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Origin and meaning of The COLOURS

Colours on Parade: Click to enlarge

The Colours Are On Parade.

In 2005 all the Colours associated with 2nd Division were paraded together at Victoria Barracks, Sydney.

Photo: Alan Kitchen FFFAIF. Click image to enlarge.
  • In the case of the Colours being threatened it was a soldier's duty to pick up the Colours and, at all costs, save them. "Indeed a greater act of cowardice cannot be found than to suffer the Colours to be lost" records Francis Grose in his Military Antiquities (1786-88 ).
  • In the old tradition, if a mortally wounded ensign wrapped the Colours around his body and died with them, the Colours were not considered lost. The honour of the Colours was carried with the ensign's soul to heaven "to the possession of the eternal forever" and the enemy was denied the honour of having captured them.
  • The tradition of colours and the strict conventions applied and the respect accorded them must be a matter of common knowledge for every soldier. 
    • An officer or soldier passing uncased Colours of his own regiment or other corps or friendly service is to salute them. 
    • Colours are the jealous possession of the battalion. 
    • They do not leave the Battalion's possession even when it's on active service service. 
    • No one but the Battalion may claim them. 
    • When they are being moved from, or to, the place they are usually kept, they are to be escorted. 
    • When the colours are not being carried they are to be housed in the Officers Mess. 
    • When the Battalion is on active service or functioning in such a way that its custody of the Colours is not possible, the Colours are housed for safe keeping before leaving Australia.
    •  Gloves are to be worn at all times while carrying the colours. 
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The Queen's & Regimental Colours; 4RAR The Queen's & Regimental Colours; 8RAR The Queen's & Regimental Colours; 31RQR

The Colours are the focal point of all that make a regiment great. They are consecrated symbols embodying the loyalty, spirit and traditions of the Regiment or Battalion to which they belong.

  • The Sovereign’s Colour is a reminder to all ranks of their loyalty and duty to their Sovereign and their Country. 
  • The Regimental Colour is a symbol of Regimental tradition and of the duty owed by each member to the Regiment. 
  • Battle Honours are emblazoned on the Regimental Colour. In some cases the Battle Honours are emblazoned on the Sovereign's Colour. There is a limit of 10 (11) Battle Honours on any Colour.

for full details in text

1RAR Queen's and Regimental Colours on display in Singapore in 1970.

  • The Colours are always guarded with a ceremonial Honour Guard of senior NCOs when on parade and when on display at other times an armed guard  of NCOs is mounted over them. 
  • The very name Colour Sergeant comes from the position within a Regiment whose role was to organise protection of the Colours
    • to this day the Warrant Officers and senior NCOs who form the Honour Guard (or Colour Guard) wear a scarlet sash over the right shoulder to indicate their status. see photo  >>> and below
    • the Colour Bearers ( the ones who actually carry the Colours) are junior Officers and it is considered an honour to be chosen. Some Units have a tradition of having the longest serving Lieutenant bear the Queen's Colour and the Lieutenant with the least service bear the Regimental Colour.


  • The Infantry Scarlet sash as worn by Duty Sergeants and Colour Party "Colour Sergeants".
This is a 1813 rank badge of the Colour Sergeant in the British Army units serving in Australia. Note that 2 of the traditional 3 stripes have gone to be replaced by crossed swords and a representation of the Sovereign's Colour under the Crown.

(This has never been a rank in the Australian Army except in the Corps of Staff Cadets at Royal Military College. It was a rank in the Colonial Military Forces. see below)

  • The rank of colour sergeant was introduced into the British Army in 1813 as the protector of the ensign and the Colour. There was no such rank in the Australian Army except at the Royal Military College Duntroon, where it was a rank within the Corps of Staff Cadets and in pre Federation Colonial Forces. 
  • The escorts in a Colour Party are often Staff-Sergeants and for ceremonial occasions, when Colours are on parade, they are referred to as the Colour Sergeants.
Badge of Rank of a Colour Sergeant in the Kennedy Regiment (Qld)1890/1898. 

Note the 3 stripes, crossed flags (both Union Jacks) surmounted by a crown. Details

Colour Sergeant

Badge of Rank of the Colour Sergeant in the Coldstream Guards, 2003
  • The Sovereign's Colour was traditionally based on the Union Flag but now, since the middle 1970's, as the Queen's Colours are replaced they are based on the Australian National Flag. see the 1RAR colours at top of page for an example.

1RAR Colours on parade at the Battalion Birthday in Malaysia in 1969.

The origin of the symbols can be traced back to the dim beginnings of history. Over 5000 years ago in India there was the "Cult of the Standard". In the time of Julius Caesar standards were made of metal, but with the advent of the Christian era they were made of cloth, silk or damask.

Regimental colours of the 46th Turkish Regiment captured by Australians in 1918, the only Regimental Colours ever captured by Australians

Early Military flags were of two types: the personal flag borne in the feudal armies when service was rendered to the immediate overlord, and the national or standardized flag as borne by the National or standing armies. George III abolished the personal aspect in 1743 when a warrant stated "No Colonel shall put his arms, crest device or livery in any part of the appointments of his Regiment". The same warrant directed the number of the Regiment to be painted in the centre of the Regimental or second colour inaugurating the Regimental aspect. Varying colours were carried by Regiments until 1751 when it was decreed that only two colours would be carried in future - The King’s (or Queen’s) and the Regimental Colour.

The purpose of the standard was to serve as a rallying point in the field of battle. When the distinctive insignia was held aloft the troops knew the position of their leader. To lose the standard often meant that one’s leader was lost. Therefore the importance of "Keeping the flag flying" was very great.

With the introduction of modern weapons the casualty rate among Colour and Standard Bearers was very high. So high was the mortality rate of Colour Bearers during the Crimean War that in subsequent European wars British Colours were not carried. 

  • British Colours were last carried into battle by the 58th Foot (later the 2nd Battalion The Northampton Regiment) whose Colours were carried at Laing's Nek in the 1st Boer War on 28 January 1881. Lieutenant Alan Hill of the 58th, the Ensign carrying the Queen's Colour, was awarded the Victoria Cross for rescuing on his horse the mortally wounded Lieutenant Baillie carrying the Regimental Colour. Baillie's dying words were 'Never mind me; save the Colour'.
  • Australian Colours have NEVER been carried on a battlefield. They are reserved for ceremonial occasions only.

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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces