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Bearskin Helmets (Caps): The Iconic Headdress of the Foot Guards


GCCE1854
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Thought it might be nice to have a thread discussing the iconic Bearskin helmets of the Foot Guards. They're quite fascinating, and the styles of Bearskins worn throughout European armies over the centuries are really quite varied. The look in England is simple -- but unmistakable. While I don't know a lot about them, we'll start with basics, and I hope others will come and add to this discussion, as it's a topic I'm always trying to learn about.

 

image.png.de80db5477397e917e154035b85b122a.png

 

~ From Waterloo to the Crimea ~

The first use of the iconic Bearskin in the British Army was after the Battle of Waterloo. At that time, the infantry regiments of Napoleon's elite Imperial Guard wore the Bearskin Helmet. This served both as a sign of prestige, as well as giving a more fearsome appearance in battle. Of course, Wellington and his army gave the French a hard time at Waterloo (cheers), and Napoleon saved his Imperial Guard infantry back. It wasn't until about half past seven in the evening that he ordered the Middle Guard regiments to charge up Mont St. Jean to attack the British. The 1st Regiment of Foot Guards were stationed behind the hill as the 1st Brigade when Wellington issued the order to stand and attack. The Guards stood up in a long line (about 250 metres) and fired, driving the French back with repeated shots and bayonet attacks.

 

This picture is a French Grenadier's Bearskin helmet, captured at Waterloo:

image.png.9170e88cd5455262a830af3ff6b52040.png

 

And this is a picture of a Private in the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, as they looked at Waterloo. They wore a Shako cap at the time, which was a common design in many British regiments.

image.png.d927a6c8e144b35061ab19a9cebe6565.png

 

After this great victory at Waterloo, the Prince Regent believed the Guards to have defeated the French Grenadiers, and the 1st Foot Guards have since been called the Grenadier Guards. (In fact, from what I've read, it was the Chasseurs regiment of Foot Guards that the British drove back, but a simple mistake led to one of Britain's most recognizable names for one of their elite units.) The Regiment also adopted the Grenade as their badge and the iconic Bearskin helmet (or "cap") that is now part of Britain's worldwide image.

 

The Grenadiers were the only British Regiment to bear this distinctive headgear for the following 16 years, until the privilege of the Bearskin was extended to the 2nd and 3rd Regiments of Foot Guards (Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards, respectively) in 1831. It was not until other Regiments of Foot Guards were raised that the use of the Bearskin was extended to more soldiers (Irish Guards in 1900, and Welsh Guards in 1915). 

 

By the time of the Crimean War, the Bearskin was instantly recognizable and appeared in many paintings portraying the battle heroics of the illustrious and elite Foot Guards.

 

Here, the Grenadier Guards have just crossed the river at the Battle of the Alma:

image.png.1ee88412d3e6fac09487e4d0f5625b1c.png

 

The Coldstream Guards in the midst of the same battle:

image.png.3b93b2d95b211f34b1f4bf70cfcca414.png

 

And the Scots Guards, also at the Battle of the Alma, as painted by Lady Butler:

image.png.567a278abe775cbea2281fc6fc93f3f4.png

 

~ Bearskin Specifics ~

Getting down to specifics of the cap itself can be a little tricky. Weight is between 1.5 to 2 pounds. The height today (and for the last decades) is somewhere between 16-18" high, though sources seem to vary in this statement from article to article. Originally, I've found some sources saying that the Grenadier Guards' original Bearskins were made at 21" high -- culminating in the extra-high-23-inch versions worn by Guards at the coronation of King George IV. Those were so tall, however, that the officers could barely ride a horse.

 

The helmets are made of skins from American Brown Bears, which have been dyed black. (Black Bears have thinner, shorter fur) It takes one skin per helmet. The cost today is about £650 (not sure whether that is just for the fur or for the whole cap).

 

~ Plumes and Parades ~

So, next time you watch the Trooping of the Colour or any event when the Queen's Guards are shown, it can be pretty simple to identify which company is which. This is easily done by noticing the colored plumes (or lack thereof) decorating the Bearskins.

 

Grenadier Guards: While this is the 1st Regt. of Foot Guards, it's not the oldest. Consequently, when parading with other Guards units, they are seen on the far right. Originally, all Guards wore a white plume on their Bearskin or headdress (left side), though the Grenadiers are the only company to continue with this practice.

 

image.png.dd841a878d1191eaf6fc3cf89a918cc4.png

 

Coldstream Guards: This is the 2nd Regt. of Foot Guards, but it's actually the oldest regiment in service today. Because of this, the Coldstream Guards are always seen on the extreme left when parading with any other Guards units.  And, in keeping with its motto of "Second to None", they adopted a red plume (worn on the right) to differentiate them from other companies.

 

image.png.2e5fcf0e5a3bc1a33f5bb1dd127d9195.png

 

Scots Fusilier Guards: This is the 3rd Regt. of Foot Guards, and they are seen in the centre when parading with other Guards units. They are also the only Guards to wear no plume at all on their headdress.

 

image.png.e840d3ba3df43f7f08858ae50c5ab4ab.png

 

Irish Guards: This company was formed in 1900, and their Bearskins are decorated by a blue plume worn on the right side.

 

image.png.67e21a20db3c02614fcd7fff45016c25.png

 

Welsh Guards: This company was formed by command of King George V in 1915. Their Bearskins feature a striped white-green-white plume worn on the left side.

 

image.png.15a8d63db7a42dc21f252bad3a556294.png

 

Well, I hope this is a good start. If anyone has more to add about this amazing piece of militaria, please do.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Now that the basic history of this iconic cap has been covered, I thought it'd be interesting to add some information about the making of these Bearskin Helmets.

A rather amazing find came in the form of a minute-and-a-half British Pathe film from 1936, which shows the making of a Bearskin!

 

 

The full clip is embedded above, but in the case of this video being pulled one day, I'm going to include screencaps and the narration here for a read-along version of the process as shown.

 

Adam's High Hats - British Pathe (1936)

 

image.png.dc44ca11762fefeb67ec76be1eb422b8.png

 

image.png.a422bbc415b9e0d15399ae857c93c74c.png

 

Now, perhaps, it's time we gave a thought to men's high hats -- the sort you see when the Guards are on parade!

 

image.png.f0183f8aa56813b3a89c11e7712a3d1e.png

 

Cut out with Military correctness from the skins of Canadian Black Bear (which give this haughtiest of hats their name), the sections are stitched by hand . . .

 

image.png.3d84e0c92e605ae29f154f694c0dcc40.png

 

. . . for it's all handwork that goes into the making of a Guardsman's Bearskin.

 

image.png.2e5527f97f176d426645d99311450812.png

 

image.png.33d9cc1fe9f46a18eb4cf3cc06320ec8.png

 

The sewing of the Bearskin finished, they're turned right-way out and got ready for the shape -- without which the hat would be just fur without form.

 

image.png.9bd3d6ba14789777c92d4d5f0e93bf86.png

 

The shape consists of a basketwork frame, 'round the bottom of which a strip of felt is stitched.

 

image.png.e5436a30103fa66424341f1c5b313337.png

 

image.png.7a281f6b30dac8f142f6e8110923da09.png

 

The frame is pushed into the crown and sewn into it to make it doubly secure.

 

image.png.efe27bfee4bdb7dfa31e246b491a7602.png

 

image.png.e6ff6ca9ac07f7f2b74591ec4061f1c1.png

 

That done, the operation is completed by the addition of a leather headband.

 

image.png.c12b9290e74a8ed873accbfc9000ea68.png

 

image.png.0c5afee000d4c60216e43edb2f0edd83.png

 

The finished Bearskin measures 14" in front, 18" at the back and weighs about a pound and a half.

 

image.png.692aafa7df30ead2ce2a27b9d936a4d1.png

 

image.png.90fd72d9a4fda9c170da4eaacc566ad5.png

 

Finally, the fur is combed until it almost purrs . . .

 

image.png.3a2c4d1836db30ac6ee5d5b71671416a.png

 

image.png.9224b1ceab500b7a06140f4119d392b9.png

 

. . . and they make one of London's proudest pictures!

 

image.png.1ead4765b0742fa4ca8aa592fc5021eb.png

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  • 8 months later...
Willy1690
On 8/29/2021 at 9:16 AM, GCCE1854 said:

Thought it might be nice to have a thread discussing the iconic Bearskin helmets of the Foot Guards. They're quite fascinating, and the styles of Bearskins worn throughout European armies over the centuries are really quite varied. The look in England is simple -- but unmistakable. While I don't know a lot about them, we'll start with basics, and I hope others will come and add to this discussion, as it's a topic I'm always trying to learn about.

 

image.png.de80db5477397e917e154035b85b122a.png

 

~ From Waterloo to the Crimea ~

The first use of the iconic Bearskin in the British Army was after the Battle of Waterloo. At that time, the infantry regiments of Napoleon's elite Imperial Guard wore the Bearskin Helmet. This served both as a sign of prestige, as well as giving a more fearsome appearance in battle. Of course, Wellington and his army gave the French a hard time at Waterloo (cheers), and Napoleon saved his Imperial Guard infantry back. It wasn't until about half past seven in the evening that he ordered the Middle Guard regiments to charge up Mont St. Jean to attack the British. The 1st Regiment of Foot Guards were stationed behind the hill as the 1st Brigade when Wellington issued the order to stand and attack. The Guards stood up in a long line (about 250 metres) and fired, driving the French back with repeated shots and bayonet attacks.

 

This picture is a French Grenadier's Bearskin helmet, captured at Waterloo:

image.png.9170e88cd5455262a830af3ff6b52040.png

 

And this is a picture of a Private in the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, as they looked at Waterloo. They wore a Shako cap at the time, which was a common design in many British regiments.

image.png.d927a6c8e144b35061ab19a9cebe6565.png

 

After this great victory at Waterloo, the Prince Regent believed the Guards to have defeated the French Grenadiers, and the 1st Foot Guards have since been called the Grenadier Guards. (In fact, from what I've read, it was the Chasseurs regiment of Foot Guards that the British drove back, but a simple mistake led to one of Britain's most recognizable names for one of their elite units.) The Regiment also adopted the Grenade as their badge and the iconic Bearskin helmet (or "cap") that is now part of Britain's worldwide image.

 

The Grenadiers were the only British Regiment to bear this distinctive headgear for the following 16 years, until the privilege of the Bearskin was extended to the 2nd and 3rd Regiments of Foot Guards (Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards, respectively) in 1831. It was not until other Regiments of Foot Guards were raised that the use of the Bearskin was extended to more soldiers (Irish Guards in 1900, and Welsh Guards in 1915). 

 

By the time of the Crimean War, the Bearskin was instantly recognizable and appeared in many paintings portraying the battle heroics of the illustrious and elite Foot Guards.

 

Here, the Grenadier Guards have just crossed the river at the Battle of the Alma:

image.png.1ee88412d3e6fac09487e4d0f5625b1c.png

 

The Coldstream Guards in the midst of the same battle:

image.png.3b93b2d95b211f34b1f4bf70cfcca414.png

 

And the Scots Guards, also at the Battle of the Alma, as painted by Lady Butler:

image.png.567a278abe775cbea2281fc6fc93f3f4.png

 

~ Bearskin Specifics ~

Getting down to specifics of the cap itself can be a little tricky. Weight is between 1.5 to 2 pounds. The height today (and for the last decades) is somewhere between 16-18" high, though sources seem to vary in this statement from article to article. Originally, I've found some sources saying that the Grenadier Guards' original Bearskins were made at 21" high -- culminating in the extra-high-23-inch versions worn by Guards at the coronation of King George IV. Those were so tall, however, that the officers could barely ride a horse.

 

The helmets are made of skins from American Brown Bears, which have been dyed black. (Black Bears have thinner, shorter fur) It takes one skin per helmet. The cost today is about £650 (not sure whether that is just for the fur or for the whole cap).

 

~ Plumes and Parades ~

So, next time you watch the Trooping of the Colour or any event when the Queen's Guards are shown, it can be pretty simple to identify which company is which. This is easily done by noticing the colored plumes (or lack thereof) decorating the Bearskins.

 

Grenadier Guards: While this is the 1st Regt. of Foot Guards, it's not the oldest. Consequently, when parading with other Guards units, they are seen on the far right. Originally, all Guards wore a white plume on their Bearskin or headdress (left side), though the Grenadiers are the only company to continue with this practice.

 

image.png.dd841a878d1191eaf6fc3cf89a918cc4.png

 

Coldstream Guards: This is the 2nd Regt. of Foot Guards, but it's actually the oldest regiment in service today. Because of this, the Coldstream Guards are always seen on the extreme left when parading with any other Guards units.  And, in keeping with its motto of "Second to None", they adopted a red plume (worn on the right) to differentiate them from other companies.

 

image.png.2e5fcf0e5a3bc1a33f5bb1dd127d9195.png

 

Scots Fusilier Guards: This is the 3rd Regt. of Foot Guards, and they are seen in the centre when parading with other Guards units. They are also the only Guards to wear no plume at all on their headdress.

 

image.png.e840d3ba3df43f7f08858ae50c5ab4ab.png

 

Irish Guards: This company was formed in 1900, and their Bearskins are decorated by a blue plume worn on the right side.

 

image.png.67e21a20db3c02614fcd7fff45016c25.png

 

Welsh Guards: This company was formed by command of King George V in 1915. Their Bearskins feature a striped white-green-white plume worn on the left side.

 

image.png.15a8d63db7a42dc21f252bad3a556294.png

 

Well, I hope this is a good start. If anyone has more to add about this amazing piece of militaria, please do.

Well done article on these iconic headrest. Thanks for posting it. 

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GCCE1854
On 5/13/2022 at 8:54 PM, Willy1690 said:

Well done article on these iconic headrest. Thanks for posting it. 

Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it. The Coldstream Guards are a favorite of mine, and the Bearskin is such an iconic sight. They're quite fascinating when you realize how each regiment has their own special twist to them.

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