Show Your Colors: Heraldry, Uniforms & Flags in Tabletop Wargaming

By Bill Gray 17 Aug 2016 0

This is something that comes up at nearly every convention when I host a tabletop game. HMGS allows visitors in free and this means PC and board gamers, reenactors and history buffs. Like many in my hobby I like to recreate battles with spiffy looking armies, a veritable cavalcade of color. Indeed, the pageantry is one of the reasons I do historical miniature wargaming. The War of Spanish Succession (WSS) has drop dead gorgeous armies, especially the French. Here are flags of multiple designs and every hue under the rainbow. Uniforms are a very light grey with different colored appointments, but also red uniforms, royal blue uniforms, cornflower blue uniforms, forest green uniforms and so on.

Then one of the spectators asks, “I don’t get it. If uniforms and flags are supposed to differentiate opposing sides, why do the armies have so many different colored uniforms, and exactly which one of these flags is the French flag?” Then I tell him that uniforms were not created for identification, France had no national flag, and in an extreme example, Russia didn’t get a national flag until 1883. Jaws hit the table, pins are heard dropping and wide eyed recruits stumble away in stupor shaking their heads and muttering, “That’s just nuts!”

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Well, no it's not, and understanding why may bring you victory in battle, whether tabletop, cardboard counter or digital. So, using France (the proverbial 800 pound gorilla back then) as a general example let me explain.

Flags and standards and ensigns, oh my!

Military flags are an extension of heraldry, and the latter was created to identify leadership on the battlefield. After Rome fell, Europe reverted back to governance by family clan and small tribe. There were no standing armies outside a small retinue of warriors that protected the chieftain and enforced his laws. Instead, when the horn sounded, all eligible males would strap on sword and buckler and in their everyday work clothes (farmer, blacksmith, you name it), come out to fight. Equipment was varied, yet common across the land. There could be several types of helmets for example, and these same helmets were also worn by the tribe down the road with the permanent weekend appointment to meet and kill you. Military leaders in the tribe came from the wealthy, as it was thought wealth was a sign of competence. Obviously these chaps could also afford better and more extensive equipment, often covering limb, torso and face. Telling who was who was quite difficult until . . .

Some chieftain, somewhere decided to paint his shield in a colorful pattern representing some memory dear to him. His family followed suit, then his bodyguard and then the rest of the tribe or clan. Indeed this shield pattern would often morph into the central shield of a coat of arms as the chieftain evolved into a noble or perhaps king. If you put this same pattern of color on a big piece of cloth, tie it to a pole and hoist it up in the air, you not only tell who is who, but where is who.

What is important, however, is that the flag represented a PERSON and NOT the tribe, its people, the real estate it called home or its government. When the chieftain died and the eldest son took charge, the previous, colorful symbology could and often did change. Moving on to the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV and the WSS, we find the rule still rang true.

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Louis was an absolute monarch, appointed by God, completely unrestrained by man or law. He controlled every aspect of his kingdom’s existence to the point that a typical Parisian was not so much a French citizen as a subject of Louis XIV. Indeed, when called by a council of nobles to answer questions whether his decrees were in accordance with state law, Louis tersely answered “L’etat c’est moi,” or “I am the state.” Thus having a national flag made no sense as the nation as we understand it did not exist.

The king, however, did have a flag, but it only flew over his personal property and wherever he was in residence. So what did the army carry? In medieval times a kingdom’s army was simply the knights, crossbowmen and retainers of the various nobles gathered together to fight. The king would normally appoint several senior nobles as his field commanders and allow them a flag of royal authority. This flag confirmed to all present that a particular prince of duke was in charge, and under the French Royal House of Vallois, this was a royal blue standard with a white cross. The white cross was a traditional symbol of France since the time of the Crusades when the Pope assigned cross colors to the various forces participating. For example, Flanders got green, Sweden yellow, France red – just hang in there, I know what you’re thinking – and England white. However, in the Hundred Years War, England’s Henry V had himself named the next king of France and so claimed the red cross as his own. The now disowned Dauphin thus took the white cross with the house color of Valois, royal blue. By the time the House of Bourbon ascended the throne, the flag was now a white cross on a white field, in deference to the white flag of Joan of Arc and the purity it conveyed. Given that as late as 1757, red flags were used as flags of parlay, expected confusion rarely happened.

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Under the early part of Louis’ reign, the French army was managed by a group of permanently employed officers called Colonel Generals, a kind of inspector general for the infantry, one for the cavalry, a Colonel General of Dragoons and so on. They retained this flag as a symbol of royal authority. Likewise, the colonels commanding the permanent regiments of the army also received the flag, as did the nobles appointed colonels of all new regiments created upon mobilization. The flag logically took the name Drapeau Colonel and again, was the flag of the person in charge, not the regiment himself, showing he was performing his duties by direct authority of the king. Regimental flags, called Drapeau d'Ordonnance, retained the white cross, but the field was colored, often differently for the four corners thus formed. The colors may well have had provincial significance for permanent regiments, but otherwise often mimicked the livery (the primary colors of a coat of arms) of the royal prince or colonel in charge. It was a bit of a perk, harkening back to when the nobility actually owned the army of the state.

There were, of course, variations, such as Holland, or the United Provinces. Managed – not governed - by a civil servant called the Stadtholder, the “country” was a confederation of independent provinces each bringing unique standards into play whenever war was declared. Other countries followed the French example, such as Austria, where all flags displayed a black double headed eagle, but with variously colored backgrounds and wavy borders (Flamengrenze) for regimental flags, and white for the sovereign’s flag. Even in odd circumstances the system seemed to work just fine, such as Danish troops in Austrian service. Denmark was not at war with France during the time, but lack of cash saw the Danish army rented out on occasion as “subsidy” troops. Sources suggest while in service to the Kaiser, Danish regimentals were carried alongside Austrian sovereign’s colors substituted for those of the Danish king.

Show me the money

Moving to garb, money was the primary reason uniforms were created in Europe around the time of the Thirty Years and English Civil Wars. Outside palace troops, there were few uniformed armies in the ancient world save the Spartans whose blood red tunics were meant to intimidate, not identify. Hollywood History might point to Rome, but while the Roman legions generally used a common set of equipment, tunic colors were limited to what could be locally procured and this often meant yellow or green with off white the most common. Shields were colored by cohort so that separated soldiers could find their unit and only the Praetorians used the famous red with talon and lightning motif. The V “Alaudae” Legion, for example used gold elephants as their shield emblem due to its service at Thapsis, while throughout the Middle Ages all bets were off.

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By the time of Louis XIV, however, kings had been slowly consolidating power at the expense of the nobility, especially regarding the military. As part of these reforms, the nobility worked directly for the king who allocated funds to them for use in maintaining regiments of infantry, cavalry and so on. It soon became apparent to the loyal aristocracy that if they pooled their resources and stuck to a common pattern and color, they could buy in bulk quite cheaply and use the excess funds elsewhere, such as lining for their own pockets. The most common color was a very light, almost white, grey for the simple reason it was actually undyed wool and thus very inexpensive. Its use included the armies of France, Austria, Italian states, Denmark, Holland and Spain among others. There were, of course exceptions, such as British red, but even here cost was the issue. Approved by Parliament in 1645, red was chosen because most Roundhead forces in the English Civil War used the color already, and this was dictated by red dye being the cheapest available. Likewise, artillerymen often wore very dark blue as it didn’t show gunpowder soiling as would lighter attire.

But while cost was prime, politics and practicality were also part of the equation. In the world of Louis XIV, polite society deemed royal blue a clothing color reserved for the king and his family while red was reserved for the nobility. Thus the French Maison du Roi (Household Troops of the King) generally wore royal blue, to include most of the cavalry and the Garde Francaise. The elite heavy cavalry reserve known as the Gendarmerie (ie, Gentlemen at Arms), where even the rank and file private was an aristocrat or noble (providing his own mount, yet), wore red, albeit with enough gold and silver braid to bankrupt many countries today. Generals of many countries wore red for this very notion and in the Austrian army all officers, who were by definition of noble birth, did as well.

Foreign troops in French service also wore unique colors for various reasons. German troops preferred medium blue similar to Bavaria, a traditional French ally. Irish troops wore red because they considered themselves the exiled soldiers of the Stuart King James II, thus entitled to wear red as the planet’s only legitimate British foot. Light troops were rare, but often wore forest green as a type of camouflage noting their exclusive recruitment from the game wardens and forest rangers across Europe.

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It’s still a lot more complicated than this, but especially for an international army such as the French, it is quite logical from a practical perspective. It’s really a matter of telling friend from friend, not friend from foe. Like the legions of Rome, having different uniform colors allowed foreign troops to more easily find their regiments during the confusion of battle and allowed commanders to more quickly locate elite formations when needed. Musket ranges were short, artillery very rare and these meant officers could easily tell who the enemy was by other means, to include the language spoken. Many nobles married into foreign families, often finding themselves as Austrian Archduke Albert did in 1809. Here the Saxon Prince Albert Light Horse drew sabres against the enemy Austrian Prince Albert Kurassieren. Albert had married a Saxon princess and thus was the actual commander of both formations. Finally, just like American NFL football fanatics and throw back uniforms, the armies were simply used to it.

The morale of the story

It probably does make a lot more sense now, right? What seemed “nuts” from a modern perspective becomes quite digestible when you understand the background and are thus able to see the situation through the eyes of the commanders and soldiers who fought under those brightly colored banners. That is the point. Most wargame designers, and tabletop designers (who often relegate themselves to a single period of history) in particular, take great pride in their research and creating systems which strongly encourage players to think and act like commanders centuries ago.

Bruce Weigel is such a person and his 1866 Austro-Prussian War rules includes 46 out of 126 pages dedicated to straight history, not to mention 97 research sources – most not in English - topped off by satellite imagery overlaid on historical military maps. These are the best types of game in my opinion, because if you crave success, you need to stop thinking like a 21st Century humanoid, at least understand why generals long ago thought the way they did, and then do likewise. Battles where breech loading rifles have lower casualty rates than smooth bore muskets 200 years earlier makes little sense until you equate it to putting a lobster into a pot full of boiling water, versus one where the heat is applied gradually. Uniforms and flags are another reminder of that paradigm, and it doesn’t seem “nuts” at all.

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