Long before people identified themselves with a nation, tribes and clans used flags to identify themselves as units. In late 1600, the world witnessed the emergence of Nations-States and flags became their symbols of identity. For militarymen however, Colours (the Nishaan) have always been a visible symbol of the great deeds of their Regiment and the spirit and sacrifices of those who carried them into battle. And it was regarded as a great shame for a Regiment to allow its colours to be captured on May 16, 1811.
The example of a British regiment — the 3rd Foot, on May 16, 1811 — is a case in point. In battle, at the ridge of Albuhera, a sixteen-year-old ensign, Thomas, was ordered — at sabre point — to surrender his Regimental Colour. ‘Only with my life,’ he replied. He was sabred and his colour was captured. Nearby, ensign Walsh, carrying the King’s Colour was also cut down but as he fell, his Colour was grabbed by a Lieutenant Latham. He was attacked and though a sword cut off half his face and an arm, he ripped the Colour from its pike and stuffed it into his tunic before falling face down in the mud amongst the trampling hooves. Latham miraculously survived. He was picked up after the battle and astonishingly recovered from his wounds, to soldier on one-armed and disfigured, but renowned for his bravery. The opposing French commander had blamed his eventual defeat on the desperate valour of men like this.
The tale for the battle of Bharatpore (now Bharatpur) is equally inspiring. In 1805, the men of 2nd Bn/15th Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry (now 4 Guards, ex 1 Rajput) had failed to hoist their Colours on the fort, despite four assaults that left 180 dead out of 400. Their Regiment’s Colours were torn and shredded. New colours were thus demanded by the Regiment from White Hall in London. When they arrived, the old colours, though shredded, were to be laid to rest with full military honours. However, in the morning preceding the parade the old Colours mysteriously disappeared, causing considerable anger amongst the Regiment’s British Officers. Many of those suspected of its disappearance were dismissed from service. But none spoke about the disappearance of the old Colours.
A generation later, in 1826 Bharatpore Fort was once again attacked by the same Regiment under the overall leadership of General Lake, and eventually captured. When the Colours of the Regiment were hoisted on the Fort, it surprised many to see some shreds of cloth fluttering from the flag pole. When questions were asked about what was their relevance, the old timers of the Unit said, that these were the shreds from the old Colours that had disappeared years ago, and were passed on from father to son, with a request that if Bharatpore was ever captured, then the old colours for which scores had died, should enjoy the same pride of place as the new colours! These were thus displayed, on the flag pole, following their victory at Bharatpore. In fact, even now, on special occasions when the battalion marches on parade, these shreds are carried in a glass and silver casket, ahead of the battalion’s marching columns.
No wonder then that Sir Edward Hamly remarked, when he looked in awe at the Regimental Colours of the 32nd Foot : “A moth eaten rag, on a warm eaten pole, it does not look likely to stir a man’s soul; (but we must remember) ‘tis the deeds that were done ‘neath the moth eaten rag, when the pole was a staff and the rag was a flag”.
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