Growing up, my Father was in the Royal Marines, and like any British Military personnel, his grooming habits were meticulous. He kept his moustache to a pre-determined length and shaved every day, as well as, of course, showering and checking his hair for nits. I believed a moustache was worn in all services in the Military, but one day whilst watching Zulu and seeing Lieutenant John Chard’s beautiful side burns, it got me thinking; What are the rules on British Military facial hair?
Until the 19th Century, facial hair was pretty unusual in the British Army. There were a few pioneers who wore beards and moustaches, but most service men were clean shaven. This was until the mid 1800s, where as a result of the wars with India and Asia, a lot of soldiers stationed in these countries found themselves adopting facial hair, moustaches and side whiskers, as was fitting with local culture. In the mid-19th Century, during the Crimean War, servicemen were told to grow large moustaches and beards during the Winter.
After the Crimean war, rules were introduced to prevent soldiers of all ranks shaving above their top lip, this basically meant moustaches were compulsory to any that could grow them. Although beards were later forbidden. This stayed in place until 1916, when Lieutenant-General Sir Nevil Macready, set an Army Order to abolish this rule. His hatred of his own moustache meant his first course of action after aboloshing the act, was to shave his moustache off straight away.
Since 1916, the British Army, Royal Air Force, and Royal Marines have allowed moustaches and side whiskers. Beards are not covered under this acceptance, apart from when they are grown for medical or religious reasons. Beards are permitted to special forces on secret missions. Most recently, The British Army have been sporting stubble, moustaches and beards in Afghanistan in an effort to blend in with locals. Facial hair is regarded as a sign of virility and authority and thus bearded servicemen are treated with more respect.
The Royal Navy has always allowed beards, but never moustaches alone, since the early 20th century. If however, an individual cannot grow a “Full Set” (i.e. a full beard and moustache), a commanding officer may well tell the individual to shave it off.
So, facial hair within the military is subject to trends as well, just like anything else. I wonder if in the near future, with the resurgence of beards (and more importantly, well groomed beards), British Military personnel (not just the Navy) might be allowed to grow a “Full Set”.