The Colours

By T. Vicary
The Connecting File, Vol. XI, No. 2, April, 1932

Flags and banners have been carried in one form or another by fighting men as a rallying point from time immemorial.

In ancient days some device was fashioned in wood or metal and carried on a pole. This banner was usually blessed by the priests before battle to give victory and a religious ceremony appears to have been connected with the presentation of battle banners from that time to the present day. Later a piece of cloth was attached to the pole so that its fluttering in the breeze would enable the banner to be seen more readily.

Gradually this piece of cloth became more pronounced and a device was painted or worked upon it, thus was the flag evolved.

As ages passed the general form and design of the flag developed on more or less definite lines. The Red Cross of St. George carried by early English armies and the flags of the city guilds carried by the trained bands of London in Queen Elizabeth's time are early examples.

At one time each troop or company bore a flag, but as they became grouped into regiments the number of flags was reduced until 1743 the number for an Infantry battalion was fixed at two. These two were silken flags known as Colours.

The first or King's Colour consisted of the Great Union (the Union Jack). On it in the centre was placed in Roman numerals, the number of the regiment. Sometimes the royal cypher below the crown was shewn. In such cases the number appeared in the dexter canton (upper corner next to the pole.)

The second, or regimental, Colour consisted of a plain sheet the colour of the facings of the regiment with the union in the dexter canton. In the center was shown the number or name of the regiment on a shieldy the whole surrounded by the union wreath of roses and thistles with later (after 1800) the shamrock.

The shield was later omitted, the number or name together with any special badge being shewn alone.

The Colours up to 1865 were 6 feet 6 inches in length (fly) and 6 feet 2 inches deep.

They were slipped on a pike staff 9 feet 10 inches in length, being tied at the top with a gold and coloured cord ending with tassels corresponding to the colour of the facings. The colour had no fringe.

It appears that as late as 1757 many regiments continued to carry company colours. In 1768 names to aommemorate battles were first authorized to be borne on the'regimental colour as "battle honours." Special devices such as the sphinx of Egypt, the dragon of China were later also authorized to be borne on the regimental Colour of certain regiments.

About 1865 the size of colours was reduced to three feet nine inches fly by three feet deep.

A fringe of red and gold for the King's Colour and gold and the colour of the facings on the regimental colour was added round the edge of the "flag."

The pike staff was reduced in length to 8 feet 7% inches and the royal crest (Lion and Crown) replaced the plain pike head.

The old large colours were very heavy and unwieldy, and even with the smaller colours, with the changing conditions of warfare the practicability of carrying colours in action became a debatable point. Many valuable lives were sacrificed in carrying and protecting the colours and it was finally decided in 1879 that they would no longer be carried in war.

In 1881 on the re-organization of the British Army, the colours of many regiments of the line were altered to conform with the new organization. The old single battalions were linked together into regiments with new Territorial titles. All battalions of the regiment bore the same badges and honours with just the number of the particular battalion shown in Roman numerals in the centre or where a special regimental badge was authorized, in the dexter canton to distinguish one battalion from another.

The facings of many regiments were changed. which in consequence affected the colour of the regimental colour. In general the rule became:

Where a regiment had red, white or black facings the Red cross of St. George was placed over the "sheet" of the regimental Colour. During the past thirty years there have been many changes, regiments regaining their facings of ancient times; one of the latest being our Allied regiment the Gloucestershire Regiment which has been authorized to wear prinrose yellow.

The union in the dexter canton of the regimental Colour was abolished.

The Colours of the Foot Guards differed from that of the line regiments in that the first or (at this time) the Queen's Colour was a crimson sheet while the second or regimental colour was the Great Union.

With slight modifications the regulations regarding Colours of infantry have remained unchanged since 1881.

Colours are designed by H. M. Inspector of Regimental Colours (an officer of the College of Arms) and authorized by the King.

Colours issued to regiments are normally made by the Army Clothing Department.

The normal life of a "stand" of colours issued to infantry regiments is thirty-three years.

When new colours are issued the old ones are usually "deposited" in some church or public building which has some connection with the regiment (e.g.) where the regiment was first raised.

The place where colours are deposited is not necessarily where the headquarters of the regiment is located. Colours once deposited on ceasing to be carried by the regiment are never moved again except for some extraordinary reason and then only with special permission of the clerical or civil authorities concerned as well as the military authorities.

On a unit proceeding on active service colours are in the ordinary course of events returned to Ordnance for "safe keeping," though they may with special permission be handed over to some approved authority.

The Colours carried by [The Royal Canadian Regiment] up to this year [1932] were presented at Toronto on 11th October, 1901, by H.M. The King, when he was Duke of Cornwall and York. They were received by Serjeant Camm and Serjeant Hanlon. Lt.-Col. L. Buchan, C.M.G., commanded the parade.

The description of the colours is as follows:

The first or King's Colour.

The Great Union. In the centre the Royal Cypher within a circle inscribed "Royal Canadian Regiment," surmounted by the Imperial Crown. The Second or King's Colour.

A blue sheet. In the centre on a crimson ground the Royal Cypher within a circle inscribed "Royal Canadian Regiment," surmounted by the Imperial Crown, the whole surrounded by a wreath of Maple leaves.

In each of the four corners a fleur de lis between two Maple leaves.

The following battle honours are borne on the Colours:—

It will be noted that a wreath of Maple leaves replaces the union wreath of rose, thistle and shamrock of British Regiments.

The colours were badly damaged during the explosion at Halifax in December, 1917, being found some days later under the debris of the Officers' Mess, at Wellington Barracks, covered in snow. For this reason the battle honours granted for the war of 1914-1919 have not been put on.

These honours will appear on the new Colours on a wreath of laurel leaves surrounding the universal wreath of Maple leaves.

When battle honours granted to a regiment are more than ten in number they are shown on scrolls on a wreath of laurel.

Owing to the great number of battle honours granted to British regiments for service during the war of 1914-19 it was not feasible for them to be borne on the colours.

It was therefore ruled that only ten of the honours could be borne on the Colours and that they would be carried on the King's Colour. Regimental Committees were appointed to select the "Colour honours."

Canadian regiments having at the most four battalions as against for example fifty-two of the Northumberland Fusiliers, this difficulty did not arise.

Nevertheless only ten honours are borne on the colours, but they are carried on the Regimental Colour and not the King's Colour.

In spite of the regulation of 1743 reducing the number of Colours of an Infantry battalion to two yet many regiments carried three and some times four colours on parade. Most of these extra colours were flags presented for some special service.

The existence of this regulation and subsequent orders came to notice of the Regiment in connection with the flag now known as the South African banner given to the Regiment by King Edward VII.

The South African banner is a plain silken union which was given to commemorate the Regiment's meritorious service in South Africa, it being the first occasion on which a regiment of the overseas dominions took part in a war for the Empire outside its own country. It was presented by H. E. The Governor-General Earl of Minto, at Ottawa, on 11th October, 1904, and was accepted on parade by Captain H. Kemmis-Betty. The parade was under the command of Lt.-Col. T.R. Hemming.

For some years it was looked upon as a third Colour but when authority was asked to carry it as such the regiment was informed it was a banner and could not be treated as a colour, it having been ruled by King William IV and again confirmed by Edward VII that only two Colours could be carried by an Infantry battalion. The correspondence received on the matter was of considerable historical interest. In 1920, at Montreal, a special ceremonial was drawn up for trooping the South African banner, but of late this parade has been discontinued. The details of the parade can be found as an appendix to the 1925 edition of Regimental Standing Orders.

Thus briefly has the history of Colours in general and the Regimental Colours in particular been outlined. No longer are colours carried in battle as rallying points yet they remain the sacred symbol of the endurance, bravery and sacrifice of thousands of men who have passed through a regiment's ranks and remain as the rallying point of the morale of a regiment.