Long ago I heard the story of the South Italian prince who interrupted a discussion about the army’s new uniforms with “dress them in red, blue, or yellow, they will run away all the same.” The story embodies a truth that there is a big difference between looking like an army and being an army (and that some types of reform have more of an impact than others). But where does it come from? Twentieth-century British writers like Bernard Cornwell love telling stories about European foreigners and their national deficiencies, and I grew up reading a lot of twentieth-century British and US writers.
Here is a version in English from 1912:
It will be well here briefly to describe the composition and character of the Neapolitan army, since the tale of its destruction is to play so large a part in these volumes. … As a boy he (Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies) had been found one day by his grandfather, Ferdinand I., studying a new uniform for the troops: “Dress them how you like,” said the cheerful old man, “they will run away all the same.” (De Cesare, i, 154)George Macaulay Trevelyan, Garibaldi and the Thousand (Longmans, Green, and Co.: London, 1912) p. 133 https://archive.org/details/garibaldithousan00trev/page/132/mode/2up
Some of the excellent posters on The Miniatures Page found another version in French:
Les Napolitians justifièrent, à cette époque [décembre 1798], l’opinion que le roi Ferdinand exprimait, plus tarde, à son fils, lorsqu’il s’occupait à changer les uniformes : “Habille-les de la couleur que tu voudras, bleu, rouge ou jaune; cela ne les empèchera pas de se sauver.”P. Lahure (ed.), Souvenirs de la vie militaire du lieutenant général baron L. J. Lahure 1787-1815 (Paris : A. Lahure, 1895) p. 178 http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k6367398h
People with low and suspicious minds point out that Lahure wrote his memoirs long after the fact, and would probably not have been in position to see Ferdinand II with his father. If you notice, the author, editor, and publisher all have the same last name. So its possible that its just a story which got attributed to a specific person so it would sound truthy. But if its nonsense, its nonsense from 19th century France. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that exotic nonsense is the best nonsense.
(scheduled 4 June 2022)