Throughout history generals commanding armies have waned to know where their troops are. In modern warfare, with radio communications, satellite navigation and high tech surveillance systems, this is a relatively simple task. However, in the past it could be complicated by the confusion of battle, the close proximity of the enemy and the ensuing clouds of smoke created by musket and cannon fire. Years ago a general would be able to get an idea as to where his troops were through the use of markers – standards, flags or “colours”, just as a Roman Legion would carry its Eagle so armies throughout history have used these markers.
In the British Army each regiment would carry a regimental colour and a King’s or Queen’s colour. Originally these measured six feet by six and a half feet. The Monarch’s colour took the form of a Union flag – the Union jack in common parlance – decorated with the regiment’s badge and various heraldic devices and the regiment’s battle honours. The regimental colour, however, was a plainer affair made up of the regiment’s “facing” colour and a small union flag in the upper staff corner of the flag. Facing colours varied across the army and reflected the colour of the cotton lining of the old coats worn be the men. In the case of the Worcestershire regiment this was yellow, hence the field of the regimental colour was yellow. Once the Worcestershire regiment merged with the Herefordshire regiment – that had green facings – the new Worcestershire regiment adopted white as their facing colour.
Due to their importance the colours were heavily guarded. Besides being carried by officers within the centre of the regiment, additional protection was provided by the colour guard, colour sergeants – the most able of the non-commissioned officers and all armed with spontoons or half pikes to keep any would be assailants at bay.
Each regiment in the British army still carries regimental and a Queen’s colour, though only for parades and ceremonies.
How they were used
Hence the colours allowed for its position and progress to be seen. The colours would tower over the men in battle offering a readily visible point for the men to rally towards should they become separated from their regiment during a battle and afterwards they would be used to mark the position of a regiment in camp or the location of the regiments headquarters.
The regiment’s colours often took on near-religious significance, representing the honour, history and pride of the regiment. The battles in which the regiment had fought would be carefully embroidered onto the silk and heraldic motifs would be added to mark significant events in the Regiment’s history. The loss of either of the regimental or Monarchs colours to the enemy would usually bring great shame upon the regiment concerned, unless some great effort had been made to save them during a battle.
At the Battle of Albuera– fought on 16th May 1811 during the Peninsular War – a combined British, Spanish and Portuguese army was surpised and attacked by a French army. The battle was extremely hard fought on both sides, and the Worcestershire regiment found itself surrounded by alosses. On that day the colours were carried by Ensigns Vance and Furnace. In the melee both men became isolated and the colours were in danger of being taken by the French. The following is an extract from “Battles and Sieges of the Peninsular”.
The Colour Guard of the Worcestershire Regiment at Albuera
The King’s and Regimental Colours of the Worcestershire Regiment as carried by Ensigns Vance and Furnace at Albuera.
“Great was the disorder on the hill. In one part the shrinking Spaniards were blindly firing, though the British Troops were before them, and in another part flying before the Lancers, would have broken through the 29th [Worcestershire Regiment], then advancing to the succour of the 43rd [Monmouthshire Regiment]; but, terribly resolute, the 29th smote both friends and foes without distinction in their onward progress.”
Ensign Richard Vance, who had only been in the regiment for seven months, was carrying the Regimental Colour. Seeing the desperate plight of the Regiment, he tore the Colour from its pole and hid it under his coat, rather than let it fall into French hands. The following day Vance was found dead. The staff of the regimental colour was lying by his side but the actual colour was missing. It was only when his body was moved that it was found. Vance had ripped the flag from the staff and hidden it under his coat. He had given up his life in order to keep it safe.
The colours of the Worcestershire Regiment at Albuera
Where are they now…?
The colours would be carried in battle after battle and in so doing would become tattered and worn as they were subjected to the shot and shell of the enemy – just as the men were. Once beyond repair they would be exchanged for a new set of colours and the old battle-worn flags would be reverently “hung up” in the regiment’s chapel in their home depot or barracks. In the case of the Worcestershire Regiment this was the Parish Church of St Mark’s. Today the colours of the regiment are hung up in Worcester Cathedral where they can still be seen.