A recurring theme on British army social media channels is the debate about whether soldiers should be allowed to grow beards. The Royal Navy has long allowed beards, and recently the Royal Air Force changed its regulations to allow the growing of a “smart, neatly trimmed, full set beard, subject to approval from their commanding officer.” This has been done, according to the RAF’s Chief of Staff for Personnel, Air Vice-Marshal Chris Elliot CBE, “to promote our position as a diverse and inclusive employer, enabling better recruitment potential from across society …”.
Which has, unsurprisingly, led to pressure from the ranks that the Army should follow suit. The history of facial hair in the Army can be summarised as being a case of “beards on, beards off”. British soldiers in the Crimea in 1853-56 were wonderfully hirsute. Then by the First World War beards had fallen into disfavour but moustaches were compulsory. And since the end of that conflict clean shaven had become the new normal although moustaches are allowed and persist to this day.
There are exceptions to the no beards policy. Pioneer Sergeants have long been allowed to sport a beard for historical reasons. Special Forces like the SAS often grow them too, oftentimes so they blend in better with the local populations in which they are operation but also, I suspect, because as “elite” troops everyone’s too frightened to tell them off. And beards can be allowed on religious and medical grounds.
The biggest argument against Army personnel wearing beards has been that, in the event of a chemical or biological attack, it would not allow for a proper seal between face and the service respirator or gas mask. I think this argument has been overplayed though, for thankfully such attacks have been rare over the past 100 years. So maybe the Army could lighten up a little bit when it comes to facial hair? In the final analysis, faced with the choice between a trendy beard and avoiding certain death from a chemical attack most folk would choose the latter, would they not? So perhaps beards in peacetime and clean-shaven in wartime might be the way to go.