Formation patch
Formation patches are types of military insignia
Insignia or insigne pl -nia or -nias : a symbol or token of personal power, status or office, or of an official body of government or jurisdiction...

 developed during the 20th Century. Originally intended as battlefield identification of military formations, they have persisted into the 21st
Century as an element of military heraldry
Heraldry is the profession, study, or art of creating, granting, and blazoning arms and ruling on questions of rank or protocol, as exercised by an officer of arms. Heraldry comes from Anglo-Norman herald, from the Germanic compound harja-waldaz, "army commander"...



Previous to the 20th Century, tactical control of military units in the field - particularly in the "post-Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell was an English military and political leader who overthrew the English monarchy and temporarily turned England into a republican Commonwealth, and served as Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland....

 era" - was aided by the use of distinctively coloured uniforms and colours, standards and guidons
Colours, standards and guidons
In military organizations, the practice of carrying colours, standards or Guidons, both to act as a rallying point for troops and to mark the location of the commander, is thought to have originated in Ancient Egypt some 5,000 years ago...


During the First World War, as armies adopted drab coloured uniforms, the need to identify friendly troops in assaulting formations was made acute by the problems of intensive defensive firepower and the attendant problem of dispersion. The British Army, among others, developed a solution whereby individual divisions, brigades, battalions and even companies were identified by distinctive coloured cloth insignia, either sewn to the uniform jacket (on the sleeves, or the back of the tunic), or painted on the helmet. These marks became common after the Battle of the Somme. These distinguishing marks were also alternately known as "Battle Patches". Other armies continued to identify regiments through the use of numerals, but did not identify military divisions through the use of patches. The United States Army
United States Army
The United States Army is the main branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for land-based military operations. It is the largest and oldest established branch of the U.S. military, and is one of seven U.S. uniformed services...

, however, did develop a system of shoulder sleeve insignia with distinctive badges identifying individual divisions.
By the time of the Second World War, the various armies did not feel a perceived need to identify individual battalions on battledress uniforms. The German Army had a system of coloured bayonet knots that identified the wearer's company, number shoulder strap buttons that identified the wearer's company/battalion, and shoulder straps that identified the wearer's regiment, but had no distinguishing divisional insignia other than the cuff titles of the 'elite' formations. The British Army prohibited all identifying marks on its Battle Dress
Battle Dress
Battle Dress was the specific title of a military uniform adopted by the British Army in the late 1930s and worn until the 1960s. Several other nations also introduced variants of Battle Dress during the Second World War, including Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa, and the...

 uniforms in 1939 save for drab regimental slip-on titles, but in 1941 again introduced formation patches to identify the wearer's division. The Canadian Army followed suit with this practice.

The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division
2nd Canadian Infantry Division
The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was an infantry division of the First Canadian Army, mobilized on 1 September 1939 at the outset of the Second World War. It was initially composed of volunteers within brigades established along regional lines, though a halt in recruitment in the early months of...

 used a "battle patch" system of geometric shapes identifying individual brigades and battalions, similar to that used by the 2nd Canadian Division
2nd Canadian Division
The 2nd Canadian Division was an infantry formation that saw service in the First World War. A 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was raised for the Second World War.-History:...

 in the First World War, during the 1941-42 period, but abandoned this system after the Dieppe Raid
Dieppe Raid
The Dieppe Raid, also known as the Battle of Dieppe, Operation Rutter or later on Operation Jubilee, during the Second World War, was an Allied attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe on the northern coast of France on 19 August 1942. The assault began at 5:00 AM and by 10:50 AM the Allied...

. Other Canadian divisions used plain formation patches, and separate unit titles.

The United States continued its system as shoulder sleeve insignia with a regulation that prior combat service entitled the wearer to sew the formation patch of a former unit on the right sleeve of a uniform or field jacket, and the patch of the currently assigned formation on the left sleeve.

Formation patches have survived into the 21st Century in many modern militaries, though when in use on combat uniforms are generally rendered in subdued colours and their use in their original intended purpose - battlefield identification - is questionable.

Other References

  • Glyde, Keith Distinguishing Colour Patches of the Australian Military Forces 1915 - 1951 (self published, Claremont Tasmania, 1999)
  • Thomas, Malcolm and Cliff Lord New Zealand Army Distinguishing Patches 1911-1991
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