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Colours of the 1st Battalion, Duke of Wellington's Regiment (West Riding), showing emblazoned Battle Honours

The following battle honours were awarded to units of the British Army and the armies of British India and the Dominions of the British Empire.[1] From their institution until the end of the Second World War, awards were made by, or in consultation with, the British government,[2] but, since 1945, the individual countries of the former British Empire have awarded battle honours to their forces independently.

Origins[edit | edit source]

Regimental Colour of the 18th Regiment of Foot showing the earliest battle honour (for Namur) and the badges later awarded for Egypt and China.

The first battle honour was the motto Virtutis Namurcensis Præmium (Reward for valour at Namur),[3] ordered by King William III to be emblazoned on the colour of the 18th Regiment of Foot, later the Royal Irish Regiment, for their part in the Siege of Namur in 1695.[4] Many years later, in 1910, the honour Namur 1695 was awarded to 14 regiments, including the Royal Irish. In 1768, the 15th Light Dragoons, later 15th The King's Hussars, were uniquely awarded the honour Emsdorf[5] to be worn on their helmets in commemoration of their success at the Battle of Emsdorf in 1760.[6]

The first battle honour displayed on the colours in the modern manner[7] was awarded in 1784 when four infantry regiments[8] that took part in the defence of Gibraltar of 1779–83 were ordered to display the word Gibraltar on a scroll on their Second (now Regimental) Colour.[9] Later, a badge of the Castle and Key was added, with a scroll carrying the motto Montis Insignia Calpe[10] below it, and the word Gibraltar was changed to Gibraltar 1779–83.[11] Although this award was made promptly after the event, this is not always the case: the oldest battle honours, Tangier 1662–1680 and Tangier 1680, were awarded in 1909, over 220 years after the temporary but tumultuous occupation of that port.[12]

Development and formalization[edit | edit source]

The procedure for awarding battle honours was originally extremely arbitrary.[13] For example, the victories of the Duke of Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars were copiously honoured, but those of the Duke of Marlborough in the War of Spanish Succession were entirely ignored. By the mid-19th Century, honours were being awarded for contemporary actions that were little more than skirmishes compared with the great European battles of the 18th Century. Much, too, depended on the persistence (or lack thereof) of successive individual colonels in badgering Horse Guards for honours for their regiments: to give but one example, the honour for Corunna was first awarded (to three battalions) in 1811; between then and 1842, it was awarded to a further 27 regiments and battalions.[14] A committee was therefore set up under Major-General Sir Archibald Alison in 1881 to determine the honours that should be awarded to the various regiments for past battles.[15][16] Although the Alison Committee remedied the worst of the injustices when it reported in 1882 (by, inter alia, awarding the honours Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet), another committee had to be set up in 1909 under the chairmanship of Lieutenant General Sir Spencer Ewart to continue the work.[17]

Until 1832, battle honours were awarded to a specific unit and, if it was disbanded, the honour was lost. After this date, honours were awarded to the parent regiment of the battalion whose actions led to the award. During the Second Boer War, however, some honours were awarded to the Militia battalions of infantry regiments in their own right.[18] Also, the honours Mediterranean 1901–02 and St Helena were awarded to the Militia battalions of several regiments for garrison and prisoner-of-war camp duty. When the Militia was disbanded, these honours (and the earlier Mediterranean, earned for similar service during the Crimean War) were allowed to lapse. In 1917, in recognition of their sacrifice in the Great War, the battalions of the Territorial Force were permitted to carry the honours of their parent regular battalions on their colours, badges and other appointments,[19] a practice that had previously been forbidden.[20][21]

Also in 1832, the motto Ubique (Everywhere) was awarded by King William IV to the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers in recognition of their universal service.[22][23][24] It was stipulated that this was considered to be a battle honour, substituting for all other prior and future distinctions.[25][26] As such, it did not appear on the badges or appointments of the Territorial, Militia or Volunteer regiments of these Corps.[27][28] Despite it being the sole battle honour of the Royal Artillery, a number of Artillery officers who served in the First China War were awarded the personal honour China. This honour was displayed on their appointments and was not extended to other ranks or to the regiment as a whole. It was a unique award which was allowed to lapse in time, and the procedure was never repeated.

In 1834, the guidons of the light cavalry (Dragoons, Lancers and Hussars) were withdrawn in order to improve the mobility of these regiments.[29] Until they were restored (in a purely ceremonial role) by King George VI in 1952, these regiments displayed their honours on their officers' saddle cloths, their drums, drum banners and other appointments.[30]

Queen's Colour of the 1st Battalion, the Grenadier Guards. In contrast with those of the line infantry regiments, the Queen's Colours of Foot Guards regiments are crimson, and it is their Regimental Colours that are based on the Union Flag. Foot Guards regiments also emblazon the same honours (from all conflicts, including both World Wars) on both colours.

In 1844, the display of honours and badges on the infantry's colours was standardized.[31] Embellishments that had previously been borne on either, or both, of a battalion's colours were, after this, only permitted to appear on the Second Colour, which was renamed the Regimental Colour. The First Colour was renamed the Royal Colour and was to be free of decoration other than for the Royal Crown and the regimental number.[32] The Foot Guards, however, continued to display their awards on all their colours (as they do, with some variation between the regiments, to this day).[33] In addition, the 1857 Dress Regulations ordered that the blades of the Foot Guards officers' swords be embossed[34] with the regiment's device and battle honours.[35][36]

The Boer War[edit | edit source]

The Second Boer War came as an unpleasant surprise to a British military establishment that had stagnated for decades under the command of the hidebound and reactionary Duke of Cambridge. As Lord Kitchener observed, 'The Boers are not like the Sudanese who stood up to a fair fight. They are always running away on their little ponies',[37] and the disasters of Black Week demonstrated that the Regular army was numerically, technologically and tactically ill-prepared to face a militarily competent and well-equipped adversary. Among the responses of the British government to these setbacks were the formation of the Imperial Yeomanry and the embodiment of the Militia and Volunteer battalions of the infantry regiments for overseas service. Many more corps, therefore, became eligible for campaign honours than had been the case in any previous war: including the Regular Army, Yeomanry, Militia and Volunteers, a total of 196 British regiments were awarded South Africa with appropriate year dates between 1899 and 1902.[38] The award was also made to a further 22 Canadian, 37 Australian, 23 New Zealand and 12 South African regiments. As pointed out above, the awards made to the Militia battalions lapsed when the Militia was disbanded.

It was at this time that the rule was instituted that, for a cavalry regiment or infantry battalion to be eligible for an award, the Headquarters and fifty per cent or more of its strength must have been present. Exception was made for the Yeomanry regiments, which had contributed company-sized contingents to the Imperial Yeomanry, but not their individual regimental headquarters. These regiments were considered to be eligible if parties of 20 or more had been present. These principles (presence of a unit's headquarters and fifty per cent or more of its strength) were continued by General Ewart's and subsequent Battle Honours committees, but, again, numerous exceptions were made.

The World Wars[edit | edit source]

The sheer scale of the Great War led to a previously unheard of number of honours being awarded and it was simply impractical to emblazon every one of them on the Regimental Colour.[39] It was at first ordered, in September 1922, that regiments should select up to 10 honours to be emblazoned on their Regimental Colours along with previous awards, up to a total of 24.[40] This led to a storm of protest, since many regiments would have had to remove previous honours. The order was, therefore, amended the following December to allow each infantry regiment to select up to 10 honours to be emblazoned on its King's Colour, honours from other conflicts continuing to be displayed on the Regimental Colour.[41] After the Second World War, a further 10 honours from that conflict were added to the King's Colour. Owing to amalgamations, more than the total of 20 First and Second World War awards may be found on the Queen's Colour of modern regiments.[42] Cavalry regiments emblazoned honours from the World Wars on the reverse side of their standards and guidons.

Battle honours of the Great War were almost invariably only awarded for engagements specifically named by the Battles Nomenclature Committee.[43][44] A particularly poignant exception to this rule is that of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment which applied for the honour Beaumont Hamel in memory of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when the regiment was virtually wiped out.[45] The award was declined by the Battle Honours Committee because there was no official battle of that name.[46] After considerable correspondence between the Colonial Office and the government of Newfoundland, a compromise was reached whereby the regiment would be awarded the honour Albert (Beaumont Hamel) 1916, but only with the personal approval of the King. Needless to say, the King approved the award without hesitation.

The procedures after the Second World War were similar to those following the First. The re-formed Battles Nomenclature Committee made every effort to avoid using names that had been used by the Great War committee but, if this was not practicable, the awards were differenced by year date (e.g. Baghdad, Baghdad 1941).[47] If two separate engagements took place at the same location in the same year, they were differenced by Roman numerals (e.g. Cassino I, Cassino II). In several instances, the Battles Nomenclature Committee felt it was desirable to indicate the aim or nature of the operation, particularly when two separate operations took place at the same location (e.g. Capture of Tobruk, Defence of Tobruk).

Territorial Army honorary distinctions of the Second World War[edit | edit source]

During the Second World War, a number of Territorial Army infantry battalions and Yeomanry regiments were temporarily re-roled to other arms (particularly artillery, signals and reconnaissance) for the duration of the conflict and resumed their normal function at its end. It was decided that such units were not eligible for battle honours per se, but could apply for Honorary Distinctions commemorating service in actions and theatres that would, had they taken part in their normal roles, have entitled them to battle honours.[48] (Units whose conversion to the new arm was permanent were awarded battle honours appropriate to their new arm.) In the case of infantry battalions, these distinctions were awarded solely to the battalion concerned and were not borne by the other battalions of the regiment, and, unlike actual battle honours from the World Wars, were carried on the Regimental Colour. It appears that this decision was poorly received by the units concerned, particularly the Yeomanry,[49] and relatively few applications were made.[50]

Badges[edit | edit source]

The majority of battle honours were displayed simply as the name of the award inscribed on a decorative scroll. A number of honours, particularly those which were considered to be of particular significance, were awarded with a badge that in some way represented the engagement or theatre. Early examples were the castle and key for Gibraltar, mentioned above, and the sphinx for Egypt. Tiger and elephant badges were frequently awarded for engagements on the Indian sub-continent. Different badges might be awarded to different units for the same battle or campaign: the award Hindoostan, for example, was awarded without a badge to some regiments, with a tiger to others, and with an elephant to yet others.

1662–1906[edit | edit source]

File:Regimental Colour-1Bn-24th Foot.png

Regimental Colour of the 1st Battalion, 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot (later the South Wales Borderers), presented in 1860 and here shown with the honours awarded up to the time of the Zulu War. This colour was left at the battalion's depot at Helpmakaar during the invasion of Zululand and the Battle of Isandlwana, and thus escaped the fate of the regiment's other colours. It was eventually laid up (with the battalion's Queen's Colour, recovered from the Buffalo River after the battle) in Brecon Cathedral in 1934.[56][57]

An unusual award of honorary colours was made by the Governor-General of India to the British regiments that participated in the Battle of Assaye in 1803 (19th Light Dragoons, 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot and 78th (Highlanders) Regiment of Foot). The colour illustrated (on which is also emblazoned the award for Seringapatam) is one previously carried by the Royal Highland Fusiliers, successor to the 74th Foot.[58]

The Great War[edit | edit source]

Queen's Colour of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, presented in 1880 to replace the colour destroyed at Isandlwana and later emblazoned with 10 honours selected from those won by the South Wales Borderers in the Great War.

Between the Wars[edit | edit source]

The Second World War[edit | edit source]

Queen's Colour of the 1st Battalion, the Black Watch, showing the 20 honours selected to be emblazoned from those awarded for the two World Wars

File:Queens Colour-3rd Yorkshires.png

Queen's Colour of the 3rd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment, showing the maximum 43 honours from the two World Wars, inherited from its predecessor regiments, that may be emblazoned on the Colour. Also of interest is the reappearance of the numbers of the regiment's antecedent Regiments of Foot.

British awards after 1945[edit | edit source]

File:Regimental Colour-1Bn-Devon Dorset.png

Regimental Colour of the 1st Battalion, the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment. Representative of the period of mass amalgamations of the line infantry regiments following the 1957 Defence White Paper, this colour bears the honours and mottos of its antecedent regiments (the Devonshire Regiment and the Dorset Regiment).

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes and references[edit | edit source]

  1. The full list of battle honours was obtained from Baker (1986) and Rodger (2003). Individual honours are linked to the most relevant Wikipedia article. An on-line list of honours may be found at T.F. Mills's Chronological Index of British and Imperial Battle Honours to 1945 (archive of Regiments.org page)
  2. Until 1858, awards for battles that took place in the Indian subcontinent (including Burma) were awarded by the East India Company.
  3. Wood (2001), p. 124
  4. Cannon (1848), p. 17
  5. In full: Five battalions of French defeated and taken by this Regiment with their Colours and nine pieces of cannon at Emsdorff 16th July 1760.
  6. BritishBattles.com The Battle of Emsdorf
  7. Infantry regiments generally emblazon their battle honours on their regimental colours. Rifle regiments, which do not carry colours, display them on their badges, buckles, buttons or elsewhere on their uniforms. The heavy cavalry (Household Cavalry and Dragoon Guards) carry them on their standards and the light cavalry (Dragoons, Lancers and Hussars) on their guidons. (The Blues and Royals carry both standards and a guidon since they are the result of the amalgamation of a Household Cavalry and a Dragoon regiment. Until 1837, Dragoon Guards regiments also carried both standards and guidons.)
  8. 1st Battalions of the 12th, 39th, 56th and 58th Regiments of Foot. Later also the Highland Light Infantry for 2 Bn, 73rd Foot.
  9. Rodger (2003), p. 10
  10. Badge of the Rock of Gibraltar
  11. The Highland Light Infantry was awarded Gibraltar 1780–83.
  12. Singh (1993), p. 74
  13. Sumner and Hook (2001), pp. 23–27
  14. Corunna was awarded to a final three regiments in 1908. (Rodger (2003), pp. 29-30)
  15. Farwell (2001), p. 22
  16. Norman (1911), p. 433
  17. Norman (1911), p. 434–435
  18. Baker (1986), p. 97
  19. Army Order 298/1917: "In consideration of the services of the Territorial Force during the war, His Majesty the King has been pleased to approve of units of the Territorial Force being permitted to wear on their badges the mottoes and honours worn on the badges of the corps, regiment, or department of which they form part."
  20. The Army Council (1912), para. 486
  21. Some territorial battalions had been able to replace the regular battalions' honours with their own. For example, the 4th Battalion, the Somerset Light Infantry, replaced Jellalabad of the regulars' cap badge with South Africa 1900-01 whilst, somewhat incongruously, keeping the mural crown. (Doyle and Foster (2010) p. 95)
  22. Australian Army: RAA Customs and Traditions
  23. Flags of the World: United Kingdom: Royal Artillery Association
  24. Their other motto, Quo Fas et Gloria Ducunt, was awarded at the same time.
  25. The number of which was already becoming unmanageable.
  26. This did not, however, apply to the artillery units of the Indian Army, which continued to be awarded battle honours like other Corps (Rodger (2003), p.20).
  27. British Army Website: Corps of Royal Engineers Badges and Emblems
  28. Royal Regiment of Artillery: The Cap Badge of the Royal Regiment of Artillery
  29. Rodger (2003), p. 12
  30. The Queen's Own Hussars Museum: Guidon
  31. Rodger (2003), p. 13
  32. The Royal Colour was renamed Queen's Colour in 1892.
  33. In addition to their Queen's and Regimental Colours, the Grenadier Guards carry a Royal Standard (albeit of a different design to the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom), the Coldstream Guards carry two State Colours and the Scots Guards one State Colour.
  34. The process is actually etching.
  35. Adjutant-General's Office (1857) p. 112
  36. Robson (2010) p. 161
  37. Strachan (1983) p. 77
  38. Baker (1986) p. 96-97
  39. The Gloucestershire Regiment, for example, was awarded over 80 honours.
  40. Army Order 338/1922
  41. Army Order 470/1922
  42. The total number of honours permitted to be displayed on the Queen's colour was increased to 40 in 1958 and later to 43. Up to 46 may be carried on the Regimental Colour. (The Yorkshire Regiment, Battle Honours)
  43. The relevant report being The Official names of the Battles and Other Engagements Fought by the Military Forces of the British Empire During the Great War, 1914–1919, and the Third Afghan War, 1919 : Report of the Battles Nomenclature Committee As Approved by the Army Council (1921).
  44. Unfortunately, discrepancies between the names chosen by the Battles Nomenclature Committee and those used by other sources can lead to confusion. For example, in popular usage, Passchendaele usually refers to the great battles that took place in Flanders between 31 July and 10 November 1917, which are named The Battles of Ypres, 1917 by the Battles Nomenclature Committee, and the Third Battle of Ypres (or Third Ypres) by the British Official History (Cruttwell (1934) p. 442; Barnett (1970) p. 402). Occasionally, the term may also be used to refer to the entirety of the British offensive in Flanders between 7 June and 10 November 1917, including the Battle of Messines (Terraine (1965) p. 301). However, the battle honour Passchendaele commemorates two subordinate battles towards the end of this offensive that were specifically named by the Battles Nomenclature Committee—the First Battle of Passchendaele (12 Oct 1917) and the Second Battle of Passchendaele (26 Oct – 10 Nov 1917)—and not Third Ypres as a whole, which is commemorated by Ypres 1917.
  45. Rodger (2003), p. 85
  46. Their thinking is perhaps best illustrated by quoting directly from the Report of the Battles Nomenclature Committee: "It would be misleading if such attacks as those of the 1st July, 1916, and the 31st July, 1917, were represented as a series of disjointed actions. Moreover, to name even all the villages which were scenes of desperate conflicts would carry such subdivision beyond all reason. Thus at once would arise the risk of injustice to those units who fought just as gallantly for less prominent localities, or for some nameless trench." Nonetheless, exceptions had already been made for the Devonshire Regiment (Bois des Buttes) and the King's Shropshire Light Infantry (Bligny).
  47. Two reports for the Second World War were issued: The Official names of the Battles, Actions and Engagements fought by the Land Forces of the Commonwealth during the Second World War, 1939–1945: Report of the Battles Nomenclature Committee as approved by the Army Council in 1956, and The Official names of the Battles, Actions and Engagements fought by the Land Forces of the Commonwealth during the Australian Campaign in the South-west Pacific 1942–1945 and the New Zealand Campaign in the South Pacific 1942–1944 and the Korean Campaign 1950–1953: Final report of the Battles Nomenclature Committee as approved by the Army Council in 1958.
  48. Rodger (2003) p.214
  49. The Territorial infantry battalions were less affected by this ruling since they already were entitled to carry the battle honours of the regiment as a whole.
  50. It appears that the Yeomanry regiments did not argue that a precedent had been established by the awarding of battle honours to Yeomanry regiments (and other cavalry, including the Household Cavalry) that had been temporarily converted to infantry and machine-gun units during the Great War. Or, if this argument was made, it was not accepted.
  51. In this case awarded to the 1st (Bengal European) Light Infantry (later 1st Battalion, the Royal Munster Fusiliers).
  52. Here to the 67th (South Hampshire) Regiment of Foot, later 2nd Battalion, the Hampshire Regiment, which led to their name The Hampshire Tigers.
  53. In this case to the Queen's (Royal West Surrey Regiment) for the Glorious First of June. Naval crowns were also awarded for Copenhagen and the Battle of the Saintes.
  54. The 4th Battalion, the Queen's Royal Surrey Regiment, which served in Italy and North West Europe as the 42nd (7th (23rd London) Bn, The East Surrey Regiment) Royal Tank Regiment.
  55. As the 75th (Shropshire Yeomanry) Medium Regiment, R.A., and the 76th (Shropshire Yeomanry) Medium Regiment, R.A.
  56. South Wales Borderers Museum: The Colours of the 24th Regiment during the Zulu War
  57. The Ceremony of the Laying Up of the Colours of the 1st Battalion, The South Wales Borderers (24th Regiment) in Brecon Cathedral. Brecon. Easter Sunday, April 1st, 1934
  58. The original colour was white, this having been the facing colour of the 74th Foot. Later examples, after the regiment's amalgamation into the Highland Light Infantry, have been buff.
  59. Note that the spelling "Afghanistan" is used for the Second Anglo-Afghan War, while "Affghanistan" is used for the First.
  60. Awarded as a badge of a Naval Crown with, superscribed, 1 June 1794
  61. Awarded as Roleia. Rolica used after 1911.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Adjutant-General's Office (1857). Regulations for the Dress of General, Staff, and Regimental Officers of The Army. London: HMSO.
  • Army Council, The (1912). Regulations for the Territorial Force, and for County Associations. London: HMSO.
  • Baker, A.H.R (1986). Battle Honours of the British and Commonwealth Armies. Shepperton: Ian Allen.
  • Barnett, Correlli (1970). Britain and Her Army 1509--1970. London: Allen Lane.
  • Cannon, Richard (1848). Historical Record Of The Eighteenth, Or The Royal Irish Regiment Of Foot. London: Parker, Furnivall and Parker.
  • Doyle, Peter and Foster, Chris (2010). British Army Cap Badges of the First World War. Oxford: Shire Publications.
  • Cruttwell, C.R.M.F. (1934) A History of the Great War 1914--1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Farwell, Byron (2001). Encyclopedia of 19th Century Land Warfare: An Illustrated World View. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Norman, C.B. (1911). Battle Honours of the British Army : from Tangier, 1662, to the Commencement of the Reign of King Edward VII. London: Murray.
  • Robson, Brian (2011). Swords of the British Army: The Regulation Patterns 1788 to 1914, Revised Edition. Uckfield: The Naval and Military Press.
  • Rodger, Alexander (2003). Battle Honours of the British Empire and Commonwealth Land Forces. Marlborough: The Crowood Press.
  • Singh, Sarbans (1993). Battle Honours of the Indian Army 1757–1971. New Delhi: Vision Books.
  • Strachan, Hew (1983). European Armies and the Conduct of War. London: George Allen & Unwin
  • Sumner, I. and Hook, R. (2001). British Colours & Standards 1747–1881 (1): Cavalry. Oxford: Osprey.
  • Terraine, John (1965). The Great War 1914–1918. London: Hutchinson.
  • Wood, S.C. (2001). Battle honours in The Oxford Companion To Military History ed. Richard Holmes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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