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British Army Blanket Tents
by Keith Raynor
Twenty years as a reenactor, Mr Raynor is an experienced and thorough researcher in England and contributes articles regularly to Magazines such as First Empire and the Age of Napoleon. War of 1812 War of 1812 War of 1812 war of 1812War of 1812 War of 1812 War of 1812 war of 1812
A reseacher delving into the changes wrought in the uniform and equipment of the British Army between 1793 & 1815, will soon come to the conclusion that these articles were in a constant state of evolution. As a minor example of these alterations, one of the more practical innovations adopted by the army was in regard to that humble but essential piece of equipment, the blanket. Starting in 1812, evidence suggests that blankets were beginning to be converted or made so they could be used as emergency tents. No doubt before 1812, blankets were more than likely used as rudimentary tentage or cover, a practice probably widespread under campaign conditions. Now however, official sanction was given to a practice already employed by the troops.
An illustration of the ingenuity exercised in creating a blanket tent can be found in the memoirs of Serjeant John Douglas of the 1st Royal Scots. Douglas writing of his experiences in the Peninsula in 1812, described the method used for constructing a blanket tent: " Our tents were very simple, soon pitched and as easily packed up. They ( that is, each tent ) consisted of 2 blankets, two firelocks and 4 bayonets. At each corner of the blanket a hole was worked similar to a buttonhole, and in the centre another. A firelock stood at each end, to serve as poles. The bayonet of these firelocks passed through the corner holes of both blankets, a ramrod secured the top, and a bayonet at each end fastened in the ground completed our house ".
Whilst Douglas obviously knew what he was seeing when he wrote the above description, modern attempts to reproduce his version of a blanket tent has resulted in quite a few variations. Each attempted tent conforms with his description of construction, but whether any are the actual one he so describes remains to be seen. Douglas does not record if an officially converted blanket was used to form his tent or a normal issue blanket. However, towards the end of 1812 and the beginning of 1813, officially adapted blankets were beginning to be issued to the Allied troops. An order for the Portuguese Army, in a British Storekeepers book, dated 16th October 1812, records that, " 36,000 blankets, with loops of rope, at each corner, from store ". This suggesting that Britains Iberian ally was being issued with blankets capable of being converted to tents.
For the Vitoria campaign in 1813, Wellington himself directed orders to the effect that, "...The Officers commanding regiments should have the corners and outside selvage of the soldier's blankets strengthened, in order that the soldiers may pitch them, without injury to the blankets, in case it should...be necessary in order to shelter them from the sun ". Wellington was most probably leaving nothing to chance regarding the forthcoming 1813 season. The British Army had recently been issued Round Tents, three of which were to be allocated to each company. However, these Round Tents were carried by mules in the baggage train, and if the train ever failed to rendevous with the army at the end of a days march, the soldiers would at least have their blanket tents to fall back on, a hopefully temporary arrangement.
Major Rautenbery of the King's German Legion writing in his Journal during early 1813, seems to confirm this impression, "...the heavy camp kettles were replaced by small portable ones, and tents, a valuable addition to the equipments, were issued to the troops. The Great-coats were discontinued, blankets being furnished in their room, and the latter were so arranged that, in case of the mules not being able to come up with the tents, they might be substituted in place of them ".
Where the offical blanket tents were not available, improvision of ordinary blankets was still the order of the day. Edmund Wheatley of the King's German Legion writing in 1814, whilst awaiting shipping back to England after the Peninsula war was over, describes how his and a fellow Officers shelter consisted of, " Two blankets thrown over a stick...", accompanied by a fine drawing of their woollen abode.
Nevertheless, it would appear by the time of the Waterloo Campaign of 1815, the blanket tent was still being issued to the army. In his, " Retrosept of a Military Life ", James Anton of the 42nd Royal Highlanders recalled that, " In Ghent all our great-coats were taken from us, and in place of them we received blankets, these, for quality and size, were such as an army had never received before...They were intended not only to be our covering in camp, but, upon emergency, to serve for a tent also. We had them all looped and prepared for this purpose, it is needless for me to explain the manner in which this was done [ oh yes it is - author ], we all knew perfectly well that they were for that purpose, and each man had a particular interest that his comrade should not destroy or make away with this useful article ".
From Anton's description it would appear that two blankets were needed to form a tent. This meant trusting your fellow " Comrade " and vice versa. Because, if anything untoward happened to his blanket, you would end up with half a tent, and whilst camping out under a star studded sky on a warm night can be thought of as romantic, a grey clouded rainy nocturnal storm could leave you uncomfortably wet and wanting to wring his neck besides your uniform.
Unfortunately the 42nd did have some unscrupulous reprobates who contrived to sell their blankets by the expeditueous means of cutting one blanket in half, dividing it between themselves and a comrade, and thereafter selling one whole blanket. This admittedly clever but devious ploy was uncovered and the culprits that had become enamoured by the plots rewards, recompensed the army with an unsubtle flogging.
Anton though, like Douglas, does not give a description of the blanket tents final shape. So, just what these tents look like is open to some speculation. The size and appearance of the tents can be roughly calculated from the evidence provided by surviving British Army blankets of the Napoleonic period. These woolen blanket can be found in a variety of sizes, anywhere from 64 inches in width to 96 inches in length. Contracts laid with Yorkshire woolen manufacturers give dimensions of 66 inches in width and 81 inches in length; Whereas contracts for single army blankets in Ireland stipulate measurements of six feet four and a half inches in length, by five feet six inches in breadth.
It may be that some of the surviving blankets, particularly the larger ones were intended for use in barracks and were not of the smaller campaign variety. Nevertheless, Anton does mention that the tent blankets were of a larger size than previously issued. These original blankets are all made of white wool with two stripes at each length end. The stripes were most probably black in colour but have now faded to a brown hue. Also, many of the blankets have block printed onto them a cypher indicating that they are British Government property. These cyphers consisting of the " Broad Arrow " and the letters " GR ".
Given these measurements and appearance, some idea can be formed of what this elusive structure looked like. However, unless some definitive drawing or picture can be found, or an easily interpreted description, such ideas can only be surmised. As has already been expressed earlier in this article, modern attempts to duplicate the blanket tent have resulted in various blobs, lumps and apparitions being pitched; Though no doubt, the British Armys tendency for " individual expression " on campaign would have resulted in some quaint variations too.
Experiments by the 33rd Foot, a re-enactment society from Yorkshire, England, have produced at least one proven way of making a blanket tent. Given that two blankets were provided for each tent, then by using wool blankets similar to the originals, the 33rd have found that the simplest way to form a blanket tent was to use one blanket as the tent. This would be shaped into an inverted " V " or wedge with acquired tree branches providing for the two upright poles, and a third longer branch forming the ridge pole. The blanket itself would be pegged into place by material at hand. The second blanket is then used inside the tent as covering for the two soldiers or as a ground sheet.
Whilst this rudimentary shelter might be sufficient for a night or two in the open, it is certainly no substitute for a proper tent. However, if the baggage train or mules carrying your portable canvas home has not caught you up, then at a pinch, the blanket tent is better than not. On the face of it, the blanket tent can be described as a handy piece of kit to carry, but no doubt many prayed that the real tentage arrived at camp before nightfall.
Douglas's Tale of the Peninsula & Waterloo.
Copyright Keith Raynor 1999