French Line Infantry Colours
French line infantry colours were made of thick pieces of silk fabric sewn together. For this reason the colours proper were designated as les soies (the silks).
The size of these colours widely varied through time. During the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), they usually measured 300 cm by 300 cm. Then at the end of the XVIIth century the size of colours, which were still of a square shape, varied from 250 cm to 280 cm. At the beginning of the XVIIIth century, size was reduced once more and the square colours then measured between 204 cm and 227 cm. In 1725, regular size was reduced once more to 162 cm while the square shape was retained for most regiments. By this date, the branches of the white cross measured 32 cm. The Encyclopédie, published in 1785, confirms that the regular size of colours was 162 cm by 162 cm.
However, there were many exceptions to this rule. Colours were sometimes of a rectangular shape: wider than high or higher then wide. For instance, a colour of Normandie Infanterie kept in Gap measures 210 cm high by 180 cm wide. Furthermore, colours of Swiss regiments in the French service were traditionally larger. Here are a few measurements of these colours:
- Gardes Suisses in 1725: square shaped colours measuring 226 cm by 226 cm
- Castellas Infanterie in the second half of the XVIIIth century: rectangular shaped colours measuring 186 cm by 175 cm with a cross with branches measuring 36 cm
- Waldner Infanterie in the second half of the XVIIIth century: rectangular shaped colours measuring 172 cm by 160 cm
Since colours were made of a single assemblage of thick pieces of silk fabric, they did not present the same disposition on the obverse and reverse. In fact, disposition was inverted on the reverse.
Colours were not always properly affixed to the pole. In Anna Beck's painting in 1713, among the five colours of Maine Infanterie, two have their first quarter (top hoist) red and their second (top fly) yellow while the three others have their first quarter (top hoist) yellow and their second (top fly) red which is the correct disposition.
The Fleur de Lys
The Fleurs de Lys were painted on the colours with ormolu (ground gold) and shaded in black of dark brown. The design of the Fleur de Lys evolved through time.
Towards the end of the reign of Louis XIV, in 1696, it is the short model of pole that Giffard reproduces as per the regulation of 1670-1680. In this period, the poles measured between 220 cm and 230 cm. At the beginning of the XVIIIth century, poles reached a length of 360 cm, including the finial of gilt iron. For example, the pole of a colour of Dauphin Infanterie, dating from 1705 and kept in the Museum of Turin in Italy, measures 368 cm.
Poles were made of beech, ash or Biscaye wood. They had a diameter of about 2.7 cm and were usually varnished but often painted in blue. In some cases, the poles were painted in the dominant colour of the Soie. For example, the Swiss Steiner Infanterie had poles painted in red. For Gardes regiments, the poles were sometimes covered with a raw silk ribbon.
The Soie was nailed directly to the pole with gilt nails (from 80 to 90 nails at the beginning of the XVIIIth ) arranged in three rows. To avoid that the Soie would tear apart, woollen braid were placed under each row of nails.
Finials and butts
During the XVIIIth century, finials and butts of various designs were in use. The finials were made of gilt iron. The butt ends measured between 10 and 30 cm and were made of gilt iron or copper.
Ribbons and cord
After the cruel mistake at the battle of Fleurus in 1690, where the French artillery had fired on French regiments, it was decided to affix a white ribbon (cravate) to the poles of the colours to distinguish French regiments from others.
The cord (cordelière) used to fasten the ribbon to the pole was made of braided silk with a tassel at each end. These cords were always silver or white on the Colonel flags. However, on the Ordonnance flags they were made of various colours reflecting those of these flags.
Before 1760, the ribbon measured 236 cm, giving a length of 118 cm once folded. Its width varied from 18 to 21 cm. In 1785, the length of the cord, once folded, was only 72 cm.
Number of colours per regiment
Prior to the ordonnance of 10 February 1749, each battalion of a French line infantry regiment (excluding Gardes units and all Swiss regiments) carried three colours: the colonel company of the first battalion carried the colonel colour while two other companies of the same battalion carried an ordonnance colour. All other battalions of the same regiment carried three ordonnance colours. In the first battalion, the colonel colour was always placed to the right of the ordonnance colour.
This measure applied also to most foreign regiments to the exception of Swiss regiments, which continued to carry one colour per company.
Gilbert Noury for all illustrations and for the initial version of this article.