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Battle honours on flags

Last modified: 2002-09-21 by phil nelson
Keywords: battle honours | sweden | united kingdom | france | napoleon | gibraltar | minden | egypt | emsdorf | namur |
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A question was posed:
Did any practice for battle honors exist before these times, and were the British and French the only ones to do so? When did the practice end (I know the US Army today uses streamers instead for the regimental flags. About three or four Confederate flags had streamers during the Civil War.)?

In response, Todd Mills contributed:

Sweden used battle honours painted or embroidered on flags during the Napoleonic era. I don't recall any other countries using them, but you might check Terence Wise's "Military Flags of the World in Colour" (Blandford Press, 1977). The British still use battle honours on flags, but they have had to fine tune the rules several times in order to accommodate three centuries' worth.

The British were probably the first to use battle honours on flags, and the practice did not take hold until the Napoleonic wars. The first and only battle honour granted to cavalry before this time was "Emsdorf", granted in 1768 to the 15th Light Dragoons for an action in 1760.

The first battle honour for infantry is now considered to be the motto "Virtutis Namurcensis Proemium", recognised in the 1747 Clothing Regulations as a distinction of the 18th Regiment of Foot for bravery at the battle of Namur in 1695. But as a Latin motto referring to a battle, this honour remains unique. In 1910 fourteen regiments, including the 18th, were granted the textual honour "Namur".

Some battle honours in the British Army are actually badges, and the first real battle honour for infantry was such a badge. "Gibraltar" was awarded to four regiments in 1784 for the seige of 1779-83, and consists of a Castle and Key subscribed "Montis Insignia Calpe" and superscribed "Gibraltar". Since there were other actions at Gibraltar, this one was qualified in 1909 as being "Gibraltar, 1779-83". The next battle honour granted was "Minden" in 1801 for an action in 1759, and later in 1801 "Egypt" in the form of a Sphinx badge was granted to over forty regiments. Several honours were then granted almost immediately to various regiments during the Peninsular campaign, and the practice became firmly established. These honours were lettered rather large directly on the flag with little or no thought to future growth. Three battle honours and a central badge tended to fill a whole flag. By the end of the Napoleonic wars most British flags were in shreds, and most regiments received new ones in the 1820s. The battle honours on these were much smaller and mounted on scrolls. Some sixty battle honours were subsequently granted retroactively for the 17th and 18th centuries, the most recent being "Belleisle" granted in 1951 to eight regiments for an action in 1761.

France apparently had only one battle honour (worn by the Regiment de la Couronne in the mid 18th century) before the Napoleonic era. In 1809 Napoleon granted some honours to his Army in Italy. Also in 1809 the 84th Regiment of the Line carried the motto "Un Contre Dix" (on the plate below its eagle) for its stand against 10,000 Austrians at St. Leonard near Graz. This honour was personally granted by Napoleon. A decree of 15 Dec. 1811 specified the design of a whole new set of flags for the Army, and battle honours were officially recognised for the first time -- to be carried on the reverse side of the tricolour (aligned centrally on the white, but sometimes overlapping into the red and blue for long words). The honours were for battles personally commanded by Napoleon.

Some sources:

Terence Wise & Guido Rosignoli. "Flags of the Napoleonic Wars" [in three vols.; Men-at-arms series, nos. 77, 78, 115] (Osprey, 1978-1981).

T.J. Edwards. "Standards, Guidons and Colours of the Commonwealth Forces". (Gale & Polden, 1953).

H.C.B. Cook. "The Battle Honours of the British and Indian Armies, 1662-1982". (Leo Cooper, 1987)

N.B. Leslie. "The Battle Honours of the British and Indian Armies, 1695-1914". (Leo Cooper, 1970).

Anthony Baker. "Battle Honours of the British and Commonwealth Armies" (Ian Allan).

Eric Hamilton. "Colours of the Regular Army Infantry of the Line". (Military Historical Society Bulletin, special no. 1, 1968).

Dino Lemonofides. "British Cavalry Standards". (Almark, 1971).

Dino Lemonofides. "British Infantry Colours". (Almark, 1971).

Teg Bahadur Kapur. "Regimental Colours and Ceremonials in the Indian Army". (Vikas, 1983).

Sarbans Singh. "Battle Honours of the Indian Army, 1757-1971" (Vision Books, 1993).

Todd Mills, 18 June 1998

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