You might know that a guidon represents a unit and its commanding officer. And you might know that when the commander is inside the office or building, their guidon is displayed for everyone to see, and when the day is done, it is retired for the evening. Guidons are part of military culture, but you might be surprised to know the history of them. Let’s take a look at how guidons came to be part of our military and their storied history. During change of responsibility ceremonies or change of command ceremonies, the passing of the guidon is an important step and key signifier that something significant is taking place.
If you’ve spent any time on a military installation, chances are you’ve seen this ceremony (or something like it). Four people stand in formation, with a bearer at the front. The bearer is usually the senior enlisted member or first sergeant of a unit, and that person generally stands behind three officers. At an appointed time, the bearer hands the guidon to the outgoing commander who presents it to the presiding officer after saying something along the lines of, “Sir/Ma’am, I relinquish command.”
Then there’s a quick hustle and change of positions and the presiding officer passes the guidon to the incoming commander, who hands it back to the bearer and says something like, “Sir/Ma’am, I accept command.”
Listening to this kind of ceremony will undoubtedly reveal this the passing of the guidon is a ceremony which goes back hundreds of years and that the guidon itself was once an essential part of a battlefield posture. Flags and guidons proclaiming unit colors and insignia date back hundreds of years. Today they are used by our military trace their heritage to the small flags used by cavalry units in Europe during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
History of the guidon and the Army
As we know it today, the guidon came to the military in 1834 with the first cavalry units called dragoons. The top half of the Hudson was red, and the bottom half was white with the letters “U.S.” stitched in white. The company letter was stitched in red.
Guidons remained unchanged for the U.S. military until 1862 during the Civil War. The shape of the cavalry guidon didn’t change, but the colors were altered to a stars and stripes pattern. This change stayed in place until 1885 when the guidon was changed back to the red over white design.
Just one year later, artillery companies were authorized use of guidons. Engineer units were allowed to carry guidons in 1904. Also, in 1904, the Army standardized the design and use of colors and branch insignia. For example, the scarlet background and yellow crossed cannons came to represent artillery, just like the semaphore flags on orange backgrounds represent Signal Corps.
Headquarters elements of Army commands, along with garrisons, centers, schools, and elsewhere are authorized guidons of specific design and color. These usually follow the design of the unit’s Organizational Flag.
Air Force guidon history
The first aviation guidon was authorized in 1916 for use by the 1st Aero Squadron while in service on the Mexican border. Since aviation was part of the Signal Corps, the first Air Force guidon was orange with the Signal Corps crossed flags stitched above an outstretched eagle. These two elements were used for early military aviator badges, and the design was officially announced in a special regulation change to the wartime uniform of WWI. A recommendation in 1919 was to make the Air Force guidon green piped in black with a wing propeller and the letters/numbers of the unit stitched in white. That change was rejected because it was feared the black flag might be associated with “piracy.” As we know it, the yellow eagle in use on Air Force guidons came into being in 1962 and has remained unchanged since.
Marine Corps history
Marine Corps guidons are always rectangular with a scarlet field and gold lettering with an eagle, globe, and anchor centered in the middle. Recruit training units don’t have any branch of service indicated on their guidons. Boot camp platoons only display the platoon number. Fleet Marine Forces units have “FMF” about the Marine Corps emblem.
All non-infantry and artillery reserve units display “USMCR” on their guidons, while all infantry, artillery, and active units show “USMC” on their guidons. Regimental level numbers are displayed on the lower-left corner, unless a higher/lower command numeral provides better identification.
One of the only units authorized a second guidon is Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. C-Company 1/7 is authorized a white guidon with a skull and crossbones. Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines are authorized white markings on a black guidon, with a crossed rifle and shattered paddle and Ka-Bar inset behind a black heart logo.
Unlike the Army, no additional attachments are authorized, like streamers or bands.
Navy ships and squadrons are authorized a unit guidon while ashore that must be swallowtail shaped with a blue background and white text. The Navy guidon shows a fouled anchor within a diamond, which is the same insignia as the Naval Infantry Flag. Before WWII, the Navy used a red flag for artillery ships. OCS companies carry blue guidons with white lettering that shows a white bulldog.
When viewing flags in a military setting, the order is important. First is the national flag, next to the U.S. Army flag, the USMC flag, the Navy flag, then the Air Force flag, and finally the flag of the Coast Guard. However, when the Coast Guard is operating as part of the Navy (as in during war), the Coast Guard flag comes before the Air Force flag.
Guidons are an integral part of the military culture, not just because they represent the commander’s presence or were once used as a sight-point on the field. They represent the shared history of our military and our culture.