The Colours 1661-2001

The following pages were originally printed as a Supplement to The Queen's Royal Surrey Regiment Newsletter, (The Colours 1661-2001) and published in May 2002. The Foreword was written by the then Colonel, The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment (Queen's and Royal Hampshires 2003-2007)
The late Brigadier ER Holmes CBE, TD, JP


Colours originally had both practical and symbolic functions. Initially they were carried by individual companies, and their hue (usually the regiment's facing colour) and the markings they bore enabled men to identify not simply their battalion but also their company within it. In the early 18th Century company colours disappeared, and battalions had two colours, a King's or Queen's Colour and a Regimental Colour: the 2nd or Queen's Royal Regiment was unique in retaining a third colour. Colours still retained a practical value, and the practice of 'Trooping the Colour' reflects the need to ensure that soldiers knew what their colours looked like so as to be able to rally on them in times of crisis. They also served as a stimulus to collective valour, and few episodes show their importance more than the action of Sergeant Bernard McCabe of the 31st Regiment at Sobraon in 1846. When Ensign Jones (who had himself been commissioned in the field for gallantry bearing the colours in a previous battle.) was shot down, McCabe grabbed the fallen Regimental Colour and planted it on the highest part of the Sikh fortifications. Thus inspired, the 31st pressed on and carried the position with the bayonet. McCabe too was commissioned, and was killed in action as a brevet lieutenant colonel at the siege of Lucknow in 1857. A fragment of the Colour he bore so bravely is mounted in the Huntingdonshire salt cellar which is used to this day by 2nd Battalion The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment.

British troops last carried Colours into action in 1881 in the First Boer War, and although their practical use ended with their disappearance from the battlefield, they still retained enormous symbolic importance. For they were always more than simply functional. They embodied the unit's prestige and esprit de corps, and for this reason their loss in battle was regarded as a disgrace while the capture of enemy colours (or French eagles!) was a particular triumph. They bore the names of battles in which the regiment had distinguished itself. This practice began relatively late, with the granting of the Sphinx and the superscription 'Egypt' to the Queen's in 1801. Earlier battle honours were granted retrospectively: they include Namur 1695, in celebration of William of Orange's capture of that French-held fortress. When the Queen's Surreys were formed they were entitled to far more battle honours than could actually be borne on their Colours and, for reasons which remain unclear, their predecessor regiments had not actually been awarded battle honours for some actions in which they played a very distinguished part.

This Supplement is not simply a meticulously researched piece of regimental history, which charts the development of the colours carried by the regular, militia, volunteer and territorial battalions constituting the Queen's Surreys and its forebears. It goes further, and catalogues the whereabouts of colours, so many of them laid up in great cathedrals or churches in London and the south-east. There they hang, gradually, in the tradition of old soldiers, fading away in their honourable retirement. Many of the people who walk beneath them give them little thought, but a poet catches the contrast between these tattered remnants and the former glory of their silk and braid.

A moth eaten rag on a worm eaten pole
It does not look likely to stir a man's soul
'Tis the deeds that were done 'neath the moth eaten rag
When the pole was a staff and the rag was a flag.

E Hamley

This work would not have been possible without the hard work of many members of the Queen's Royal Regiment, the East Surreys and the Queen's Surreys. I pay particular tribute to Brigadier Jonathan Riley, who has written much of the text, and to Lieutenant Colonel Les Wilson whose indomitable energy has made the whole project possible. The papers of the late Major Peter Hill were invaluable to the authors.

Richard Holmes
The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment
(Queen's and Royal Hampshires)


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