Colours On the Battlefield

by Brian VandePolder, 2nd Penn'a Reg't


The following is taken from the presentation on The duties of the Unit Colour Ensign and Use of Colours on the Battlefield, presented at the School of Command on May 4, 1996.

Duties of the Ensign

The NWTA By- Laws, Reg. #00-02, 1) C. state: "COLOR BEARING ENSIGNS: Any unit may field the lowest ranking officer extant in the unit for the purpose of bearing colors only. He will have no command function."

The purpose of NWTA unit Colour-Ensigns is to display the colours authentically in battle and ceremonies, add to the pageantry and entertainment value of our shows, show pride in the unit and the NWTA by carrying Colours that are clean and in good repair, and be in the proper dress uniform for your unit when carrying the Colours. When not actually carrying the unit's Colours, Ensigns are to function as privates within their unit.

The uniform of a unit's Ensign varies from unit to unit, but the Ensign should not carry a musket, cartridge box, or knapsack when acting as Colour bearer.

Colour Ensigns should be present at all morning NCO meetings in order to have a clear understanding of the day's events.

Colours on the battlefield

Thomas Simes, in "The Regulator", and von Steuben in his drill manual define the use of the Colours during field maneuvers as a tool to maintain control over the dress of the troops. The Colour Ensign should exercise the Colours using the proper commands and movements in conjunction with the troops on the field:

  1. Form in the center of your division's front rank.

  2. Maintain dress and order in the line.

  3. Dress the line as required.

  4. Colours should be fixed ABOVE THE BELT.

  5. On advances:

      March straight ahead at the ordered step.

      At the command of HALT, immediately dress the line.

  6. On retreats (Listen for command by Field Commander):

      Maintain dress in the line if the retreat is orderly.

      If disorder evolves, retreat Colours to the secondary line as designated by Field Officers and re-establish a line of battle.

  7. Be cautious of damage to Colours by bayonets and/or pole arms, and by the discharge of musketry.

Colours during firings:

My research to this point has uncovered no primary sources to support the Colours being either dipped or raised high during the battles. The purpose of doing this in re-created battles is theoretically to keep the Colours from being damaged by musket fire. Neither the British '64 Drill Manual or Baron von Steuben's manual describe this exercise, however, both Manuals show that the three files on either side of the Colours do NOT fire, but act as Colour Guards. In an experiment at the NWTA "school", it was demonstrated that by having the three files on either side of the Colours NOT fire, the Colours are in no danger of being damaged, making raising or lowering the Colours unnecessary.

The down-side of this is that if we have a total of six files not firing in our tacticals, in some cases less than half of our troops would be firing! We need ALL of our troops firing in order to put on a realistic and entertaining tactical.

There is an 18th-century exercise that addresses this concern. According to a letter that Steve Gilbert received from Bill Wigham, the Hessian Regulations of 1767 describe the motion of RAISING the Colours straight up during firings. The letter describes a painting of this practice in The Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl, ca. 1934. We are still researching this, but at present we feel the motions for this exercise are as follows:

  1. Colours are carried above the belt.

  2. Upon the command "TAKE AIM", raise the Colours with both hands high above the head and to the front - hold staff vertically.

  3. Upon the command "FIRE", count 1,001, 1,002, then drop the Colours quickly before you in a vertical manner.

    NOTE: Be cautious of bringing the flag down into the line of fire of the men on your flanks, risking burning of the Colours.

  4. Return colours to "above the belt".


I would like to conclude this with a NOTE ON SAFETY. The NWTA Board of Directors have set the policy that Colours will NOT be captured during tacticals. Ensigns that feel that their Colours are in danger of being captured are to be allowed to retreat off the battlefield. AT NO TIME ARE EDGED WEAPONS TO BE DRAWN nor is an Ensign that has left the battlefield with the Colours to return to the battlefield.