The Colours
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The Colours

"A moth-eaten rag on a worm-eaten pole
It does not look likely, to stir a mans soul
'Tis the deeds that were done neath the moth-eaten rag
When the pole was a staff, and the rag was a flag"
Sir Edward Hamley

Colours are the memorials to the great deeds of a regiment and the symbol of its spirit as expressed in those deeds. When colours were carried on active service, acts of heroic self-sacrifice were often performed in their defence, for they were the rallying point of a regiment and often at the scene of its last stand. This association of colours with heroic deeds has caused them to be regarded with veneration. Indeed, before colours are taken into use, they are consecrated, as battle flags have been associated with religion since ancient times. In the Legions of ancient Rome, the Standards were worshipped. Pope Alexander II is said to have consecrated the banner of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

A Military Order dated 1634 required that the first thing a Captain shall do is "To cause his Colours to be blessed". In Canada, the consecration ceremony follows a standardized form which is delivered by the Chaplain General and the regimental padre or some other clerical representation appointed to the task.

Toward the end of the 16th century, the term colours was being introduced to denote an identifying banner of distinctive colours. Richard Barretts Theoricks and Practike of Modern Wars, published in 1589 states that "We Englishmen do call them of late colours, by reason of the variety of colours they be made Of ...."

As could be expected, the variety, numbers and nature of colours started to get out of hand as each regimental commander was restricted only by his imagination in the design of his banners. This situation was brought under control in 1751 when a British Army regulation prescribed that there would be only two colours in each regiment: The First, or King's colour and the Second, or regimental colour. This reduction of the number of colours to two per battalion has remained to the present day, except that Rifle regiments do not carry colours. The original employment of Rifles was as scouts or skirmishers, where their inconspicuous nature of fighting would have been jeopardized by displaying a coloured banner.

The second colour had always been popularly known as the regimental colour but it wasn't until 1844 that the name was officially recognized.

Why do we carry two colours? King George VI is quoted as saying of the Kings colour " is the Kings colour, and therefore the symbol of the loyalty which you owe to your country. This then is the paramount of the two. That colour which represents the regiment ... enshrines the history embodies the traditions and represents the ideals... " (of the regiment).

History is filled with descriptions of innumerable acts of heroism performed at the defence of the colours. Stanley C Johnson in his book The Flags of Our Fighting Army writes of a typical event: "Take the case of Lieutenant Anstruther, a youngster of eighteen, in the Welsh Fusiliers. In defending the colour he carried up the treacherous heights of Alma, a shot laid him low, and eager hands snatched up the emblem without a moments hesitation lest it should fall into the possession of the enerny. No one thought of the danger which might overtake them whilst guarding the cherished but conspicuous banner, all were resolved to perish rather than should it be wrested from their grasp. And, let it be said, five men won the Victoria Cross that day at the Alma for their gallant defence of the colours".

Fortunately, we have now reached an age when valuable lives can no longer be spent in defending military flags in battle. Regulations prevent the taking of colours into battle. Before battle, they are ceremoniously laid up in an appropriate church or federal building for safekeeping, until the regiment returns.

Canadian Forces Administrative Orders govern the design of colours. The Queen's colour is based upon the national flag and incorporates the St. Edwards crown and the Royal cipher 'E 11 R'. The regimental colour basic design will vary depending on whether it represents a Guards, Highland or Infantry regiment. In Guards regiments the reverse is true; the national flag forms the basis for the regimental colour, with the badge of one of the companies superimposed rather than the Royal cypher; the central device of the Queen's colour is the same as that of the Governor General's personal standard.

Battle honours displayed on a regimental colour include the honours awarded to the unit for service prior to the First World War; a maximum of ten honours awarded during each World War; and a maximum of two honours awarded during the Korean conflict between 1950 and 1953. Foot Guards regiments are required to emblazon their battle honours on both the regimental and Queen's colours. Battle honours awarded to Rifle regiments are emblazoned on the appointments of that regiment, most commonly on the drums carried by the band or the cap badge of the regiment.

It is worth adding that the Engineers have no regimental colours, and the Artillery considers their guns their colours, and afford them the same respect as other units. Neither of the regiments take battle honours, both have the motto "Ubique," meaning everywhere, to denote the Battle Honours of their respective branches.

Today in Military History

December 16


FOSSO VECCHIO, effective dates for battle honour begin (to 18 Dec 44)

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With a Black Platoon in Combat

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