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The Evolution of Warfare: Standards of Battle

Updated on December 15, 2017
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The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.

The Flag

"A flag. You tell your men you are soldiers and that's your flag. You tell them nobody takes our flag. And you raise that flag so it flies high where everyone can see it."

So runs part of a quote from Robert Redford's movie The Last Castle. This quote encapsulates the feeling that men have felt for their flags since history has been recorded. A flag is more than a piece of cloth that hangs from a building, it is the standard that unifies an entire people under the idea of a nation.

Standards and flags have been vital to military operations longer than any other weapon. They were vital for regiments of soldiers in the classical period when men fought with spear and shield just as much as during the Civil War when man had cannons and guns. Flags have turned masses of men in to armies, and under a flag men have conquered the world.

Standard of the Third Legion on a coin minted by Mark Antony
Standard of the Third Legion on a coin minted by Mark Antony

Standards in Antiquity

Before the advent of modern states kingdoms and people were unified under standards. Sometimes these standards were flags, but more often they were representations of animals or gods that people felt bound them together. Rome is the best known wielder of standards due to the Legionary Eagle, or Aquila. The Eagle is a bird of prey that knocks other birds out of the sky, and it represents everything a soldier should aspire to.

For Roman, Greek, and other classical powers the standard was the most vital weapon in their military arsenal. Without a standard a state could not have a professional army. The standard helped a general recognize his soldiers on the battlefield. In the dust and tumble of battle one would not have been able to recognize their own troops in a time when soldiers often supplied their own equipment and were often drawn from different areas. This meant the standard bearers were often the bravest, strongest, and most heroic soldiers in an army.

Being a standard bearer meant leading the army, because all the soldiers in your regiment were trained to stay in formation around the standard. Soldiers would follow their standard in to battle, and if it fell they would be lost. This was necessary in a time when communication was limited to yelling and shouting.

Coat of Arms of Duke William
Coat of Arms of Duke William

Medieval Flags and Royal Standards

The fall of Rome did not lead to the end of military conflict, and standards continued to be used by medieval armies. During the medieval period history began to see the formation of modern states through medieval kingdoms. Tribal groups began to settle down under kings.

Kings, royal princes, and even the nobility all had their own heraldic standards and arms. These identified the leader on the battlefield so that all of his troops would know where their king was, and that he was okay. Standards continued to be used by troops to direct them in battle, but the development of royal standards helped to form the people in to nations.

Militarily the Royal Standard was an important objective. Many battles hinged on where the royal standard was. The Battle of Hastings is an example of royal standards playing a huge part in the battle. Norman armies met English armies at Hastings, but the battle was proving to be inconclusive. If the Normans did not take the field the English would have regrouped and made conquest much harder. Duke William took his personal soldiers and charged the English King Harold killing him and throwing down his standard. When the royal standard fell the English lost heart and fled the field. Events like this occurred constantly throughout medieval history, showing the importance of the medieval standard.

Flag of the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Scotland
Flag of the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Scotland
Battle of Fort McHenry, the inspiration for the American National Anthem, The Star Spangled Banner
Battle of Fort McHenry, the inspiration for the American National Anthem, The Star Spangled Banner
Napoleon leading his men over the Bridge in Arcole
Napoleon leading his men over the Bridge in Arcole

Modern to Atomic Era standards

At the end of the medieval period military tactics were rapidly changing. Guns replaced crossbows, while centralization destroyed the small nobility and knightly class. Gun and pike formations combined to destroy the old idea of knights dominating the battlefield, but this did not change the role of the flag. Nation-states began to use the flag to unify their dominions and their armed forces.

Armies created nations, and not necessarily through their conquests. By bringing people together from all over an area and forcing them to work together a king was able to forge a national identity. To solidify national identity all the people were placed under one flag rather than their individual or regional flags. This is not to say that individual regiments no longer had their own regimental flags, but that they drilled and marched under a flag that identified with the nation.

In the modern period the use of instruments on the battlefield became more common, and alongside the flag they helped to organize men through symbols, since it would have been impossible to issue orders vocally with cannons and rifles firing. Great leaders understood the importance of the flag, and they used it to inspire their men. such as when Napoleon led his men in the Battle of the Bridge of Arcole.

Contemporary Use

After WWII the flag became less important on the battlefield. It still serves as an inspiration to the armed forces and the citizens of a state, but it no longer plays an active role in the battlefield. Modern technology allows leaders to command their troops without waving a flag about. In the conflicts currently facing the world armies are increasingly operating in smaller compact units designed for anti-insurrection activities which require secrecy and discretion.

National flags are used as rallying points, and in activities meant to inspire people, but they are no longer carried on to the battlefield. A new war may see the return of the flag to the battlefield, but for now it appears technology has relegated flags to a ceremonial role.


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