry, being worn by the guard hussars, dragoons, lancers, chasseurs à cheval and most regiments of hussars.
The pantalon rouge were adopted by the French Army on 26 July 1829, to encourage the rose madder dye-growing industry in France. By the 20th century the synthetic dye alizarin, imported from Germany, was used to colour the pantalon rouge. The French infantry wore the same pattern of trouser from 1867 to 1914. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 the trousers became synonymous with the French army such that civilians referred to soldiers as pantalon rouge.
With changes in battlefield technology and tactics comparable European armies had switched from colourful uniforms to more drab versions in the decades leading up to the First World War. The British Army generally adopted a Khaki drill uniform, in place of the traditional infantryman's redcoat, around the time of the Second Boer War (1899–1902) and the German army replaced its traditional Prussian blue uniform with feldgrau, a grayish green color. Suggestions that the French army adopt predominantly brown or grey uniforms were rejected in the decades preceding the war.
After observing the actions of the 1912–13 Balkan Wars the French minister of war Adolphe Messimy, well-regarded as a humane and professional army officer, proposed replacing the pantalon rouge, red kepis and blue tunics with less conspicuous colours. Messimy's proposal was for a uniform of so-called tricolore fabric, woven from a mix of 60% blue wool, 30% red wool and 10% white wool.
The proposal was fiercely opposed in the press which objected to the army wearing "muddy, inglorious" colours; the Écho de Paris stated that "to banish all that is colourful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect, is to go contrary both to French taste and military function". Former war minister Eugène Étienne also opposed the proposal, declaring "jamais! le pantalon rouge, c'est la France" ("never! the red trousers are France"), which became a catchphrase of the conservative movement in France. The outcry over the proposal almost cost Messimy his ministerial position.
The infantryman's uniform, including the pantalon rouge, was especially visible in the yellow-cropped fields that were fought over in August and September 1914, contributing to the high French casualty rate. After the outbreak of war, red alizarin dye could no longer be obtained from Germany. As a result, in December 1914 the French Army adopted a variation on Messimy's 1913 proposal. The mix of blue and white wool was retained, but without the red component, producing a uniform in horizon blue. Whilst less conspicuous than the pre-war uniform it was not perfect: the colour showed up well on the blue-sensitive film used in aerial photography of the time. The Germans had carefully developed their feldgrau to be hard to detect by photography or the naked eye. The Armée d’Afrique initially adopted uniforms made from khaki cloth manufactured in Britain, but later changed to a lighter brown colour with a yellowish tinge known as "mustard".
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