Last modified: 2011-12-23 by rob raeside
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The following information has been provided as a response to a question as to when the use of regimental colours in battle was abandoned.
The colors of the 14th U.S. Infantry were carried in action during the Boxer Rebellion
in China in 1900. In fact, they were planted on the walls of Beijing on 14 November 1900. The
official reports of the 14th Infantry's operations can be read at
1-14th.com. This was nearly 20 years after the last
documented case of British Army colours being carried in combat.
Joe McMillan, 29 November 2006
Both the Japanese and Soviet armies in World War II still used their national
flags in combat at times, even as late as 1945. I have seen in a US museum
a Soviet Army regimental banner from World War II but am not aware if it was
ever used in combat or just had ceremonial uses.
Greg Biggs, 29 November 2006
The British Army's official last use was Majuba Hill, but they were certainly being carried by other nations in the Boxer Rebellion 1900-1. The British made use of White Ensigns [see below]; German Seebataillons and East Asia brigade had battalion colours [the later specially created] and described on this site in German and translated into English in a recent email; Japan used regimental colours; Russia ditto; France ditto; Italy had sailors and composite regiments and their colours remain a mystery; Austro-Hungary only had sailors and whether they had the naval ensign is also unclear. There are photos of the various allies on parade with colours, but none of them actually in action. However, that they were used is made quite clear by Col Vaughan, who wrote:
The British practice of carrying no colours in the field appeared at one time to be likely to cause serious inconvenience. We started without any colours, but by the time we arrived at Pekin the Lieutenant-General had a Union Jack (sic) carried with him, every squadron of cavalry carried one, and most of the infantry regiments carried one or two rolled up and ready for use. They were absolutely necessary, both for display to prevent any of our allies firing on us, as it is extremely difficult to ascertain to what men belong who are in khaki, even when at no great distance, and also for hoisting on any gate or other place captured by British troops. If this was not done, the troops of the nationality next arriving promptly hoisted theirs. All the foreign troops had colours with them.
Lt Colonel Vaughan, 7th Rajputs.
Interestingly, Naval Lt Keyes makes the same point: 'During the earlier actions of the campaign, before the army arrived from India I had noticed how much we had always suffered by never having flags to hoist on captured positions, whereas the Russians and Japanese were liberally supplied with them and used them freely often on places and objects which we had captured. This was very noticeable at the Taku forts and in the actions around Tientsin, and occasionally led to unpleasant incidents.' . It was this experience which caused Keyes to take 2 flags with him on the march to Peking. [Regt Hist 1st Sikhs]
The comment that all other Allied nations had colours is also important, as it both confirms what was already known for some of them, and makes it quite clear that those for whom it is not specifically recorded also carried and used colours on the field of battle.
Rather bizarrely to us now, Vaughan goes on to speculate that colours will have to 're-adopted' in the field because of the extended use of khaki, 'It seems probable that before long colours, or, at any rate, the national ensign, will have to be carried by us in the field. All foreigners appear to be adopting khaki; the British, Americans, Japanese, Germans, Austrians, and French were all wearing it at Peking within eight months of their arrival there; and when the day comes that opposing armies in the field are both khaki clad, it will result in a choice of evils, whether colours shall be carried, with the result of more or less drawing the enemy's fire, or whether they shall not be carried, in which case it is pretty certain that our men will often be fired on by our own side.' One answer to the, still present, problem of 'friendly fire'.
Lt Keyes RN specifically mentions the White Ensign he took with him as a member of Gen Gaselee's staff and giving it to either the 7th Rajputs or the 24th Punjab Infantry [unfortunately he could not remember which] to carry during the attack on Peking. Certainly it gives one of them what must be a unique distinction for a British Army infantry regiment, of having gone into battle carrying a White Ensign. [Regt Hist 1st Sikhs].As to the Russians, there is a photo of a battle damaged regimental colour carried in the Russo-Japanese War in Ivanov, Jowett & Karachtchouk, The Russo-Japanese War 1904-5, Osprey, 2004.
The Battle of Majuba took place on 28 February 1881 and the only piece
of insignia that the Boers captured on that occcasion was
the baton (or mace?) of the bandmaster of the 92nd Highlanders - no colours.
I believe that it was two years before, after the annihilation by the Zulus
of the British force invading Zululand at the Battle of Isandhlwana in
January 1779, and the near loss of the colours on that occasion, that the
British Army decided that the colours would in future be sent to a place of
safety when regiments go into action.
Andries Burgers, 30 November 2006
The French lost four regimental colours in action in 1914 - those of the 20e, 250e and 309e régiments d'infanterie and the 1er régiment de tirailleurs algèriens. A number of others were burnt to prevent their capture. I have seen a photo of the colour of an un-named regiment being carried in an attack in the trenches, but generally speaking, colours were not carried in action, even if they were still kept at regimental headquarters in the field.
Sources: Brunon, Jean, 'Drapeaux français pris par les Allemands en 1914', in: Intermédaire des chercheurs et curieux, vol 101 15th April 1938, cols 303-5 "Boisvallée", in ibid, vol 101 30th June 1938, cols 538-39 Anon., in ibid, vol 101 15th September 1938 col 685
The German Army lost thirteen colours in action during the same war,
plus another sixty-five burnt to prevent capture.
Source: Fiebig, Ewald, 'Unsterbliche Treue' (Berlin, Andermann, 1936)
Ian Sumner, 30 November 2006
I would think that the risk of loss of the colors was not the driving factor in various armies' decisions that they should not be carried in battle. If anything, the risk of losing them in modern warfare (late 19th century to the present), conducted at greater ranges over a more extended battlefield, would be less than in the much closer-range combat typical of earlier wars. Instead, the same military considerations would have made the display of the colors in the field a detriment to combat effectiveness--their presence would risk the safety of the troops as well as their opportunities for success. At the same time, the traditional function of the colors in maneuvering troops (to serve as a guide along which a line of battle would form) became obsolete as linear tactics became passé.
That said, as far as I can determine, it was in or about 1911 that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps decided to abandon the tradition of carrying colors into battle. The 1904 Army Regulations (as I found them in a volume that had changes posted up through 1907) still specified in article 227 that silk colors were to be carried in battle. (The specification of "silk" reflects the existence at the time of bunting national colors carried during peacetime drills.) The 1911 Infantry Drill Regulations, however, stipulated in article 773 that when the battalion takes battle formation, the color guard (with the colors) joins the regimental reserve. Previous editions of the drill regulations stipulated that the colors were posted in the center of the regimental line. The 1918 U.S. Navy Landing Force Manual, which also governed Marine operations, contains exactly the same provision.
However, colors were still to be taken on campaign. Indeed, when the 27th U.S. Infantry was preparing to embark for the 1919 Siberian expedition, the it successfully cited the need for a set of colors in good condition to carry on active service as justification for replacing its deteriorated 14-year-old set. The 1923 Army Regulations also made clear that colors were to be taken with the regiment during wartime and kept at the regimental/battalion headquarters. To this day when U.S. military units deploy for operations they take their colors with them, keeping them at the unit headquarters.
Finally, it may be of interest that when the Bataan Peninsula fell
to Japanese forces in 1942, the 31st U.S. Infantry Regiment buried
its colors and the regimental punch bowl to prevent them from
falling into enemy hands when the regiment surrendered. The colors
and punch bowl were recovered after the liberation of the
Philippines in 1945.
Joe McMillan, 30 November 2006