History of the military beard
The Pioneer Sergeant is the only position within the British Army allowed to have a beard when on parade.
Pioneer Sergeants have existed since the 1700s. The tradition began when every British infantry company had one 'pioneer' who would march in front of the regiment.
He would wear a 'stout' apron, which protected his uniform whilst he was performing his duties, and carry an axe to clear the path for anyone following behind.
It was also the Pioneer Sergeant's duty to kill horses that had been wounded in battle.
He would often have to cut off one of the stricken horse's legs so that its rider could receive a new animal - each had a number branded onto its hoof to prevent false claims, such as if a cavalryman had sold his mount.
The pioneer sergeant also acted as the blacksmith for the unit. As a result, he was allowed a beard to protect his face from the heat of the forge.
Nowadays the Pioneer Sergeant is usually responsible for carpentry, joinery and similar types of work.
Until the 19th Century, facial hair was pretty unusual in the British Army. But by the mid 1800s, as a result of the wars with India and Asia, a lot of soldiers stationed in those countries found themselves adopting facial hair, moustaches and side whiskers, as was fitting with local culture. In the mid-19th Century, during the Crimean War, servicemen were told to grow large moustaches and beards during the winter.
After the Crimean war, rules were introduced to prevent soldiers of all ranks shaving above their top lip, this basically meant moustaches were compulsory to any that could grow them. Although beards were later forbidden. This stayed in place until 1916, when Lieutenant-General Sir Nevil Macready, set an Army Order to abolish this rule. His hatred of his own moustache meant his first course of action after abolishing the act, was to shave his moustache off straight away.
Since 1916, the British Army, Royal Air Force, and Royal Marines have allowed moustaches and side whiskers. Beards are not covered under this acceptance, apart from when they are grown for medical or religious reasons.
Beards are permitted to special forces on secret missions. Most recently, The British Army have been sporting stubble, moustaches and beards in Afghanistan in an effort to blend in with locals. Facial hair is regarded as a sign of virility and authority and thus bearded servicemen are treated with more respect.