- Davidson, Bill, LCDR, RAN
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Cerberus (Shore Establishment)
- December 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
‘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.’
(Sir Edward Hamley)
COLOURS HAVE LONG BEEN ASSOCIATED with the British Army, having been in use in some form since the mid 1600s. Approval to use Colours by the Royal Navy was not granted until 1924 with the Royal Australian Navy being first presented with Colours in 1927. This presentation consisted of two Colours; one for the Australian Squadron (originally held by the Flagship) and now Maritime Headquarters, the second for the RAN Establishments and held at Flinders Naval Depot (now HMAS Cerberus).
The Origin of Colours
The history of the Colour is inextricably entwined in the history of the British Army and the Colours carried through so many battles over the past 500 years. The Sovereign’s Colours are a development of the banners carried by nobility in medieval times, which in turn were an advance on the ensigns and standards used by the Roman Legions, Greeks and Egyptians among others. The invention of a standard came about by the need for a quick and simple way to identify who was friendly and who wasn’t.
In those early days man looked very much like his neighbour in appearance with little to distinguish himself and so he needed some way to differentiate between families, tribes and races. Initially man painted himself and his dwelling with a symbol of significance to him. In war this symbol became his badge and was fixed to a pole and held aloft in battle for the dual purpose of indicating his position and acting as a rallying point. Medieval chivalry followed suit with armorial bearings placed on banners and held aloft so as to be seen well above the melée. The loss of the banner often meant the leader was lost and so the banner’s protection became both vital to the cause and symbolic of the organisation’s spirit and tradition. It is from these banners that Colours have been derived.
In 1660 Charles II was restored to the English throne and the first establishment of the present British Army took place the following year. It is here that the first mention of a Royal Badge and later the King’s initials or cypher being used on a Colour occurs. The first regulations controlling Colours were issued in 1747 and directed that the first Colour was to be known as the King’s Colour, whilst the second was generally called the Regimental Colour although this was not officially recognized until 1844.
The Significance of the Colour
Colours are memorials to the great deeds of a unit and have become the symbol of its spirit, bearing the battle honours and badges granted to that unit in commemoration of the gallantry performed by its members. The Commonwealth Navies have instituted an Honours Board (in lieu of the Colour) to display a ship’s battle honours. Many a heroic deed has been performed under the Colour and gallantry awards, including a number of Victoria Crosses, have been won by members of the Colour Party in recognition of their self-sacrifice in the defence of the Colour. This association of Colours with heroic deeds has caused them to be regarded with veneration. The fact that Colours are consecrated before being taken into use, and after service are laid up in Garrison churches and prominent cathedrals, helps to maintain this atmosphere of deep respect with which they are surrounded.
The King’s Colour, as first presented to the RAN, consisted of a White Ensign, made of the finest silk, with a Crown and Royal Cypher superimposed, 3 feet 9 inches by 3 feet, with a red, white and blue silk cord and gold tassels. The Colour was fashioned by hand, from the highest quality banner silks, gold braid and thread, a delicate article requiring very careful treatment at all times. This has been standard for all Colours presented to the RAN and unlike the Colours of the Royal Australian Air Force and Australian Regular Army, which carry battle honours and vary in design from Regiment to Regiment, the Colours of the RAN follow the custom and tradition of the Royal Navy and do not alter from Command to Command.