COLOURS, MILITARY, the flags carried by infantry regiments and battalions, sometimes also by troops of other arms. Cavalry regiments and other units have as a rule standards and guidons (see Flag). Colours are generally embroidered with mottoes, symbols, and above all with the names of battles.
From the earliest time at which men fought in organized bodies of troops, the latter have possessed some sort of insignia visible over all the field of battle, and serving as a rallying-point for the men of the corps and an indication of position for the higher leaders and the men of other formed bodies. In the Roman army the eagle, the vexillum, etc. had all the moral and sentimental importance of the colours of to-day. During the dark and the middle ages, however, the basis of military force being the individual knight or lord, the banner, or other flag bearing his arms, replaced the regimental colour which had signified the corporate body and claimed the devotion of each individual soldier in the ranks, though the original meaning of the colour as a corps, not a personal distinction, was sometimes maintained by corporate bodies (such as trade-gilds) which took the field as such. An example is the famous carroccio or standard on wheels, which was frequently brought into the field of battle by the citizen militia of the Italian cities, and was fought for with the same ardour as the royal standard in other medieval battles.
The application of the word "colour" to such insignia, however, dates only from the 16th century. It has been suggested that, as the professional captain gradually ousted the nobleman from the command of the drilled and organized companies of foot - the man of gentle birth, of course, maintained his ascendancy in the cavalry far longer - the leaders of such bodies, no longer possessing coat-armour and individual banners, had recourse to small flags of distinctive colour instead. "Colour" is in the 16th century a common name in England and middle Europe for the unit of infantry; in German the Fähnlein (colour) of landsknechts was a strong company of more than 300 foot. The ceremonial observances and honours paid nowadays to the colours of infantry were in fact founded for the most part by the landsknechts, for whom the flag (carried by their "ensign") was symbolical of their intense regimental life and feeling. The now universal customs of constituting the colour guard of picked men and of saluting the colours were in equal honour then; before that indeed, the appearance of the personal banner of a nobleman implied his actual presence with it, and the due honours were paid, but the colour of the 16th century was not the distinction of one man, but the symbol of the corporate life and unity of the regiment, and thus the new colour ceremonial implied the same allegiance to an impersonal regimental spirit, which it has (with the difference that the national spirit has been blended with the regimental) retained ever since. The old soldier rallied to the colours as a matter of habit in the confusion of battle, and the capture or the loss of a colour has always been considered a special event, glorious or the reverse, in the history of a regiment, the importance of this being chiefly sentimental, but having as a very real background the fact that, if its colour was lost, a regiment was to all intents and purposes dissolved and dispersed. Frederick the Great and Napoleon always attached the highest importance to the maintenance at all costs of the regimental colours. Even over young troops the influence of the colour has been extraordinary, and many generals have steadied their men in the heat of battle by taking a regimental colour themselves to lead the advance or to form up the troops. Thus in the first battle of Bull Run (1861) the raw Confederate troops were rallied under a heavy fire by General Joseph Johnston, their commander-in-chief, who stood with a colour in his hand until the men gathered quickly in rank and file. The archduke Charles at Aspern (1809) led his young troops to the last assault with a colour in his hand. Marshal Schwerin was killed at the battle of Prague while carrying a regimental colour.
In the British army colours are carried by guards and line (except rifle) battalions, each battalion having two colours, the king's and the regimental. The size of the colour is 3 ft. 9 in. by 3 ft., and the length of the stave 8 ft. 7 in. The colour has a gold fringe and gold and crimson tassels, and bears various devices and "battle honours." Both colours are carried by subaltern officers, and an escort of selected non-commissioned officers forms the rest of the colour party. The ceremony of presenting new colours is most impressive. The old colours are "trooped" (see below) before being cased and taken to the rear. The new colours are then placed against a pile of drums and then uncased by the senior majors and the senior subalterns. The consecration follows, after which the colours are presented to the senior subalterns. The battalion gives a general salute when the colours are unfurled, and the ceremony concludes with a march past. "Trooping the colour" is a more elaborate ceremonial peculiar to the British service, and is said to have been invented by the duke of Cumberland. In this, the colour is posted near the left of the line, the right company or guard moves up to it, and an officer receives it, after which the guard with the colour files between the ranks of the remainder from left to right until the right of the line is reached.
In the United States army the infantry regiment has two colours, the national and the regimental. They are carried in action.
In the French army one colour (drapeau) is carried by each infantry regiment. It is carried by an officer, usually a sous-lieutenant, and the guard is composed of a non-commissioned officer and a party of "first class" soldiers. Regiments which have taken an enemy's colour or standard in battle have their own colours "decorated," that is, the cross of the Legion of Honour is affixed to the stave near the point. Battle honours are embroidered on the white of the tricolour. The eagle was, in the First and Third Empires, the infantry colour, and was so called from the gilt eagle which surmounted the stave. The chasseurs à pied, like the rifles of the British army, carry no colours, but the battalion quartered for the time being at Vincennes carries a colour for the whole arm in memory of the first chasseurs de Vincennes. As in other countries, colours are saluted by all armed bodies and by individual officers and men. When the drapeau is not present with the regiment its place is taken by an ordinary flag.
The colours of the German infantry, foot artillery and engineers vary in design with the states to which the corps belong in the first instance; thus, black and white predominate in Prussian colours, red in those of Württemberg regiments, blue in Bavarian, and so on. The point of the colour stave is decorated in some cases with the iron cross, in memory of the War of Liberation and of the war of 1870. Each battalion of an infantry regiment has its own colour, which is carried by a non-commissioned officer, and guarded as usual by a colour party. The colour is fastened to the stave by silver nails, and the ceremony of driving the first nail into the stake of a new colour is one of great solemnity. Rings of silver on the stave are engraved with battle honours, the names of those who have fallen in action when carrying the colour, and other commemorative names and dates. The oath taken by each recruit on joining is sworn on the colour (Fahneneid).
The practice in the British army of leaving the colours behind on taking the field dates from the battle of Isandhlwana (22nd January 1879), in which Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill lost their lives in endeavouring to save the colours of the 24th regiment. In savage warfare, in which the British regular army is more usually engaged, it is true that no particular reason can be adduced for imperilling the colours in the field. It is questionable, however, whether this holds good in civilized warfare. Colours were carried in action by both the Russians and the Japanese in the war of 1904-5, and they were supplemented on both sides by smaller flags or camp colours. The conception of the colour as the emblem of union, the rallying-point, of the regiment has been mentioned above. Many hold that such a rallying-point is more than ever required in the modern guerre de masses, when a national short-service army is collected in all possible strength on the decisive battle-field, and that scarcely any risks or loss of life would be disproportionate to the advantages gained by the presence of the colours. There is further a most important factor in the problem, which has only arisen in recent years through modern perfection in armament. In the first stages of an attack, the colours could remain, as in the past, with the closed reserves or line of battle, and they would not be uncased and sent into the thick of the fight at all hazards until the decisive assault was being delivered. Then, it is absolutely essential, as a matter of tactics, that the artillery (q.v.), which covers the assault with all the power given it by modern science and training, should be well informed as to the progress of the infantry. This covering fire was maintained by the Japanese until the infantry was actually in the smoke of their own shrapnel. With uniforms of neutral tint the need of some means whereby the artillery officers can, at 4000 yds. range, distinguish their own infantry from that of the enemy, is more pronounced than ever. The best troops are apt to be unsteadied by being fired into by their own guns (e.g. at Elandslaagte), and the more powerful the shell, and the more rapid and far-ranging the fire of the guns, the more necessary it becomes to prevent such accidents. A practicable solution of the difficulty would be to display the colours as of old, and this course would not only have to an enhanced degree the advantages it formerly possessed, but would also provide the simplest means for ensuring the vitally necessary co-operation of infantry and artillery in the decisive assault. The duty of carrying the colours was always one of special danger, and sometimes, in the old short-range battles, every officer who carried a flag was shot. That this fate would necessarily overtake the bearer under modern conditions is far from certain, and in any case the few men on the enemy's side who would be brave enough to shoot accurately under heavy shell fire would, however destructive to the colour party, scarcely inflict as much damage on the battalion as a whole, as a dozen or more accidental shells from the massed artillery of its own side.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)