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Turkish Uniforms of the Crimean Era: Part 1

Of all the armies that fought in the Crimean War the Turks are certainly the most obscure, as anyone who has ever attempted to research them can attest. While there has been the occasional attempt to outline the structure and organization of the Turkish army (notably Marcel Roubicek's excellent little book 'Modern Ottoman Troops 1797-1915'), their uniforms seldom rate more than a few sentences full of generalities. The reason for this is not difficult to discover; there are no dress regulations available to provide guidelines (so far as I can discover, at least), and preserved uniforms from this period are virtually non-existent. About the only material readily available is the occasional appearance of a few Turkish figures in the background of contemporary prints or sketches, usually more to provide local colour than to present accurate information.

 

Fortunately there is a rather good source available in the sketches and notes of General Vanson, who served in the Crimea as a young staff officer. While Vanson's sketches of British, French, and even Russian, troops have been reproduced in a number of recent publications, his fairly extensive Turkish material remains almost unexploited. This does not, of course, provide any sort of definitive study of Turkish uniforms. Vanson did not speak Turkish and was unable to question his subjects as to the meaning of this item of uniform or that bit of insignia. For the most part he simply sketched what he saw, or described it in his notes, with the occasional guess (hopefully 'informed') as to what it all might mean. The material is extensive enough to at least provide a sort of basic framework, though many questions remain unanswered, and much of the following is necessarily speculative. Vanson did few colour sketches of the Turks, though he did provide a fair number of colour notes. Unfortunately, his handwriting is not always of the best, so his extensive notes can often be difficult to decipher, not helped by his frequent use of a sort of personal 'shorthand' which can often be quite obscure. Nevertheless, he stands head and shoulders above any other source.

 

Available information suggests that at the time of the Crimean War Turkish uniforms were in the process of transition from a more traditional 'national' style to a more modern Western European style based largely on French patterns, which I will refer to hereafter as the 'old' and 'new' uniforms, respectively. It is, of course, impossible to judge just how far this process had gone by 1854-55, but both 'old' and 'new' uniforms seem to have been extensively worn in the Crimea. Judging solely by those sketches and notes Vanson bothered to date there would seem to have been a preponderance of 'old' uniforms during the earlier part of the war, though the balance might well have shifted by the end of the war. Also, it should be noted that Vanson's material is slanted heavily in favour of infantry and artillery, with only limited information on cavalry, and virtually nothing on other branches.

 

The 'old' uniform, as worn by other ranks, consisted of a waist-length jacket with standing collar and shoulderstraps, generally fastened down the front with hooks and eyes, though rare examples are depicted with buttons. This would usually be worn with loose knee-length 'Turkish' trousers and native shoes or slippers, the bare lower legs being covered by either stockings or a sort of tube-like gaiter of rough woollen material which was pulled on over the foot (a sort of 'hose top').

 

For infantry and artillery both jacket and trousers were normally of coarse dark blue wool, the jacket's collar, shoulderstraps and round cuffs being generally trimmed with red tape in a number of relatively minor variations (possibly reflecting unit practice?). Only rarely was the collar solid red, the cuffs almost never.

 

Cavalry uniforms of the 'old' pattern seem to have varied somewhat more as to colour, usually having solid-colour collar and cuffs, and with the jacket front often braided in 'hussar' style; they seem to have almost invariably worn 'Western'-style trousers.

 

The 'new' uniform for infantry and artillery comprised a dark blue single-breasted tunic with skirts to mid-thigh and fastened with buttons, and long dark blue trousers of Western European cut, usually worn long over western-style boots. The tunic was generally trimmed with red tape in much the same fashion as the old jacket, except that the cuffs had rectangular dark blue flaps edged with red tape and decorated with buttons (normally 3, sometimes only 2) on the outer side, reminiscent of the French army cuff.

Trousers seem to have been normally plain for infantry, artifiery commonly having a red (or rarely black) stripe down the outer seam. The normal headgear with both old and new uniforms was the red fez with a dark blue or black tassel attached to the top by a brass button. The 'new' cavalry uniform is somewhat more problematic. Vanson did depict a few mounted figures wearing a long-skirted tunic or 'Aftila' with braiding on the breast, which probably represents the 'new' cavalry uniform, though in no case did he give any colour details. This is probably the uniform being referred to by the correspondent Constanfin Guys, who described Turkish cavalry as follows: "The men have a sort of tunic with 3 rows of buttons and blue lace (a la hussarde)..."; the tunic itself was presumably dark blue as a later segment describes cavalry officers as wearing blue coats with astrakhan collar and cuffs.

 

Greatcoats have usually been referred to as 'hooded' in Western publications. In fact a wide variety of types seem to have been used, some with attached hoods, some without. Vanson frequently refers to them as being made of coarse grey or dark grey wool, though that does not preclude the use of other colours as well. A few typical examples are depicted in the figures following. Cavalry seem to have worn similar garments, generally longer and looser.

 

Equipment was equally varied. Vanson depicted a number of infantrymen wearing a black waistbelt equipment which appears to be of the latest French pattern; this is almost invariably shown being worn with the 'new' uniform, and I suspect it may have been issued to picked units. More common was a mixed equipment consisting of a cartridge pouch on a bandolier over the left shoulder, combined with a waistbelt. This equipment appears in both black and white leather, often with a cap pouch worn either on the front of the waistbelt or attached to the pouchbelt. Less frequently crossbelt equipment is worn, generally of white leather. One gets the impression of a number of generations of equipment models scrounged from the magazines for the occasion.

 

Equipment for artillerymen seems too varied to arrive at any common denominator, and the cavalry material is too limited to really judge, though it seems to have been similar to that in use in Western armies. Armament appears equally diverse. Vanson refers on a number of occasions to observing old French arms and items of equipment in use (some apparently dating back to the Napoleonic wars), while some of the swords and sabres depicted match no pattern I have ever seen before and might well be locally-produced 'pseudo-Western' types. On at least two occasions Vanson noted seeing mounted artillerymen wearing swordbelts with dependent slings, but without swords, which suggests there might have been serious shortages.

 

The artillery, in particular, often give the impression of having been given whatever may have been left over after everyone else had been armed and equipped. Some of the more poorly dressed and armed men in the sketches might well have been from mobilized 'Redif' or reserve units, which seem to have been put into the line alongside the regulars.

 

It seems to have been not too uncommon to see a mixture of 'old' and 'new' elements worn together; most commonly the 'old' jacket worn with 'new'-style trousers, the reverse seems to have been rather rare. This appears to have been more common in the artillery than the infantry, while cavalry almost invariably wear Western-style trousers regardless of their upper garment. Contemporary prints frequently depict Turks wearing white summer trousers (presumably of linen or cotton); Vanson also depicted a few examples, and there might well be more in the sketches but simply not noted as such.

 

Officers, by contrast, seem to have generally worn a more-or-less standardized uniform, regardless of what their men might be wearing. This approximates to the men's 'new' uniform, with a single-breasted dark blue tunic (though the skirts are at times almost long enough to describe them as frock coats) and Western-style trousers. The tunic would normally be trimmed with red tape, often in a pattern similar to that worn by their men but not invariably so, with the exception that officers seem never to have worn the 'flapped' cuff of the men's 'new' uniform (they are invariably depicted with plain round cuffs, even when their men have 'flaps'). The uniform was frequently somewhat more elaborately trimmed than that of the other ranks, frequently with a red piping or tape down the front opening of the tunic or on the trouser seams.

 

Officers also seem to have more commonly worn entirely red collars and, less commonly, cuffs, though these still remained a distinct minority Officers almost invariably wore a 'passant' or epaulet loop of gold lace on either shoulder near the sleeve seam, which seems to have served as a mark of officer status (there are no indications that epaulets were ever attached to these, except possibly in some Guard units). Apart from these simple devices there is no indication of any system of officer's rank insignia in use in the Turkish army; both Vanson and Constantin Guys commented on the apparent lack of any form of rank insignia among Turkish officers. Officer's trousers would either be worn loose or tucked into knee-length black boots, though Vanson did depict a couple of officers wearing the distinctive Turkish gaiters. Armament would usually be restricted to a sword, either an oriental scimitar or a variety of Western types, usually sabres though the occasional straight-bladed sword appears. This was carried on a narrow waistbelt, either on slings or in a frog. Headgear would, of course, be the fez.

 

The exception to the above would be cavalry officers, and, to some extent, mounted officers generally, who wore a somewhat wider range of garments. Many seem to have worn waist-length jackets or a sort of long-skirted patrol jacket, commonly braided on the breast in hussar-style. Guys described cavalry officers as wearing dark blue frock coats with astrakhan collar and cuffs. It should be emphasised, however, that many cavalry officers wore the 'standardized' uniform described above. Most sketches suggest that mounted officers would normally wear their swordbelt under their coat with the sword hanging on slings, with some form of pouchbelt or bandolier.

 

Vanson did not depict any officers wearing greatcoats or mantles, though he did depict some wearing capes or cloaks of a variety of types. He sketched one officer wearing two tunics, the outer one left open to show a second tunic being worn underneath. The astrakhan-trimmed frockcoats mentioned by Guys might also be intended as cold-weather wear. Presumably officers suited themselves in regard to winter gear.

Reproduced from 'Soldiers of the Queen', issue 85

 

The following figures were chosen to illustrate as wide a range as possible of both basic uniform types and possible variations, within the limited available space. To that end, in a few cases I've combined elements from more than one figure. Colour notes have been provided where Vanson noted them, though in most cases he did not, and I've had to rely on speculation where it seems warranted. Those areas shaded with diagonal lines in the figures are those Vanson shaded with pencil on the original drawings.

Reproduced from 'Soldiers of the Queen', issue 85

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