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Queen Victoria Flags & Banners - 1867-1902 - 1

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flashing newGreat Canadian Heritage Treasure

Flag Basics: For thousands of years, flags have always led fighting men into battle - until the Boer War that is. Then that all changed.

Before that time combat had mostly taken place on relatively small pieces of ground with opposing sides in full view. In some Napoleonic battles the British soldiers could actually see Napoleon, the enemy general himself, on a distant hill directing the men they were fighting. Guns and muskets were, for centuries, short-range, and were fired point blank at men that were very close. The fighting was mostly done on foot by men who finally settled matters in hand to hand combat with swords and bayonets.

Flags played a big role in this type of battle. Flags were needed for generals - and men who got separated in the fighting - to be able to tell where their regiments were at any one moment. Only then could the general decide who to send where, and when, and which of his regiments was in trouble or not. Without flags, among a big brawling mass of men, bathed in low drifting clouds of smoke, it was frankly hard to figure out what was happening to whom, and so figure out what corrective action to take.

That is why the mystique grew up to never let a flag drop.

As the tin left seems to say, flags and generals were inseparable; flags were the general's eyes; without them he was blind, and blind men lose battles.

A soldier in the ranks too, being forced to face the muzzles of a thousand muskets, or a battery of guns, needed a psychological crutch to rally round when he saw instant death facing him from a thousand places at a hundred paces. Before he could question What the hell am I doing here? and turn tail and run, someone, with ice water in their veins, usually waved a flag, cheered and ran out front. The charge began... The rallying cry that accompanied the charging flag steeled the wobbly knees of generations of foot soldiers - just before they died.

The mystique of the flag grew to epic proportions. Men would do damn fool things to recapture it should the enemy snag it when it fell in battle.

Lord Roberts, while an impetuous young officer during the Indian Mutiny, was one such man. He cut and sliced his way through enemy tribesmen just to recapture a British flag that had fallen into enemy hands during the fray. He was fired at point blank, right in his chest. He only lived to tell the tale because the gun misfired. Otherwise no one would ever have heard of Lord Roberts, or Bobs, or his VC. Bobs sabered the man and his companions and reclaimed the flag - and immortality.

The hapless tribesman, strictly speaking, gave Bobs his VC, and his esteemed place in the pantheon of British military heroes.

Boer War repro tin - 1970s

Orig. repro tin - Size - 4" x 4" x 7"
Found - London, ON
Made by Dodo Designs England

Above, flags were still used to surrender to. The Union Jack flies behind four British generals as they accept the surrender of 5,000 Boers on top of Surrender Hill in July, 1900.

Displaying the fine form that won him a Gold Medal for On-camera Host, at the Houston International Film & Television Festival, Canadian historian John Goldi, stands in the wagon track made by the surrendering Boers, and points to the hilltop where it all happened.

Great Canadian Heritage Site
Not a few Canadians can say their great grandfather fought at Isandlwana, or fought in the Zulu Wars in Africa to avenge the defeat at Isandlwana.

We have talked to Canadians who went to South Africa specifically to reconnect with that distant part of the history of a family relative. For a Canadian, a long, and very expensive trip to make to what many others may have regarded as the classic British imperial site.

Right, the yellow dot is approximately where the photo was taken and the burial mounds are today.

The Battlefield at Isandlwana, Jan. 22, 1879
The Zulus swept in from the right, backing up the defending British soldiers towards the tents that were along the base of the mountain, and drove them here to where the wagon park was and the biggest slaughter took place. Stone piles cover mass graves of British soldiers.

Saving the Flag at Isandlwana: The two most famous British heroes of the Zulu Wars were Lts. Melvill and Coghill who died - and won immortality, but no VC, at the time - for trying to save the "flag" at Isandlwana, the British Army's worst defeat in Africa, on Jan. 22, 1879. Some 1800 British troops were annihilated by some 23,000 Zulus that swarmed over their camp below towering Isandlwana.

(Above, the wagon park where the biggest slaughter took place, and from where the two men fled off to the left as the Zulus swarmed in from the right.)

To win a VC, at that time, you had to not only do a magnificent deed but had to live to talk about it. If you died doing heroics you were not deemed to be VC material.

And then there was the idle chatter: Were the men running away to save the flag or just running away... and using the flag as an excuse? The army brass was not quite sure. Better they should perhaps have fought and died with their fellow officers. It was so unsettling. Luckily the media decided the issue.

Coghill and Melvill became great Victorian heroes for generations of young British boys. But they never got the VC.

Melvill and Coghill, fled left, along the far side while being hotly pursued. They crossed, above the falls near "Coffin Rock," the dark speck about a quarter of the way in from the left margin, where they dropped the flag, which swirled away down the rapids. As they struggled up this slope, they were overtaken and killed. They lie buried just behind the camera position.

Below, probably a journalist - Hey I got it cheap - riding a white horse, with the 16th Lancers on the way to Paardeberg, makes it easy to see who a Boer sharpshooter would aim for first... Flags and pennants anyone...?

That changed after the Boer War in 1905 when the posthumous rule was removed. Thanks to their heroics with the flag, Melvill and Coghill became the very first posthumous recipients of the Victoria Cross, in 1907.

Saving the Guns at Colenso: Freddy Roberts, Lord Roberts' son, died at Colenso vainly trying to retrieve guns that had fallen into enemy hands during that epic defeat of the British Army by the Boers, on Dec. 15, 1899. Since Freddy died, he also failed to win a VC though everyone talked about his valiant attempts to recapture guns - not flags - from the enemy. Guns and flags, among soldiers, rank highest in the mythic pantheon of sacred items you never let fall into enemy hands.

There were some who said strings were pulled to change the VC rulesso that Freddy could win the VC as a favour to Bobs. As it was, not long after Melvill and Coghill, Freddy too got his VC posthumously, and he and Bobs became the first Father and Son to both win Victoria Crosses.

Flags in the Boer War: Battlefield flags of the kind Coghill and Mellvill had tried to save were absent from Boer War battlefields.

During the Zulu Wars in the 1870s and the Sudan Battles in the 1890s, soldiers stood out in the open, quite still, side by side, like men, and fired proudly while fully erect when facing Fuzzy Wuzzy tribesmen brandishing spears and knives and single-shot muskets.

During the opening battles of the Boer War the Boers would have none of this "out in the open" silliness of shooting till one or the other side had no more people standing.

They opted to shield and hide themselves behind rocks and fire from cover. And they used the most modern rifles available that could shoot a mile or more with quick repeatable accuracy.

At Talana, Colenso, and Magersfontein, the Boers inflicted thousands of casualties on the British soldiers who were marching up nice and erect, side by side in close waves. Long before the Tommies could even see a Boer they were falling dead by dozens and scores. Most never hardly got a shot at a target. The world watched in astonishment as changing tactics and modern firearms in the hands of simple farmers brought the world's most powerful army to a shuddering halt and sent it in a disgraceful retreat, again and again.

No British Tommy wanted to carry the Union Jack or regimental flag at the front anymore; no officer wanted to ride a white horse or wave a glittering sword anymore. Somehow the glory seemed to have gone out of war.

The era of guerilla war, of hit and run, of hiding to shoot, and then running for safety, had begun. In this modern mode of warfare waving a flag was an invitation to suicide, as was wearing a beautifully coloured uniform, or standing up "like a soldier." Men who with bravado, wanted to do it the old fashioned way, were part of a diminishing gene pool; they were the first to be shot down.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Trophy Flags:
Flags were still used on buildings. So flags became the focal point of attacks on towns. Everyone wanted to be first into the town to "Grab the Dutchman's flag and take it home as a souvenir to show off the folks."

Agar Adamson snagged a magnificent Transvaal flag at Machadodorp, that may very well be the last Boer flag flown by President Paul Kruger on African soil before he fled into Portuguese East Africa and exile. (Click the DROP DOWN MENU top, to see the story of this flag.)

Running up the Union Jack on captured town halls was a huge ceremony when thousands would surround the flag pole and sing God Save the Queen. When Bloemfontein, the first Boer capital, was captured, a special Union Jack, sewn by Mrs. Roberts herself, was raised amid the hoarse cheering of thousands of Tommies.

Flags in the Field: Boers did carry flags in the field, as shown in the toy showing a Boer commando flying the Transvaal flag. Photographs exist showing General De Wet's column on the march carrying large flags in exactly that manner. That was a good indicator that no British were in the neighbourhood; when the enemy was close, these flags were folded and stored in the wagons.

Surrender Flags: White flags were used often during the war. White flags were shown when you wanted to surrender to a patrol, or at least talk to the opposing side, without getting shot as you rode close.

There were many stories of the white flag being used to lure trusting British soldiers into range, believing they were taking possession of surrendering commandos, only to be shot down, when they got close, in a "white flag" trap. No doubt it was a technique that worked; how often or by whom it was used, is impossible to prove now. No doubt the numbers of real accounts swelled with the pressing needs of war propaganda.

Boers did, of course, put white flags on their farm houses to show they were not harbouring guerrillas or guns, and that they just wanted to be left alone. Early in the war many kept their farms clear of contraband; none of them wanted their houses and farms burned for being found aiding the Boer commandos. Later, of course, white flags, however honest, were no help; the British high command ordered all Boer farms and homes burned to the ground.

Sometimes British troops, nonchalantly approaching a white flagged house, were suddenly shot at. These houses and barns were then instantly burned, with the white flag still tacked to the roof line.

But very likely these incidents were not committed by the farmers themselves, but probably by passing Boer commandoes, who, finding an empty farm or kraal, decided to use it to entrap British soldiers patrolling in the area.

Transvaal Vierkleur Boer War trophy flag

Cotton, sewn - 6' x 7'4"
Found - Toronto, ON
Some fading and rips, "liberated" by Capt. Agar Adamson, Lord Strathcona's Horse, Aug. 1900.

Go to Agar's Flag