Talking about tradition




It’s always interesting to discover some of the traditions that military units and organisations have adopted. Some of which have been around for hundreds of years.

Not only is it interesting to observe some of the traditions attached to military units and organisations, it is just as interesting to find out how they originated.

Battle Honours

A battle honour is an award of a right by a government or sovereign to a military unit to emblazon the name of a battle or operation on its flags, uniforms or other accessories where ornamentation is possible.

In European military tradition, military units may be acknowledged for their achievements in specific wars or operations of a military campaign. In Great Britain and those countries of the Commonwealth which share a common military legacy with the British, battle honours are awarded to selected military units as official acknowledgement for their achievements in specific wars or operations of a military campaign.

These honours usually take the form of a place and a date, for example - “Cambrai 1917”.

Trooping the Colour

Trooping the Colour is a ceremony performed by regiments of the British and Commonwealth armies. It has been a tradition of British infantry regiments since the 17th century, although its roots go back much earlier. On the battlefield, a regiment’s colours, or flags, were used as rallying points.

Consequently, regiments would have their ensigns slowly march with their colours between the ranks to enable soldiers to recognise their regiments’ colours.

Since 1748, Trooping the Colour has also marked the official birthday of the British sovereign. It is held in London annually on a Saturday in June at Horse Guards Parade by St James’s Park, and coincides with the publication of the Birthday Honours List. Among the audience are the Royal family, invited guests, ticket holders and the general public.

Swords in a court-martial

Traditionally in British courts-martial, all court officials would wear swords as well as all officers, whether they were a witness or were acting for the defence or prosecution. All accused, regardless of rank, would be marched into the courtroom by an armed escort.

Officers’ escorts would carry a drawn sword. If the accused was not an officer, the escort would carry a drawn cutlass. The accused officer would then have to lay his sword lengthwise on the court table as a symbol of putting his officer’s commission and reputation on hold and on the line.

When the verdict was decided, the judge would move the sword. If the tip of the sword pointed towards the accused, it meant they had been found guilty. If the sword was either unmoved or the hilt of the sword was pointing towards the accused then he had been found not guilty.

The practice was abolished in 2004 following a claim that it was demeaning under the Human Rights Act 1998.

The Royal Australian Navy, however, retains the practice of the sword on the table at courts-martial, as does the Indian Army.

SKULL AND CROSSBONES: British submarines began flying the Jolly Roger when returning from successful patrols.

Ship’s badges

The Royal Navy assigns badges to every ship, submarine, squadron and shore establishment. Prior to the age of steam ships, ships were identified by their figurehead. With the removal of the figurehead, ships badges and motto’s were created to graphically represent the ships.

The official process for creating the badge was initiated by Charles ffoulkes after World War I who was appointed as the Admiralty Advisor on Heraldry. Soon after his appointment The Ships’ Badges Committee was established. This was amalgamated in 1983 with the Ships’ Names Committee (founded in 1913) to create the Ships’ Names and Badges Committee.

The Naval Crown adorns the top of all the badges. The frame is gold rope. Originally, different classes of ships had different shapes, but currently all ships and submarines have a circular design. Shore establishments have an offset square design.

Toasting the Emperor

The 14/20th Kings Hussars is a cavalry unit in the British Army. At formal dinners a chamber pot filled with champagne is passed around and each officer drinks from the pot and toasts ‘the emperor’.

The chamber pot once belonged to Emperor Joseph Bonaparte of France and he was probably using it right up until the Battle of Vitoria in 1813.

It was at this battle that the emperor was soundly defeated and his chamber pot was amongst the loot taken by the 14/20th Kings Hussars. It was shortly after this that the tradition began.

Hopefully they gave the chamber pot a good cleaning before drinking the first toast.

Jolly Roger

The Jolly Roger is a symbol that has been used by submarines, primarily those of the Royal Navy Submarine Service and its predecessors. The practice came about during World War I.  

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson was not all that impressed with the method that submarines attacked their targets.

He complained that submarines were “underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English” and that personnel should be hanged as pirates.

Lieutenant Commander Max Horton, the skipper of a British submarine, was known for his wicked sense of humour. In response to Wilson’s comment he began flying the Jolly Roger flag after returning from successful patrols.

During World War II Horton would go on to become an admiral and flag officer submarines.

Take a seat

When God Save The Queen is played, all British soldiers will jump to attention and salute. Except, that is, for the officers of the 13/15th Royal Hussars.

When the national anthem is played they will remain seated. In fact any officer standing will immediately find somewhere to sit. Even if it is on the floor.

Are they a rebellious, unpatriotic mob that show no respect for the monarch or their country? No, they’re following an old regimental tradition.

It appears that Queen Mary was a guest at a formal dinner at the regiment. When the national anthem, God Save The Queen, was played all the officers present jumped to their feet.

“Don’t bother to stand,” Queen Mary told them. “Please sit down and relax, Sit down.”

So they did sit down - and have never stood since for the national anthem.

Missing Man Formation

The missing man formation is an aerial salute performed as part of a flypast of aircraft at a funeral or memorial event, typically in memory of a fallen pilot, a well-known military service member or veteran, or a well-known political figure.

Several variants of the formation are seen. The formation most commonly used in the United States is based on the “finger-four” aircraft combat formation composed of two pairs of aircraft.

The aircraft fly in a V-shape with the flight leader at the point and his wingman on his left. The second element leader and his wingman fly to his right.

The formation flies over the ceremony low enough to be clearly seen and the second element leader abruptly pulls up out of the formation while the rest of the formation continues in level flight until all aircraft are out of sight.

In an older variant the formation is flown with the second element leader position conspicuously empty. In another variation, the flight approaches from the south, preferably near sundown, and one of the aircraft will suddenly split off to the west, flying into the sunset.

In all cases, the aircraft performing the pull-up, split off, or missing from the formation, is honouring the person (or persons) who has died, and it represents their departure.

MISSING MAN: During a fly over, a single jet starts to pull up away from the formation to begin the ‘Missing Man Formation’. This honours the person, or persons, that have died.

Navy toasts

The Navy also had many traditions, especially the Royal Navy. One of these traditions is drinking a special toast at mess dinners. This toast is made immediately after the loyal toast.

The toast would depend on what day of the week it was. On a Sunday, for example, the toast would be, “Absent friends.” The Monday toast would be, “Our ships at sea.”

On a Tuesday the toast was, “Our men” and on a Wednesday it would be “Ourselves (as no one else is likely to be concerned for us!).

The toast on a Thursday was “A Bloody War or a Sickly Season” (and a quick promotion!). Friday’s toast was “A Willing Foe and Sea-Room.”

On Saturday’s the toast would be “Wives and Sweethearts” (may they never meet). The words in brackets are normally quip after the toast.

In June 2013 the Tuesday and Saturday toasts were officially changed under orders from the Second Sea Lord, Vice-Admiral David Steel, to reflect the fact that women have been at sea in the Royal Navy for nearly two decades.

Officially the Tuesday toast is now “Our Sailors” and the Saturday toast is “Our Families”. However, the majority of personnel prefer the traditional toasts and they are still overwhelmingly used.

While most of these toasts are self-explanatory, “a bloody war or a sickly season” refers to the desire and likelihood of being promoted when many people die: during war or sickness.

The Navy traditionally makes the loyal toast seated, due to the evident danger of low deckheads on wooden sailing ships.

The toasts are typically given by the youngest officer present at the mess dinner.

Riderless horse

A riderless horse is a single horse, without a rider, and with boots reversed in the stirrups, which sometimes accompanies a funeral procession. The horse follows the caisson carrying the casket.

A riderless horse can also be featured in military parades to symbolize fallen soldiers. In Australia for example, it is traditional for a riderless horse known as the ‘Lone Charger’ to lead the annual Anzac Day marches.

The custom is believed to date back to the time of Genghis Khan, when a horse was sacrificed to serve the fallen warrior in the next world. The riderless horse later came to symbolize a warrior who would ride no more.

In the United States, the riderless horse is part of the military honours given to an Army or Marine Corps officer who was a colonel or above; this includes the President, by virtue of having been the country’s commander in chief and the Secretary of Defence, having overseen the armed forces. Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury (1789-1795) was the first American to be given the honour.

Historian Ron Chernow noted that Hamilton’s grey horse followed the casket “with the boots and spurs of its former rider reversed in the stirrups.”

Abraham Lincoln was the first president of the United States to be officially honoured by the inclusion of the riderless horse in his funeral cortège, although a letter from George Washington’s personal secretary recorded the president’s horse was part of the president’s funeral, carrying his saddle, pistols, and holsters.

Traditionally, simple black riding boots are reversed in the stirrups to represent a fallen commander looking back on his troops for the last time.

Three-volley Salute

The three-volley salute is a ceremonial act performed at military funerals and sometimes also police funerals.

The custom originates from the European dynastic wars, where the fighting ceased so the dead and wounded could be removed. Then, three shots were fired into the air to signal that the battle could resume.

The Last Post

The Last Post was first published in the 1790s, just one of the two dozen or so bugle calls sounded daily in British Army camps.

The soldier’s day started with the call of Reveille, and came to a close with the First Post. This indicated that the duty officer was commencing his inspection of the sentry-posts on the perimeter of the camp. The inspection would take about 30 minutes, and at the end there would be sounded the Last Post, the name referring simply to the fact that the final sentry-post had been inspected. For decades this was the sole use of the call, a signal that the camp was now secure for the night, closed till morning.

It was not until the 1850s that another role began to emerge. It was an era when many military bandsmen, and most bandmasters, were civilians and were under no obligation to accompany their regiments on overseas postings. So when a soldier died in a foreign land, there was often no music available to accompany him on his final journey. And, necessity being the mother of invention, a new custom arose of charging the regimental bugler to sound the Last Post over the grave.

The symbolism was simple and highly effective. The Last Post now signalled the end not merely of the day but of this earthly life. And, as the practice developed - back home now as well as abroad - it was then followed by few moments of silent prayer and by the sounding of Reveille, the first call of the day, to signify the man’s rebirth into eternal life.

Over the years, the piece has changed - not in the music but in the performance. Notes are held for longer, the pauses extended, the expression more mournful, so that it now lasts around 75 seconds, rather than the 45 seconds it used to take to mark the end of the day.

It is interesting to note that the American military do not use the Last Post, but rather use a bugle call known as Taps. Reportedly it originated in 1862 during the American Civil War.

FINAL REVIEW: The riderless horse named Sergeant York, during the funeral procession for the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, with President Reagan’s boots reversed in the stirrups.

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