THE origin of the respect and honour paid to the "Colour" dates from the time when the Roman legions marched on their triumphant way, fighting round and under the shadow of their straw-crowned poles, the appearance of which in time to come was universally regarded as the precursor of victory.
The Colours of a regiment, properly speaking, are meant to serve as the rallying-points for the soldiers who fight for and under them. In their primary form they were merely handfuls of fern or straw fastened to the tops of poles, and in that shape were carried by the Romans. Julius Caesar tells us in his account of his battle with the Nervii in Belgium, in 57 B.C., that his men were trained, when separated from their company "Colour" to rally round the first colour they could find, and not lose time seeking for their own.
This handful of straw, manipulus in Latin, gave its name to the Roman company of 120 men, which was divided into two half-companies, centuriæ, of 60 men in each. Three of these manipuli formed one cohort, and ten cohorts one legion. Afterwards each cohort had its own standard, and the straw at the top of the poles disappeared, its place taken by some symbol, such as an eagle, a bear, a globe, &c. Later, each cohort displayed a banner made of a square piece of cloth embroidered with its individual device.
Coming to mediaeval times we find that the banner changed its shape and became more of the swallow-tailed, or pennon description. As carried by a knight, it was divided into three portions—one containing his heraldic arms, then came his badge or cognizance, and lastly, his crest. This pennon, flag, or standard, then became known as the "colour" of the knight.
"Then the Knighte in his colours was armit ful dene.”
Anturs of Arthur
In a curious old book published in 1598 by Richard Barret, entitled, “ Theorike and Practike of Modern Warres,” there occurs this passage in reference to what might be called company colours: -
"We Englishmen do call them of late colours
by reason of the variety of colours they be made of
whereby they be the better noted and known to the company."
There is a sentiment, almost impossible to describe, clinging round the regimental colours; even the phrase esprit de corps is somewhat inadequate. Soldier and civilian alike cannot but feel its influence, which is, perhaps, strongest when they see the extreme veneration, the excessive honour and respect paid to the scraps of embroidered silk, for the safety and in the defence of which countless lives have been cheerfully laid down and rivers of blood poured out.
It is difficult for anybody when looking at the faded, torn fragments of discoloured flags enshrined in the cool, peaceful quiet of a cathedral or church, to repress the lump-raising, choking feeling in the throat that the sight of the mutilated morsels of the once gaily-waving banner calls forth.
The ever lamented husband of our gracious Queen, nearly fifty years ago, expressed something of this sentiment, which in such an elusive manner, defies mere verbal description, when he presented new Colours to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in 1849.
"Receive these Colours," he said, "one emphatically called The Queen's—let it be a pledge of your loyalty to your Sovereign, and of obedience to the laws of your country; the other, more especially the Regimental one—let that be a pledge of your determination to maintain the honour of your regiment.
In looking at the one—you will think of your Sovereign; in looking at the other— you think of those who have fought, bled, and conquered before you."
Of all the honours which are paid to the colour, the greatest is, without doubt, that known as "trooping" it. When this ceremony first became a ceremony, pure and simple, is a matter of uncertainty. The earliest mention of this parade occurs a hundred and ten years ago, and from the description then given, it would appear that the stately attention now paid to the colour only occasionally, was then a matter of far less rare occurrence; at any rate, that it took place whenever the regiment had been on parade.
It all depends upon what the ancient writer, Francis Grose, exactly meant by the words "when the ensign returns from the field" At all events, whatever his meaning was, he describes what was evidently the practice in his day, and perhaps for some time before.
Although at the time he wrote, in 1786, a regiment was formed in three divisions—a central division of pikemen, flanked on either side by a division of musketeers, and each regiment carried three colours, Grose does not specify which colour was so honoured.
However, when the captain led his troops "from the field" and near to the place where the colour was to be lodged, he drew up the musketeers in line, while the pikemen took up a position in the rear of the centre of the line. The ensign-bearer, with the colour guarded on each side by a sergeant, stood between the two bodies. The captain then marched in front of the colour with the drums, and the lieutenant came immediately behind the ensign-bearer, who carried the colour furled. The company then "trooped up" to the ensign’s quarters, was halted, and the ensign, bowing to the captain, carried in the colour. The musketeers thereupon fired "one entire volley" and dispersed to their quarters.
This ceremony was dignified by the term of "this large circumstance" and presumably took up some amount of time, for there is another description of the parade which was to be used if time pressed. In this case the whole company was drawn up in a body and escorted the ensign and the colour to the former’s quarters, and, after seeing the standard safely housed fired a volley and was dismissed.
It was incumbent in those days upon every private and non-commissioned officer to know where the colour was lodged, because that place was the rallying point for the company when the "assembly" was sounded. There were then no barracks, the soldiers being billeted about the neighbourhood in inns, &c.
It may, therefore, be fair to suppose that the colour was trooped each time it was carried back after being had out on parade. But the ceremony probably fell into disuse and was employed only on comparatively rare occasions. It is said, however, that the Prince Regent was in the habit of ordering the manoeuvre to take place frequently in the early morning as a test of the sobriety of his officers the evening before; because, unless a man was very steady on his feet, the effect of the slow march of the officers right across the ground to their respective companies, with which the modern "trooping" commences was disastrous. It may be compared to the time-honoured test of walking on a chalked line.
At the present time the two colours are trooped only when new ones are presented to a regiment, and it is the old standards which are so honoured. But on Her Majesty’s Birthday, the Queen’s colour alone is paraded. In London the ceremony is performed by the Foot Guards on the spacious parade ground behind the Horse Guards, in St. James’s Park, always in the presence of a large assembly, not only of the public but of notable people. The Duke of Cambridge, as Colonel-in-Chief of the Grenadier Guards, is usually present, generally accompanied by the Prince of Wales, who often wears the Guards-like uniform and Busby of the venerable Honourable Artillery Company, of which he is the colonel. The windows immediately over the archway of the Commander-in-Chief's room at the Horse Guards are generally occupied by members of the Royal Family.
The ceremony begins about half-past nine in the morning by the arrival of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, accompanied by the Headquarters Staff—a magnificent and glittering procession, crowned with a sea of tossing white feather plumes. The troops, consisting of the Queen’s Guard for St. James’s Palace and the rest of the regiment detailed to carry out the parade, is drawn up in line facing the buildings, with the Queen’s Guard on the extreme right.
The colour, held by a sergeant and guarded by two picked sentries, usually chosen for their smartness and size, takes up a position in front of the left of the line, facing inwards and fronting the massed bands of the Brigade, which forms up on the right of the line. After the adjutant has "opened" the ranks, he hands over the command to the brigade-major, who then inspects them.
The drums then beat the "assembly" marching across the parade, and, simultaneously, the company officers fall in opposite their respective companies on the saluting base, which will presently be occupied by the Commander-in-Chief. The Brigade-Major then calls the battalion to attention, gives the order to fix bayonets, and shoulder arms, and hands over the detail of duties to the Field Officer of the day, who thereupon takes entire command of the parade.
The company officers then march straight across the ground in line to their companies. It is an extremely difficult movement for the officers to keep in correct alignment and march in a perfectly straight line at a considerable distance apart from each other, and requires a great deal of practice.
The band and drums then play what is known as a "Troop" marching as they play from right to left of the line.
On reaching the colour, they counter-march, halt and cease playing. They then strike up a Quick March and return to their original position.
The "escort for the colour" which is the Queen’s Guard, with the "Lieutenant for the Colour" in front of the centre, the Sergeant-Major, with drawn sword, in rear of the centre file, and preceded by the band playing "The British Grenadiers" moves out, turns to the left, and marches up to and halts in front of the colour. The Sergeant-Major advances to receive the colour, and returns to the escort. The lieutenant meets him, takes the colour, and turns about, facing the escort. The escort then presents arms, and the Sergeant- Major salutes with his sword exactly as the officers do, and the band plays "God Save the Queen."
The colour is then escorted across the parade, and taken along the front of the line, between the officers and the front rank of the rest of the troops, the front rank of the escort filing between the ranks; the rear rank of the escort filing between the rear and supernumerary ranks of the remainder of the Battalion.
The escort and colour are then formed up on the right of the line, and the whole body of troops marches past the Commander-in-Chief as a Battalion in column, first in slow and then in quick time.
The Queen’s Guard and colour is then marched off the ground to St. James’s Palace, where the old guard is relieved, and the rest of the troops return to their duties.
The ceremony of trooping the colour is remarkable, if for no other reason, as being the only occasion in peace time when the Sergeant-Major draws his sword and salutes with it in exactly the same manner as does a commissioned officer.
The parade usually takes place in almost every garrison town in the kingdom on the Queen’s Birthday, or, rather, the day set apart for its observance ; but special brilliance and importance is added to the scene in London in consequence of it occurring in the height of the season. The ground outside the space kept clear by the sentries is covered with masses of people, while favoured holders of tickets issued by the commanding officer of the battalion carrying out the trooping, occupy positions better fitted for viewing the proceedings.
Every window in the large government buildings looking on to the parade ground is crowded with spectators, and the spectacle regarded as a whole from the windows, or, better still, from the roof of the Admiralty, is imposing, and is not without beauty. The dense, dark fringe of spectators, spotted here and there with ladies’ light-coloured dresses; the castle-like front of the Headquarters of the Army, dwarfed by its lofty neighbours, with the large orderly space before it marked out with red dots at regular intervals, and splashed with masses of scarlet; the glittering of the bandsmen’s gold lace and shining brass instruments, all combine to make up a pageant worthy to be shown as a rare sight to all men, and one calculated to make an Englishman’s heart glow with honest pride as he gazes round at this fitting representation of "England, Home and Beauty"
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