Corporal Robert Underhill

This photo was taken in 1870 and is an unusual view of a rank and file soldier of this period. The reason for the photo showing him in dress uniform and marching order rather than a more normal portrait was that Corporal Robert Underhill won first prize for the Best Turned Out soldier amongst all the dismounted troops in his division. The occasion was the Divisional Athletic Sports meeting at Aldershot on 15 July 1870. One representative from each regiment was chosen, making a line-up of 15 soldiers. So Corporal Underhill was not only the best turned-out man in the 2nd Battalion 13th Light Infantry but the best out of 15 units. The 2nd Battalion, which included two depot companies of the 1st Battalion was in Aldershot between June 1879 and October 1870, commanded by Lieut-Colonel Maunsell.

Robert Underhill enlisted with the 13th at Winchester on 22 June 1858 and was discharged on 29 July 1879. His battalion remained in the UK while the 1st Battalion were in Zululand. Underhill would have gone abroad to Malta with the 13th in 1877 and then India in 1878. If he left the regiment in 1879 then he would have had the good fortune to miss the cholera epidemic that struck the regiment at Kamptee in 1881. The uniform that he wears is the scarlet dress tunic that was introduced in 1868 which had pointed blue cuffs to replace the slash cuff style. The collar and shoulder straps were also blue, with no badge on the collar until a few years later. The shako was worn in this style from 1869 to 1878. Initially it was a blue shako but later changed to green. The falling green horsehair plume was replaced by a round ball tuft in 1874. He is holding a snider percussion breech-loading rifle which was replaced by the Martini Henry in Jan 1875. His knapsack is worn high on his back, with mess tins (in a waterproof cover) on top. This method of carrying equipment had changed little since the Napoleonic wars. It was modified in 1854 but not changed much until 1871.

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by Stephen Luscombe