Browsing back numbers of the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research (JSAHR), I found some musings by that peerless compiler and illustrator, Perceval W Reynolds – a sort of uniformological stock take, blandly titled “Our present knowledge of past British uniform dress”. This was in 1927, back in the days when the JSAHR was crammed with historical uniform stuff, and not the highfalutin academic publication it is today. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.)
As a reminder, here’s a couple of Percy Reynolds’ fine watercolours (photos courtesy of Ben Townsend). I’ve never come across an image of PWR himself, so it’s hard to imagine the man, though I have the impression of a scrupulous and shrewdly intelligent mind, more inclined to the technical than to the philosophical. But rounding off his survey of the various sources of information available to the uniform researcher, Reynolds doesn’t hesitate to address the philosophical elephant in the room: why do we even bother? What’s the point of it all?
‘Finally, it may be asked, of what use is the more exact knowledge of the former costumes, when acquired? Of course the main purpose is to elucidate the truth for its own sake, because one is interested in what the bygone soldiers looked like, as well as in how they were trained, and what they achieved.’
There we are. Truth for truth’s sake, end of. I don’t suppose Reynolds was much aware of Freud, and this was decades before before the real advent of semiotics, so he was hardly able to flag up any deeper meanings that could justify his life’s work. Perhaps he looked into the abyss of pointlessness and recoiled, for he goes on, a bit hastily, to chuck in a couple of subsidiary reasons that don’t really cut it: one, knowledge of historical changes may shed light on current developments, and two, identification of a uniform can help to identify portraits where the sitter’s name has been lost to time. Both valid enough in their way, but mere nuts to crack an ontological sledgehammer, I think.
The real force of Reynolds’ comments is in his implication that the truth about anything, no matter how seemingly arcane or insignificant, must have an absolute value. And because of this, much of his discussion of material items, images or documents as evidence is necessarily given over to their weaknesses, to the many ways in which they can betray or distort the historical truth. In this respect, secondary sources are certainly not to be trusted:
‘Everyone who investigates a subject of this kind, also finds that a small portion of what comes before him has to be rejected as mere invention or fabrication, and that a rather large portion is confused or mistaken. He has, in fact, involuntarily to compile a sort of footnote to that “History of Human Error” which a character in one of Bulwer Lytton’s novels was supposed to be writing. In briefly surveying the several classes set out, it is needful therefore to note the traps and uncertainties peculiar to each of them.’
He’s right. Only last night I made the mistake of downloading to my Kindle an e-book on AWI British and Loyalist uniforms that turned out to be no more than an indiscriminate collage from secondary sources, without a single primary reference or period image. That was two quid I won’t get back. I ought to know better.
So, in the spirit of Perceval R, here are five more pages on my chosen Militia regiments:
One or two of these are a bit on the thin side, others far more comprehensive. None are in any sense definitive or complete, whatever that might mean. But as information accumulates on these neglected regiments, it begins to cohere on the page, and with that gathering coherence lost truths from our past are reassembled. Which makes, as John Keats suggested, for a kind of beauty.