Flags have long delineated who we are as individuals, what groups we belong to, and what we want to claim as our own. The brilliant colors and strange menageries found on banners are their own language, for flags were meant for communication before literacy was common. In the less civilized days of our past, the designs on flags gave travelers, soldiers, and common folk basic information about the areas they were living in or traveling through.
At the very apex of these communications, flags were the ones used in battle. Any given army or unit would be identified by their ensign from afar, and the most vital (and dangerous) job on the field was the standard bearer. An unusual position of honor, the person chosen to carry the flag for his army had to be an extraordinary one, for he was the primary target for all as soon as he set foot in battle.
Quick Communication: A Bright Idea
Before the modern invention of the radio, communication at a distance—whether during war or peace—was a difficult prospect. Written messages and couriers were somewhat effective, but hazardously slow and hard to deliver, especially during pitched battle. Accurate positioning of appropriate forces was absolutely essential—so each unit would have a designated soldier who carried a token of identification on a long pole. These manifested in several ways, with animals being the most popular icons.
The Aquila: A Spirit of Battle
Of particular importance for the Romans was the Aquila, the bronze eagle carried to represent the spirit of the entire army. A general, from a small distance, could see the movements of his forces by their ensigns and correct them swiftly. In return, any given soldier could find his general by seeking the Aquila. Being chosen to carry the Aquila was one of the highest honors that could be bestowed upon a soldier: Not only was that eagle the rallying point, it was the avatar of the army’s fighting spirit.
To the Romans, the Aquila was a god. To carry and defend that spirit required a fighter of the highest ability, possessed of independent intelligence and a fanatical devotion to Rome itself. Concurrently, the standard bearer was usually accompanied by the general himself and an elite group of soldiers: the color guard. While still being an active part of the fighting force, this particular unit was devoted to the preservation of their standard. The loss of that symbol, that god, was a devastating blow for two reasons.
First, it meant that they had lost their deity and their honor. Second, and deadly from a tactical point of view, the regular army would have no visual signal to indicate central command. An army without a standard was often an army without a general, and, therefore, must be losing badly. Troops would often break and run without the assurance of an intact chain of command.
The Hundred Years War
Though the Roman Empire eventually fell, the sanctity of one’s standard and the honor of being flag-bearer continued down through the ages. In particular, as the ideals of chivalry spread through Western Europe, the honor of carrying your country’s emblem redoubled in importance. With the concept of knighthood came the secondary display of one’s own colors, or “device.” This was especially noteworthy during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between England and France. Rich ransoms could be acquired by capturing the right people. A captured knight was a valuable commodity, and the money his King would pay for his freedom not inconsiderable.
All you had to do was read the correct flags and capture soldiers carrying their easily identifiable shields. This was a common practice, for one or two ransoms could provide a gentlemanly retirement. Of particular interest on any given field of battle, then, was any monarch present, readily identified by his own personal standard.
The knight charged with the duty of carrying the king’s banner was one of proven skill and bravery, for once again the banner made him a target. As the model of the perfect knight, Sir Geoffroi de Charny of France may be the most iconic standard bearer in all of history. A noteworthy statesman and brilliant fighter, de Charny was charged to carry the Oriflamme—the standard of the French monarchy. It was considered to be the embodiment of their military greatness, much as the Aquila was centuries before.
At the Battle of Poitiers (though at almost sixty years of age), the valiant de Charny carried the Oriflamme and fought at the side of the king himself. Against overwhelming odds (five Englishmen to every one Frenchman) de Charney’s courage never faltered. This “true and perfect knight” died at the hands of the English, but even as he perished he refused to relinquish the Oriflamme. Such was the power of these symbols and the collective belief accumulated with their presence. The French suffered a devastating defeat, but the legend and the impact of Geoffroi de Charny’s actions have remained impressive through the annals of history.
The Civil War
Over four hundred years later, the intertwined importance of the flag and the standard-bearer still carried great weight. Whereas before capture and ransom were an essential part of war, the American Civil War unfolded new depths of terror upon the battlefield. Unlike the almost ceremonial confrontations of Europe, this conflict was known for being horrifically bloody.
The invention of gunpowder and the common usage of rifles added incalculable risk to those chosen to carry the flag. Not only were the standard bearers still marked targets, they were now often the only visible targets in fields clouded with gunsmoke. Both the North and the South had conventions for the color guard—nine men total—but the peril was equal for both sides.
The army’s flag and flag bearer were always the prime targets for the densest and most violent fighting. Again, capturing the enemy’s flag was considered an act of the sheerest bravery, and the men responsible would be honored for their courage. No unit surrenders their standard easily, and the price men paid on both sides of the battle was incalculably steep.
Where Did the Battle Flags Go?
It is fairly accurate to say that very few elements of combat have stayed consistent since Roman times. The advent of modern warfare tactics, remote communication, flight, and motorized vehicles all contribute to a very different approach to warfare.
A flag is no longer strictly necessary. Often, in missions of liberation, an openly displayed flag would be viewed as an act of occupation and not one of rescue. Unit flags are still kept and treasured, but are only flown in the most tactful ways possible. Much of today’s warfare depends on swiftness and stealth, both of which would be greatly hampered by a gigantic flag. In lieu of this, members of the American army still carry the Stars and Stripes on their sleeves in muted colors. You can find almost any flag you may want to fly at AmericanFlags.com, where the standards are made in America, by Americans.
It is interesting to note, however, that the stars always face forward, signifying that each soldier is bearing the flag into battle. Many rituals still exist today that honor our flags and what they represent—notably at dawn and dusk to raise or lower the flag. Another remnant exists in the manifestation of color guards as part of marching bands and parades.
While no longer representing the flower of chivalry, members of today’s color guards still carry out important ceremonial functions. It is a rather pleasant change from the standard bearer’s violent history that the flag carrier no longer has to fear violent challenge and death for proudly carrying their banners.