Battle honours, First World War

Regimental colour, 4th Battalion, AIF. 

A battle honour is an official public recognition of a battle, action, or engagement by the inclusion on a unit’s colours, standard, or guidon.

Australia’s oldest battle honour is Suakin, 1885. This was granted to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Australian Infantry Regiments by King Edward VII in 1907 to acknowledge the contribution of the New South Wales Infantry to the war in the Sudan.

Definition of battle names

The First World War was a period of continual fighting. Before battle honours could be awarded, it was necessary to classify individual actions so they could be identified by name and relative importance.

As a result, Britain’s Army Council appointed the Battles Nomenclature Committee in August 1919. The committee’s report established the names, dates, and boundaries of important engagements for each theatre of war, and was published in 1921.

The committee defined “battles” as “engagements of primary importance fought out between forces not smaller than the corps”. On occasion, individual battles were grouped together, such as the battles of Megiddo, which included the battles fought at Sharon and Nablus.

“Actions” were defined as engagements involving forces no smaller than a division: for example, the German attack on Lagnicourt, France, in April 1917. Lesser engagements were defined as “affairs”, and included the fighting at Quinn’s Post on Gallipoli in May 1915. The committee also included descriptive terms such as “capture”, “occupation”, “attack”, and “defence”.

Awarding of battle honours

The list defined by the Battles Nomenclature Committee was used to issue a Battle Honours list. Each British or Dominion unit (battalion, division, or corps) was permitted to select up to ten battle honours from this list of more than 180. The selections required approval by the British War Office before being finally approved by the King.

Several names of particular significance to Australia were not included in the list of battle honours. As a result of a submission by the governor-general to the British War Office, some modifications were later made to the list to satisfy Australian requirements. Amendments included the addition of Mont St Quentin, Hamel, Péronne, and Chuignes in France, and a dispensation to use Sari Bair–Lone Pine for the fighting on Gallipoli.

Generally, battle honours are named for the broader campaign. The attack at Fromelles was part of a wider operation along Aubers Ridge, so the appropriate battle honour for Fromelles was “Aubers”. Neither the 5th Australian Division nor any of its relevant battalions chose “Aubers” from the list of battle honours.

Sources:

Battles Nomenclature Committee, The official names of the battles and other engagements fought by the military forces of the British Empire during the Great War, 1914–1919, HMSO, London, 1922.

Gordon Maitland, The story of Australia’s flags: our flags, standards, guidons, colours, banners, battle honours and ensigns, Playbill/Military, Moore Park, New South Wales, 2015.

Great Britain War Office, Statistics of the military effort of the British Empire during the Great War, 1914–1920, HMSO, London, 1922.

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