Military tradition behind the awarding of the Battle Honour: ‘Kokoda Trail’

Public interest in the Kokoda campaign over the past decade has been accompanied by the emergence of pop historians and wannabees whose new-found ‘passion‘ for our veterans seems to coincide with the opportunity to make a quid out of it. Many seem to share a couple of traits – they have never served in uniform, they have a strong bias against America, and they try to outstrip each other in their denigration of General Sir Thomas Blamey.

Their ignorance of the significance of military traditions is evident in their refusal to acknowledge the Battle Honour awarded to the 10 infantry battalions who fought in the Kokoda campaign i.e. The Kokoda Trail.

These prejudices have manifested themselves in the emergence of ‘Kokoda Track‘ as the more acceptable politically correct term. This will eventually correct itself as people become more aware of the tradition behind the awarding of a Battle Honour and its significance on the Regimental Flag or ‘Colour’.

The term ‘Colours’ broadly encompasses the four distinctive forms of Honourable Insignia that are the symbol of the spirit of a regiment, for on them are borne the battle honours and badges granted to the unit in commemoration of gallant deeds performed by members of the unit from the time their unit was raised.

Originally a Regimental Flag or Colour was a rally point, when during the noise and confusion of battle, it was the focal point of the regiment, even if the commander was killed, hope was always present whilst the Colours remained intact. On the verge of ultimate defeat the troops would concentrate around the Colours, which would become the scene of its last defence. From such times, records of epic gallantry and acts of heroic self-sacrifice have been associated with the Colours whose safety engendered these acts.

The full history of a regiment is contained within written records, but as these are not portable in a convenient form, the Colours, emblazoned with distinctions for long and honourable service, are something in the nature of a silken history, the sight of which creates a feeling of pride in soldiers and ex-soldiers alike. The purpose of the Colours was to allow the regiment’s colours to dress off the centre of the regiment and to provide a rallying point if withdrawing or disordered during an attack.

Those regiments whose duty it was to skirmish ahead of the main body, where speed and concealment were essential to the execution of this duty, did not carry colours. These were termed Rifle Regiments, which is the reason why they do not carry colours, they do however emblazon their Colours / Battle Honours on their Regimental Drums.

This tradition has been adopted by the Australian equivalent of those regiments, for instance Commandos and the Special Air Service Regiment who likewise do not carry colours.

While Regimental colours and guidons are no longer carried on operations in British and Commonwealth military, as was their initial military function, customs the battle honours they carry are held in high esteem by military personnel. Regiments take pride in their battle honours, and the winning of further battle honours, as these are seen to enhance a unit’s reputation.

It remains a tradition that whenever military personnel meet a colour or guidon, it must be saluted. This is not only because it is an object which represents the authority of the Crown, but also because the colours contain a regiment’s battle honours, and thus represent the regiment’s history and its dead. Saluting a colour or guidon is thus a pivotal act in retaining an awareness of regimental history and traditions—key in the functioning of the regimental system. It remains common for army instructors to ensure that their recruits have memorised and are able to recite all of their regiment’s battle honours. Such methods are meant to bring the new soldier into the regimental ethos and sub-culture by means of imprinting shared history.

Those who have served in uniform understand the esprit de corps associated with military traditions – wannabees and pop historians can only wonder!

The Regimental Flag of the 39th Militia Battalion displays the Battle Honour, ‘Kokoda Trail’.

The sign at McDonalds Corner in 1943 points towards the ‘Kokoda Trail’:

There are no records of any official battle honour being awarded for ‘Kokoda Track’ – it is only recognised on the banner of political correctness.

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