Battle Honours

By Major T.J. Edwards, M.B.E., F.R.Hist.S.
The Army Quarterly, Vol. LXXII, January, 1957

With the recent publication of the "Report of the Battles Nomenclature Committee as approved by the Army Council" and Army Order 1 of 1956, etc., arising therefrom, the interest in battle honours generally has been revived, and this is likely to be maintained until long after the awards are published in Army Orders. As hostilities ceased in 1945, to those who are unaware of the various processes that produce battle honours, and the meticulous care that has to be observed at each stage, this may seem a long time between the battles and their commemoration, but this is an entirely mistaken view. In this connection one has to remember that battle honours of any description are not granted for each and every kind of engagement, that the countries of the Commonwealth and Colonies are equally concerned and that all claims have to be verified to ensure that all the conditions under which the grants are made have been fulfilled. Even now, as stated in paragraph 21 of the Report, the operations in the South Pacific and South-West Pacific theatres in 1942-45, involving the forces of the Australian and New Zealand Armies, have yet to be dealt with.

The Battles Nomenclature Committee were appointed in May, 1946, and meetings began in the following month, and they had hoped to complete their work within a few months "by allotting the work to a series of sub-committees meeting concurrently." But this was found to be impracticable because they had to rely for "documentary evidence on the Historical Section of the Cabinet Office, who were already carrying out similar research work in preparation of the war histories." As such duplication of work could not be justified, the Committee asked the Historical Section to supply the documentary evidence upon which to base their deliberations, which it agreed to do. In view of this the Committee suspended its work in January, 1947, and did not resume it again until April, 1953, by which time the material supplied by the Historical Section had advanced to such a stage to be of value to the Committee for its purpose. (See Introduction to the Report.) In view of the vastness of the operations and the differing forces the Committee had to consider, it is highly commendable that it was able to draw up an agreed Report and have it published in so short a time from its resumption of work less than three years previously.

The procedure for granting honours for the First World War and the Second World War is very similar. Departmentally there are three stages: (i) the production of material by the Historical Section; (ii) the consideration of this material by the Battles Nomenclature Committee and the framing of its Report for approval by the Army Council, and (iii) the activities of the Battle Honours Committee, who base their deliberations on the Report of the Battles Nomenclature Committee and formulate the conditions for the grant of each award and investigate all claims thereto. These conditions are then published and Regimental Committees are formed to prepare lists of battle honours which appear to fulfil the conditions. The lists are then submitted to the Battle Honours Committee by the Colonels of Regiments and Colonels-Commandant of Corps concerned, viz., those of cavalry, Royal Armoured Corps and infantry.

These formal and settled arrangements have not always existed, but have been evolved in stages from the time the first honour for war service was granted in 1695; and to understand the present position accurately it is necessary to give a brief history of this evolution.

The idea of making awards of this kind was undoubtedly inspired by the granting of "Augmentations of Honour" by sovereigns to the personal Arms of nobility in the Middle Ages and later. For instance, Henry VIII granted to the Duke of Norfolk an Augmentation in recognition of his victory at Flodden on 9th September, 1513, the particular device being a demi-lion rampant from the Royal Scottish Arms, he having defeated the forces of James IV of Scotland on that occasion. For his illustrious services the Duke of Wellington was granted the Union Badge (without the Imperial Crown) as an Honourable Augmentation. A lesser known grant of an interesting kind was that to the Earl of Strafford who, as Brigadier Byng in the Peninsular War, rushed forward during the action at Mouguerre on 13th December, 1813, grasping the Regimental Colour of the 31st Foot (now The East Surrey Regiment) and planted it firmly on the French position, an action that so inspired his troops that they soon overcame the enemy. A representation of this Colour has ever since been borne in the Arms of the Earls of Strafford.

The military counterpart of Augmentations of Honour are called, generically, Honorary Distinctions, and take various forms, viz., badges, names of engagements, mottoes, wreath of Colour pike, streamer on Colour, commemorative regiment, commemorative truncheon, dress distinctions, cockades and honour titles. All of these forms are rewards for service in the field, but in the process of time the term "Battle Honour" has acquired a restricted meaning, referring solely to the name of an engagement or campaign, mainly due to the fact that the other forms are not now granted, or but rarely. Space does not admit of more than a few examples of each form.


The first honorary distinction to be granted officially was to The Royal Irish Regiment (disbanded in 1922): it was made by William III in recognition of its services at the siege of Namur in 1695. The award took the form of one of the King's own badges, the Lion of Nassau, with the motto "Virtutis Namurcensis Proemium" (The reward of valour at Namur)‘. The well-known Sphinx upon a tablet inscribed "Egypt" was granted to the regiments that took part in the campaign against the French in Egypt in 1801. The Gloucestershire Regiment also wear the badge at the back of their headdress, having fought back-to-back at the battle of Alexandria on 21st March, 1801. For service in India a number of regiments have been awarded badges representing elephants or tigers, and similar service in China is denoted by the Dragon. The badge of the Castle and Key superscribed "Gibraltar, 1779-83" with the motto "Montis Insignia Calpe" was granted to the regiments that took part in the defence of The Rock during those years when it was besieged by the French and Spaniards. A few regiments have Naval Crowns superscribed with a date, and these denote service in the fleet on those occasions. A mural crown superscribed "Jellalabad" is borne solely by The Somerset Light Infantry and commemorates their gallant defence of that place in 1842. There are other badges, but the foregoing examples show how the original idea of King William III was later applied. These badges were, originally, granted for bearing on Colours, but have since been incorporated into clothing badges.

As far as badges are concerned, an innovation is announced in Army Order 1 of 1956, para. 7, in that certain yeomanry and infantry regiments, which were converted to other arms during the late war, but which have since resumed their original status, may be awarded an Honorary Distinction in the form of a badge in place of Honours, to denote their war service in another arm. Such badges will be borne solely on the Regimental Colour of the unit concerned.

Names of Engagements and Campaigns

The first name to be granted was "Emsdorff" to the 15th Light Dragoons (converted to Hussars in 1807), for the action on 16th July, 1760. This appears in the "General View" attached to the Royal Warrant for Clothing of 19th December, 1768. At this engagement one squadron of the I 5th was led into battle by a boy-officer aged twelve years, John Floyd; and up to a few years ago one or other of this gallant boy's descendants served in the 15th Hussars. The next grant was "Gibraltar," made in 1784 for the defence of 1779-83; the Castle and Key, mentioned above, were not added for this campaign until the early part of the last century. "Minden," for the battle on Ist August, 1759, was granted to the "unsurpassable six" regiments (Thomas Carlyle) in 1801, and "Maida" (4th July, 1806) in 1807. The Peninsular War opened in 1808 and ended in 1814, but the first honour to be awarded for it was "Corunna," the grant being made in 181 I for the action fought on 16th January, 1809, at the end of Sir John Moore's famous retreat. Honours for actions that occurred prior to Corunna, viz., Roleia, Vimiera and Sahagun, were granted later. On the conclusion of hostilities application for Peninsular honours poured in, and this continued for several years, and as recently as 1908 "Corunna" was granted to The Duke of Wellington's Regiment (A0. 51/1908). "Waterloo" was granted six months after the battle on 18th June, 1815, which seems to indicate that the system had taken root and the procedure had been speeded-up.


"Primus in Indis" borne by The Dorset Regiment is believed to have been granted because it was the first Regular infantry regiment of the Crown to fight in India: as the old 39th Foot it served under Clive at the Battle of Plassey on 23rd June, 1757. "Celer et Audax" was granted to The King's Royal Rifle Corps for its service under Major-General James Wolfe in North America during 1759, for which it also bears the honour "Quebec, 1759," in common with other regiments, for service at that battle.

Wreath on Colour Pike, etc.

The South Wales Borderers bears a silver wreath of immortelles round the pike of the Queen's Colour, to commemorate the devotion to duty displayed by Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill in their heroic endeavour to save the Queen's Colour on 22nd January, 1879, after the disaster to the old 24th Foot at Isandhlwana, and for the noble defence of Rorkes Drift during the Zulu War.

A new kind of commemorative feature was introduced when the 1st Bn. The Gloucestershire Regiment were permitted to wear on the pike of their Regimental Colour on "Back Badge Day," 21st March of each year or the nearest appropriate date, a streamer to mark the award of the United States Presidential Citation for its distinguished service at Solma-ri, Korea (A.O 3/1955). The 2nd Bn. Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry wears a similar streamer on their Regimental Colour for service in Korea. In the case of The Gloucestershire Regiment the streamer is blue, the colour of the US. citation ribbon, and has "Solma-Ri" embroidered in yellow.

Commemorative Regiment

The Irish Guards were formed to commemorate the bravery shown by Irish regiments in the early operations of the war in South Africa, 1899-1902 (A0. 77/1900).

Commemorative Truncheon

During the Indian Mutiny the Sirmoor Battalion of the Bengal Native Army distinguished itself at the relief of Delhi and was awarded a trophy for this service, which in appearance is much like a very superior drum-major's staff, but officially it is called a truncheon. The regiment is now the 2nd King Edward VII's Own Gurkha Rifles. The truncheon is accorded the honours paid to a Queen's Colour, and is carried on parade by a Ghurka lieutenant with an escort of two sergeants.

Dress Distinctions

The White (Roussillon) Plume was awarded to The Royal Sussex Regiment to mark its defeat of the French Royal Regiment of Roussillon at the Battle of Quebec in 1759, and it has been incorporated into the clothing badges of the regiment. The red cloth backing to the badges of The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, and the red feathers worn in their slouch hats, are in recognition of the service of their regimental forebears in the light infantry battalion in the action at Brandywine in 1777 during the War of American Independence. Similarly the red triangular patch worn with the beret badge of The Royal Berkshire Regiment, who were also represented in that light infantry battalion. The brown holland patch of material worn behind the badges of The South Staffordshire Regiment commemorates their fifty years' service in the West Indies in the first half of the eighteenth century, when they had to repair their coats with this kind of cloth owing to not receiving the proper material from home.

A few units (not the whole regiments) have been permitted to wear a cockade of the colours of the French Croix de Guerre ribbon either in their headdress or on their sleeves, in token of their service with French forces during the First World War, and one unit similarly wears a piece of the Belgian Croix de Guerre ribbon for service in the defence of Antwerp in the late war. To mark the award of a U.S. Presidential Citation the units concerned wear on their sleeves a piece of dark blue watered silk in a frame. Under Army Order 76 of 1900 Queen Victoria authorized "all ranks of Her Majesty's Irish Regiments" to wear a sprig of shamrock in their headdress on St. Patrick's Day "to commemorate the gallantry of Her Irish soldiers during the recent battles in South Africa."

Honour Titles

A number of honour titles, such as the grant of "Royal" or the name of a member of the Royal Family, or some other form, have been granted for war service. For instance, in recognition of their gallantry in defeating the grenadiers of the French Imperial Guard at the Battle of Waterloo the 1st Guards were re-designated "The 1st or Grenadier Regiment of Foot Guards" (London Gazette, 29th July, 1815), and for their out standing service in the defence of the Residency at Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny the 52nd Foot was created a light infantry corps; light infantry being regarded as corps d'elite at that time. Since 1881 this corps has been The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. For its service during the the Nile Campaign The Berkshire Regiment was granted "Royal," and several similar grants Were made for service in the First World War and the late war.

The above list is far from being comprehensive, but perhaps the examples already cited are sufficient to indicate that the award of battle honours has taken a variety of forms. In passing it must be remarked that the British Army seems to have led the way in the practice of placing the names of battles on Colours. In the French Army their earliest battle. to be commemorated in this manner are Jemappes and Valmy, fought in 1792; and in the pre-1914 German Army their first honour was for the defence of Kolberg in 1807. The Honourable East India Company's earliest grant to their regiments was for "Assaye," for the battle on 23rd September, 1803, the award being made in 1807.

The question that will probably arise in the minds of many readers, particularly members of regimental committees, will be: Under what system or code of rules have awards of battle honours been made? It can be stated right away that no rules have been discovered upon which the very early grants were made, but gradually rules were evolved, which, by the beginning of the present century, Were practically reduced to a "rule of thumb," that is, the conditions were laid down in precise terms, allowing, of course, for exceptions in special instances.

King William's grant of one of his badges to The Royal Irish Regiment seems to have been a spontaneous gesture by His Majesty. No rule has been traced in connection with the award of "Emsdorff" to the 15th Light Dragoons in 1768. The action, quite a small affair, occurred in 1760, yet the great battles of the Duke of Marlborough—Blenhiem (I704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708) and Malplaquet (1709)—had been fought nearly half a century before but were not commemorated as battle honours until 1882. The defence of Gibraltar ended in 1783 and the honour was granted the following year. There is a connection between Emsdorff and Gibraltar in that Sir George Augustus Eliott raised the 15th in 1759 and he was Governor of Gibraltar during the 1779-83 siege, so that the honours for the operations in which he had a personal interest may have been granted on his initiative. He was raised to the peerage as Baron Heathfield for his services at Gibraltar.

From the award of "Minden" in 1801, forty-two years after the battle, it might be inferred that regiments had begun to "look back" and apply for honours which they considered justified. "Minden" was granted whilst the 1801 campaign against the French in Egypt was actually in progress, so that the question of battle honours was in the mind of the Horse Guards at the time, which may account for the Sphinx superscribed "Egypt" being granted to over forty regiments in 1802.

Honours for the Peninsular War were largely controlled by the Duke of Wellington, who apparently linked the awards to the grant of the a medal for the action. This assumption is based on a Submission made in 1844 to Queen Victoria on behalf of The 62nd (Wiltshire) Regiment, wherein it is stated: "It appearing that the officer who then commanded the regiment, the late Major-General Nathaniel Blackwell, received a medal for his services on that occasion." The honour was granted. As previously mentioned, the honour for Waterloo was granted in 1816, and this seems to bring to an end the period during which no definite rules or conditions were laid down by the War Office for qualification.

An attempt was made in 1882 to bring "law and order" into the question by the appointment of the first Battle Honours Committee under the chairmanship of Major-General Sir Archibald Alison. This Committee was directed to consider claims of regiments which took part in the campaigns of the Duke of Marlborough and the wars between the British and French in North America, to be allowed to commemorate on their Colours the names of the important victories gained in those wars, which are at present unrecorded. Later on the Committee was directed to consider claims for "Dettingen" (1743). It will be noted that "Names of important victories" is mentioned, which gives the impression that badges, epitomizing actions and campaigns, were going out of favour. It is not recorded why this Committee was set up, but it may have been due to a number of regiments, who had fought under Marlborough and Wolfe in really important battles, making strong representations to the War Office to have their claims considered, when they saw in the London Gazette and War Office letters that engagements of much less importance were being commemorated.

In their Report the Committee stated that their working principle was: "That in dealing with events so long past, the names of such victories only should be retained, as, either in themselves or by their results, have left a mark in history which renders their names familiar, not only to the British Army but also to every educated gentleman." When the Report was published the press poked fun at the Committee for setting themselves up as the self-appointed judges of what was an "educated gentleman." No doubt the Committee was just as competent as the press to make an assessment in regard to this.

However, the Committee was soon in difficulties for other reasons, as is shown in the following passage from their Report: "Owing to the remoteness of the date (of the campaigns of Marlborough), and to the habit which prevailed at that time of mentioning in dispatches simply the total number of squadrons and battalions engaged, without naming them, a considerable amount of investigation has been necessary to arrive at a full list of all existing regiments entitled to all or any of the names already specified. In one case, namely that of Lille, this has been found impossible of accomplishment."

In another place in the Report a little light is let in on the system of granting honours before 1882, in that it states: "In the British Service the principle exists that when distinctions are conferred for a siege they should be granted not only to the corps absolutely conducting but also those covering it."

Proceeding on these lines the Committee recommended that certain regiments be awarded "Blenhiem," "Ramillies," "Oudenarde," "Malplaquet," "Quebec," "Louisburg" and "Dettingen." Their recommendations were accepted and the soundness of their work may be judged from the fact that only one regiment's name has been added to their lists, namely, The Wiltshire, which was granted "Louisburg" under Army Order 97 of 1910. While Marlborough was operating in Central Europe British forces were busy capturing Gibraltar, but the honour for that operation, "Gibraltar, 1704-5," was not awarded until 1909, under Army Order 180 of that year.

When the Alison Committee finished its work questions relating to battle honours were dealt with by the Adjutant-General's Department at the War Office, and awards were made for various campaigns in South Africa, Egypt and India. For the 1899-1902 war in South Africa the rule was adopted that headquarters and 50 per cent of a unit had to be present at an engagement to earn the appropriate honour, except that for volunteer units the honour was granted if twenty or more of the unit were present.

Soon after the last war in South Africa (1899-1902), several officers put their experiences into print and many budding regimental historians got to work. This latter necessitated research into the whole history of regiments, with the result that a spate of claims for battle honours arrived at the War Office. To cope with this the "Permanent Advisory Committee on Honours and Distinctions" was set up in 1907 under the chairmanship of Major-General J. Spencer Ewart. Its work was largely confined to straightening out anomalies, and their recommendations are reflected in such grants as "Tangier, 1662-80," the earliest service to be commemorated in any form, "Namur, 1695" (A.O. 45/1910), "Gibraltar, 1704-5," "Beaumont" and "Willems" (A.O. 211/1909), honours for West Indian campaigns and some for the Peninsular (A.O. 218/1910).

The work connected with battle honours for the First World War was quite beyond what the Ewart Committee was intended to do, owing to the extent of the operations and the forces employed, which included those of the Commonwealth and Colonies. The situation was met by appointing a "Battles Nomenclature Committee" under the presidency of Major-General Sir John Headlam in 1919, to classify operations into "battles," etc. Their Report was then considered by a "Battle Honours Committee' under the chairmanship of General Sir Archibald Murray in 1921, which recommended which "battles," etc., should be commemorated as battle honours, laid down the procedure for submitting claims and examined them when received. This Committee observed the rule laid down for the South African war, that headquarters and 50 per cent of a unit should/be present to qualify for the appropriate honour, and this applied to all units, Regular, Service and Territorial.

When the Headlam and Murray Committees were dissolved the "Honours and Distinctions Committee" carried on the work connected with the award of battle honours. Owing to the large number of applications received by 1934 the War Office notified all concerned that a complete review would be made of the position, and regiments were invited to submit claims for any honours for which they considered they had qualified. No limit was placed on the operations to be reviewed. A great number of applications was received, and as they could not be settled before the late War broke out the Committee's work was placed in abeyance and did not recommence until 1950. It apparently soon completed its work, for Army Order 130 of 1951 announced that certain honours had been granted. This Committee observed the headquarters and 50 per cent rule.

This brings the story down to battle honours for the Second World War, and, as already stated earlier, the same machinery has been employed as for those of the First World War, viz., (i) Historical Section of the Cabinet Office, (ii) Battles Nomenclature Committee, (iii) Battle Honours Committee and (iv) Regimental Committees.

As to the rules to be observed, they are, generally speaking, much the same as for the First World War, with this important proviso: for a unit to qualify for the award of a battle honour it not only must have had its headquarters and 50 per cent of its strength present at the engagement but it must have taken an active and creditable part in it. Mere presence at a battle will not qualify for the award.

A new feature has been mentioned under "Badges" (see above), and these will be representative of the arms with which the units served, and will have year-dates of such service added. From Appendix "B" to the Report of the Battles Nomenclature Committee it is clear that some new names will become battle honours for the first time. Some of these are listed below, the Serial Number of one example in the Appendix being in brackets to facilitate reference: Pocket (119), Flats (138), Railway (201), Capture (315), Sortie (34), Gap (445), Pass (487), Plain (518), Corner (523), Valley (568), Railway Station (647), Crossroads (663), Tunnels (891), Bluff (951) and The Cauldron (358).

Personal names in battle honours do not exist at present, so that "Hitler Line" (656) will make an innovation. Hitherto the only name of a place in the British Isles as a battle honour has been "Fishguard," but now this is joined by "Knightsbridge" (359) in North Africa, which will probably need some explaining to future generations otherwise they may get the impression that this country was invaded.

The publication of awards to regiments for the late war will inevitably cause those "enthusiasts" who make a hobby of totting up each regiment's list to declare that this or that regiment is the "best" on active service, whatever that may mean, because it has more "names" of actions than any other regiment. It is impossible to assess the value of regiments of corps on this basis, if only for the fact that not all are granted battle honours, and never have been, although practically all are represented in every expedition of any size. There are other reasons also. Some regiments have been awarded honours when their strength at some engagements was well below 50 per cent, a fact which applies to composite battalions particularly. One Regular regiment bears an honour though it had less than 25 per cent and no headquarters in the campaign. As already shown, honours have not been granted under identical rules, e.g., for the three days' hard fighting 16th-18th June, 1815, the solitary honour, "Waterloo" was awarded, yet some quite minor affairs of a few hours' duration in the Middle and Far East have been commemorated by battle honours for each. For some campaigns an honour has been granted for each separate action, and, in addition, a campaign honour, e.g., "Peninsula" and "Afghanistan, 1878-79," whereas in other campaigns no campaign honour has been awarded, e.g., Marlborough's wars, the Crimea, Indian Mutiny, Mahratta War. The mention of Marlborough's wars reminds one that no honours at all have been awarded for the concurrent operations in Spain during the War of the Spanish Succession, except for the capture of Gibraltar. There are far too many variable features connected with this question to enable anything like an accurate assessment to be made.

It is hoped that the foregoing review of this interesting subject will form a suitable background for the correct appreciation of battle honours.