SYW French flags in breach of protocol?

Oh dear, what a blunder. It appears that one of my armies suffers from a major error.

On The Miniatures Page today, there was some discussion on whether 18th century French battalions carried the white (colonel’s) flag on the left or right of the coloured (regimental) flag. The general consensus was that the colonel’s flag had precedence, and so would be carried on the the right, the place of honour. My feeling was that this sounded correct.

Then someone mentioned that he had checked a couple of “well-respected sites” and found that they had the flags the wrong way round.

A surge of horror ran through my veins, and I quickly checked out my own 18th Century French Army website … and found, sure enough, that it looked like I was one of those “well-respected” but totally incorrect sites.

Gardes Françaises on my website, with the colonel's and regimental colours positioned in the wrong order (probably)

It is so long since I painted my French army that I can’t recall my reasoning for this positioning of the flags. But it is the sort of decision I would never make willy-nilly, so I must’ve done this for a reason.

Then I remembered that my absolute favourite battle painting, Felix Phillipotteaux’s depiction of the Gardes Françaises at the Battle of Fontenoy, includes some flags in the picture. And there, on the right of the painting, are the flags in the same order as on my battalions. So it is quite possible that this was my source.

Phillipotteaux's painting of the battle of Fontenoy, showing (far right) the flags with the white (colonel's) colour on the left.

So am I right or wrong? Phillipotteaux was not a contemporary 18th century painter – he painted this scene a century later. However, did he have some information to decide to paint the flags in that order? Or was it merely a slip of the paint-brush? Supporting the latter is the fact that Edouard Detaille’s painting of the same scene has the flags the other way round from Phillipotteaux.

Detaille's painting of the same scene, white (colonel's) flag o nthe right.

Whatever, I’ve decided I am going to live with my flags the way they are. There is no way I’m going to re-base, and the flags are glued too firmly to their poles to merely swap them round. They will stay in their (probably) incorrect postions, and remain a talking point for those who are interested in such niceties of military manners.

My troops march proudly into battle, oblivious to the breach of protocol in the order of their flags.

In any case, it isn’t the worst flag error I’ve made … one of my American Civil War units had its lovely blue Maryland flag inadvertantly mounted upside-down for several years until it was pointed out to me!

So, what are your views on the positioning of the French flags?  Do you know what happened historically?  Or do you think I should care more than I am planning to do?

10 thoughts on “SYW French flags in breach of protocol?

  1. Oh we are, as a hobby, plagued with button counters… your regiments look magnificent – naysayers??? ignore ’em!

  2. I found this link, which may indicate that things aren’t as black and white as suggested in my original post:

    The problem may be that the way we set up a 24-figure wargames unit doesn’t equate to how a real battalion would be set up.

    As I understand it, the first battalion had the two types of flags: one colonel’s and one regimental (or ‘ordannance’) flag. The other battalions had only two regimental flags.

    In the first battalion, the colonel’s colour was carried by the senior company. The regimental flag was carried by another company altogether.

    So, if I am reading correctly between the lines, the flags were not usually carried side by side as we portray them in our units.

    However, not being an expert in this, I’m happy to be put right by anyone who knows better. So I have posted about this on the LaceWars YahooGroup, where hopefuly we’ll find an expert to put us right.

  3. Does it matter? At least they have received colours. Flags are an integral part of the period and so it is much nicer to have them, whether we know for certain where they were carried or not, than to have men march with a bare pole.

  4. Roly, looking at the first painting example you have shown, it could be just perspective to assume the white flag is on the left, but look again and it could also be taken as being carried on the right, but thrust forward, whilst the blue flag could be being held back a little, whilst carried to the left… the jury is out!

  5. Since I tend to use just one flag per unit, I don’t have this problem… But it is true that when you do things like this you want to get it right. I ‘inherited’ a few years ago a Napoleonic British army that had a two-flag tradition (they seem to me over-represented in a 20-figure battalion, but what the heck), and my immediate thought was ‘OK: which way round…’

  6. Hello,

    After many years, I am trying to get back into the Seven Years War. I am starting with Prussians and Austrian figures. But I am hopelessly confused about organization. I know that unlike the Napoleonic organization, the SYW company organization was purely administrative, and that on the battlefield, the battalions were broken down into 4 divisions of 4 platoons each. I am basing my men at a ratio of 1/20 with each stand representing a battlefield platoon.

    Here is where the problem starts. A lot of sources, including Osprey, just list the company organization of the battalions: 5 for the Prussians and 6 for the Austrians. Christopher Duffy’s excellent and authoritative books “The Army of Frederick the Great” and “The Army of Maria Theresa” also address the battlefield formation of the battalions of 4 divisions of 4 platoons each.

    However, the authorities seem to differ greatly on the number of men in the battalions.

    First of all, a lot of the SYW wargames suggest that Austrian German and Austrian Hungarian battalions had different numbers of men; some suggest that the German battalions were stronger (800 men v. 600 men), some that the Hungarian battalions were stronger (960 men v. 800 men). However, the more authoritative works, like Osprey and Duffy, suggest that during the SYW there was no difference in numbers between German and Hungarian musketeer battalions.

    Second, the number of men in the Prussian battalions are variously listed as 570, 600, 800, etc. and for the Austrian battalions as 552, 600, 800, 840, 960, etc.

    The problem is compounded that what I consider the most authoritative source, Duffy, is confusing also. He lists the administrative establishment of an Austrian infantry battalion (no distinction between Hungarian and German) as 6 companies of between 130 and 160 men, thus the battalion is between 780 and 960 men. But then he says that on the battlefield the battalion was broken down into 4 divisions of 4 platoons each, with each platoon consisting of 69 men. Thus, each division consists of 138 men, with a total battalion strength of 552. So even Duffy is confusing: is the Austrian battalion 552 men, or 780 to 960 men?

    The same problem exists for the Prussian battalion, Duffy states that the administrative organization of the battalion is 5 companies of 114 men for a total battalion strength of 570 men. But then he says that on the battlefield the Prussian battalion was broken down into 4 divisions of 4 platoons each, with each platoon consisting of 81 men. Thus, each division consists of 162 men, with a total battalion strength of 648 men. So even Duffy is confusing: is the Prussian battalion 570 men or 648 men?

    Any authoritative help would very much be appreciated.


    Stefan B. Tahmassebi

  7. I am going to be totally useless to you here, Stefan, and say that my organisation is not based on history at all, but on what I want to see and use on the tabletop!

    After all, my latest Minden Miniatures project uses three companies per battalion, my ‘reference’ being the book “Charge! Or How To Play Wargames” – ie not at all historical.

    However, as your gaming ethos seems to be more historically based than mine, hopefully someone with more knowledge will be able to answer your query. I suggest that the Lacewars YahooGroup would be a good starting point.

  8. While I plan on having the Colonel’s Colour to the right of the Company Colour, I have no authority for it other than (as you), I feel that the Colonel’s would have the place of honour.

    For your French, I would just assume that the silly young Ensigns screwed up again and grabbed the wrong flags . . . perhaps as a prank or (more likely) because they were too tired to pay proper attention.

    — Jeff

  9. Sorry, I’m just catching up on old news here. I’m contemplating merging my two one flag battalions into one super two flag battalion and up to now was convinced that the likely place for the colonel’s or king’s colour would be on the right. However, it strikes me that on a medieval battlefield, the traditional place of honour was to the right of the leader of the army (I say ‘leader’ because the king was not always present at all medieval battles). That being the tradition, it is therefore logical for the regimental flag of the first battalion to be to the right of the leader’s (colonel’s) flag. So that’s what I’m going for (but I’m not going to use super glue!).

I hope I've given you something to think about - please do leave a comment with your thoughts or reactions.

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