The tradition of carrying flags into battle dates back thousands of years, although it was the Roman army and the European wars of the Middle Ages that made rallying behind a flag part of battle strategy. The flag or colour became the command point for each regiment and the way a commanding general could identify placement on the battlefield. Battalions were trained to arrange themselves in relation to the colour and to reorganise from there when the battle became chaotic.
As battle tactics changed and the armies moved to khaki in the field, the use of colours in battle became more of a threat than a strategic advantage. The practice died out for the British Army during the Boer War and official policy changed in 1891. Other countries were still carrying flags into battle in WW1 and even WW2.
By the end of the Civil War at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, both sides were exhausted – the Parliamentarian army had reportedly jogged in their shirtsleeves to make the journey at speed – and knew that organisation and motivation on the battlefield would be essential, something that Cromwell’s New Model Army excelled at. The Royalist Scots troops used white field signs and so Cromwell ordered his army to wear nothing that was white. King Charles spent the early stages of the battle in Worcester Cathedral’s tower where he would have been watching the placement and struggle of each regimental colour across the city and the floodplain to the south.
This sketch from the Worcester City museum collection by Thomas Woodward (1801-1852) was made in preparation for his great painting The Battle of Worcester. In his finished painting, three colours fly over the churning battle. Although Victorian painters tended to romanticise the experience of war, Woodward captures the chaos it must have been at the Battle of Worcester.