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France: Army colours

Last modified: 2024-01-06 by olivier touzeau
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Army colours

Colours are called drapeaux (flags) for non mounted units: Infantry (including Marine Infantry, Legion Infantry, Paratroops Infantry), Engineers, Transmissions and Military Colleges.
Colours are called étendards (standards) for mounted units: Armoured corps and Cavalry (including Dragoon Paratroopers and Legion Cavalry), Artillery (including Marine Artillery, Legion Artillery, etc.), Transportation, Army Aviation, Supplies.

The colours are square tricolor flags differing by their side, 90 cm for drapeaux and 64 cm for étendards. They are set on a 2 m long staff ending by a pike-shaped finial with a cartouche bearing one one side "RF" (for "République Française", French Republic), on the other side the name of the unit. A golden-fringed tricolour sash is tied to the pike.

The obverse of a colour bears in gilded capital letters:
and the name of the unit.
Each corner of the flag bears a wreath of oak and laurel leaves inscribing the unit's number or monogram.

The reverse of a colour carries in gilded capital letters:
(Honour and Fatherland, the motto of the French Army).
Each corner of the flag bears a wreath of oak and laurel leaves inscribing the unit's number or monogram.

Some colours bear the unit's motto instead of the Army's motto, for instance:
- École Polytechnique: "Pour la patrie, les sciences, la gloire" (For Fatherland, Sciences and Glory);
- Saint-Cyr Military College: "Ils s'intruisent pour vaincre" (They Learn for Victory);
- the Foreign Legion units: "Honneur et Fidélité" (Honour and Loyalty);
- the Paris Firefighters Brigade: "Dévouement et Discipline" (Devotion and Discipline).

Pierre Gay, 8 November 1998

Battle awards on colours

Some colours bear on the reverse battle awards (honneurs). For instance, the colour of the 32nd Artillery Regiment bears:
L'Yser 1914
Verdun 1916
La Malmaison 1917
L'Avre 1918
La Marne 1918.

Legally, the French Army is not considered itself as the successor of the Royal Army. Accordingly, battles won under the Ancient Regime (for instance, Patay, Fontenoy, Chesapeake, La Praya) cannot appear as battle awards on colours. These battle names, however, still considered as glorious by the modern French Army, are honoured by being given to ships or armoured vehicles, and remembered by anniversaries. Some very old regiments like the 6th Queen's Dragoons (which is currently an armourd regiment) still carry on traditions of prerevolutionnary armies, but these are specific cases, not the official policy of the Army, which was set up in 1880.
The French Republic is considered, quite mythologically, as a single, continuous Republic, from the Revolution to this day. Even the First Empire, the Second Empire and the Monarchie de Juillet are considered as part of this continuum. The Constitution of the First Empire starts as "The Goverment of the Republic is entrusted to the Emperor of the French". Battle awards on colours can therefore include names such as Valmy, Austerlitz, Algeria, Magenta, Crimea, Madagascar.

Pierre Gay, 8 November 1998

Army flag protocol

The flag protocol in the regiments of the French Army, described as follows in the Manuel d'infanterie à l'usage des sous-officiers et caporaux (1915), has not changed much since then.

When the colour must be displayed, a company from the regiment is ordered to fetch the colour. Preceeded by the sappers, the drum-major, the drums and bugles of its batallion, the company marches on four columns, without music. When arrived at the regimental commander's quarters, the detachment stops and stands as a line, facing the front door. The company's captain then calls for bayonets (the order is baïonnette au canon !, Fix bayonet!).
The flag bearer, with the lieutenant and two non-commissioned officers, forms a temporary guard who takes the colour and returns to face the company.

As soon as the colour arrives, the captain, placed before the centre of the company, facing the colour, calls for present arms (présentez arme !), orders "to the colour" honours (au drapeau!), and salutes with sword.
Drums and bugles play three times.
Music plays the refrain of the National Anthem. (Aux armes, citoyens...)
The captain keeps his sword lowered until the music is finished.
The captain calls for arm on shoulder (portez arme !); the colour and its guard place themselves between the 2nd and 3rd sections; the lieutenant goes back to his place.

The detachment then leaves with the colour, at the sound of music, and proceeds to the assembly ground. It stops when facing the centre of the regiment at about 50 paces. Music stops.
The colonel calls baïonnette au canon! for the regiment. Then he calls présentez arme!. All shall watch the colour. Then he approaches the flag about 10 paces, orders au drapeau!, and salutes with sword.
Drums and bugles play three times.
Music plays the refrain of the National Anthem. (Aux armes, citoyens...)
The colonel keeps his sword lowered until the music is finished.
Afterwards, he calls for ordering arms (reposez arme!) and disposing bayonet (remettez baïonnette!).

The flag bearer takes his place, the two non-commissioned officers return to their company, and the detachment takes its place, skirting behind the regiment.
The colour is returned to the colonel's quarters in the order depicted above, and receives the same honours. The detachment then returns without music.

Pierre Gay, 8 November 1998

Paris Firefighters Brigade

On 1 July 1810, a blaze broke out during a ball offered in Paris at the Embassy of Austria. Emperor Napoléon I and Empress Marie-Louise were barely saved, which prompted the emperor to organize a corps of professional firefighters. The Bataillon de Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris was created by the Imperial Decree of 18 September 1811; its duty was to protect Paris against blazes.
In 1866, several neighboring municipalities were incorporated to the municipality of Paris, which was divided in 20 arrondissements (districts). The firefighters' battalion was reorganized as the Régiment de Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris, made of two battalions of six companies each. During the big flood of Paris by the Seine in January-February 1910, the firefighters saved 643 people from drowning. Involved in the fighting on the frontline during the First World War, the firefighters also contributed to the defense of Paris and assisted the inhabitants of towns hit by bombings, such as Reims, Amiens, Dunkirk and Verdun. In 1938, the firefighter's regiment was commissioned once again to the civil defense of Paris; the Sécurité Parisienne network joined the anti-German resistance and contributed to the liberation of the town. This was recognized by General de Gaulle on 14 November 1944: "Paris, liberated from the enemy, knows what it owes to the Paris firefighters".
In 1967, following the administrative reorganization of the Paris region, the regiment was transformed into the Brigade de Sapeurs- Pompiers de Paris (BSPP). In 1985, the first-aid service was transferred from the National Police to the Firefighters' Brigade.
Today, the Brigade, commanded by a General, is made of more than 7,300 firefighters organized in five groups - three fire protection groups, a support group and a teaching group. They have competence on the departments of Paris, Hauts-de-Seine, Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne, that is an area of 760 sq. km inhabited by more than 7 millions.

The color of the BSPP (photo), similar to the other army colors, is a square tricolor flag, with a wreath of oak and laurel leaves in each corner.
The obverse of the flag bears the writing:

The reverse of the flag bears the writing:

"Honneur et Patrie" is the motto of the Army, while "Dévouement et Discipline" is the motto of the Brigade. The color was granted on 14 July 1880; on 14 July 1902, it was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

Ivan Sache, 10 September 2011

Proton-Capillery workshop

A small workshop employing six highly specialized embroiders, the Proton-Capillery flag embroidery workshop (website<.A>), located in the borough of Vaise (Lyon), is one of the few French workshops producing embroidered flags, banners, pennants and badges.
Founded in 1812 by Jacques-Ignace Bioletti, the workshop was originally specialized in gold and silver embroidery of full dress uniforms, soft furnishing and ceremonial dresses for the Army and the Church. After the First World War, full dress uniforms were suppressed and the workshop quit supplying the Church.
Having succeeded his father in 1978, Gilles Proton, a descendant of Bioletti, set up in 1986 a joint-venture with the Capillery family, flag manufacturer in Lyon since 1945. The new workshop then specialized in embroidered flags.

The workshop produces every year 400 flags, 250 pennants, 20 banners and 5,000 frames. Among the 400 regular and 500 occasional customers of Proton-Capillery are several French and foreign patriotic associations; the French Army, however, is the main customer of the workshop.
[Le Progrès, 14 July 2008]

Ivan Sache, 4 June 2009