Soldiers wear khaki for camouflage, of course, to ensure that they blend with their background and make them less easily spotted by their enemies.
In early times camouflage was not so important to soldiers; fighting at that time was usually hand to hand, and distinctive uniforms were necessary so that the combatants could discriminate between friend and foe. The uniforms were as colourful as possible, and were covered with feathers, ribbons and other decorations to give the fighting men a sense of unity, a feeling of belonging to, and being a part of their own regiment.
But with the invention of the breech-loading gun and long-range artillery, camouflage became very important indeed, as the British soldiers fighting in the American War of Independence found to their cost. Many of the Americans had no uniform as such, and were their usual hunting shirts, whose neutral colour gave them good protection. The British soldiers, in their red coats and white breeches, presented perfect targets, and were unable to melt into the ladscape.
In the 1840s Lieutenant Harry Lumsden was forming a regiment of cavalry and infantry in northern India, and was given permission to arm and dress his men as he wished. Since their duties would involve skirmishes with the natives he decided that his men should wear uniforms the colour of the local ground, so that they would be inconspicuous, and had cloth specially dyed locally. It was called khaki after the Urdu word for dusty, and when Lumsden’s regiment went into action in 1849 they were known as the ‘Mudlarks’.
The success of the khaki comouflage led to all British soldiers being issued with khaki uniform when they were posted overseas, though colours changed slightly in accordance with the surrounding countryside.
When the First World War started in 1914 some cavalry regiments wore their traditional colourful uniforms, but they soon changed to khaki, the colour of the mud in the trenches and the dust of the roads they had to travel. Today soldiers all over the world dress in khaki, glad of the protection it affords them. The bright, colourful uniforms that once glamourized war have disappeared.