Today I’m delighted to host a guest post from Francophile American author Barbara Peacock whose novel A Tainted Dawn: The Great War (1792-1815) Book I is a must-read for anyone interested in French history. I’ll be reviewing it soon on my website. I visited Barbara’s website and worriedly told her that I thought she had her French flag the wrong way round. But I was wrong … and here’s why! Over to Barbara.

Citoyens, aux armes, aux armes! Défendre notre pays contre les tyrans! Onward they march, the army of fiercely determined citizen-soldiers. Ragged, raging, unkempt, heroically following the standard of the blue, white, and red flag of the newly formed republic. No, it was red, white, blue. No, that’s not it at all, It was blue white, and red with an emblem in the center. No, it was white with—Well, just what was the flag of the First Republic and Empire? Or was there one?

It All Began in Paris   ,

The colors red, white, and blue had long been familiar to the French, though not necessarily together. Red and blue had long been the colors of Paris. White was associated with the Bourbons the French royal family, serving as the background to the familiar gold fleur-de-lisle. Although there was no official French flag, the royal standard, the coat of arms of the King against the background of gold lilies on a white field, wsas good as any, King and country being considered one and the same.

From the onset of the Revolution, that was to change. The day before the storming of the Bastille, the Paris militia sported red and blue cockades. On 14 July, citizens displayed many variant colors. After the fall of the Bastille, the Marquis de La Fayette proposed the color white be added to “nationalize” the cockade. On 27 July this was done and added to the newly formed Parisian National Guard.


The First Version of the French Flag


As of July 1789, the French had a cockade and National Guard uniforms utilizing the red, white, and blue color scheme. 1790 saw a new innovation, the first modern national flag. On 24 October 1790, the Constituent Assembly approved le drapeau tricolore, the Tricolor_._ The colors employed were red, white, and blue, in that order.


Legend has it this flag was first flown at the mast of a French warship that same year. Once again, the flag underwent an alteration. The naval ensign flown from French men-of-war as specified had the flag bordered in half blue and half red. The ultimate guess was thisor any version of the above actually flown given the turbulence of the times. It might have been, depending on the time and place, or not. The important point, however, is that at least on paper an official flag existed.



Paris Once Again

The following year saw the abortive flight of the royal family and their return to Paris. Rioting broke out in Paris on the Champ de Mars 17 July. Under the auspices of Sylvain Bailly, Mayor of Paris, and the Marquis de La Fayette, commander of the Parisian National Guard, the red flag of emergency was raised. La Fayette drove off fifty thousand demonstrators, killing some thirteen to fifty of them. Ironically, the Jacobins now took up the red flag, claiming it represented the blood of martyrs. They adopted it as the unofficial flag of France during the reign of terror, 1793-94. The red flag was to be resurrected in 1848 as the symbol of revolution once more.

Le Drapeau français

In yet another twist of fate, it was during the Terror that the French flag as we know it came to be. The Constituent Assembly once more went to the drawing board. On 15 February 1794 (27 pluviôse, Year II), it reversed the colors and instituted the blue, white, and red flag.

Ah, finally, the true French flag. Citizen soldiers carrying the tricolor into battle, singing La Marseillaise. Well, no, not exactly. Again, we must remember this was a time of great confusion. The Jacobins still held power. Robespierre wasn’t deposed until July 1794, and even afterwards France struggled under the Directorate. The tricolor gained popularity but wasn’t exclusively used as the battle flag or even national flag. Regiments marched to glory under regimental flags, some having adapted different versions of the tricolor. Pictures painted long after the events they represent mistakenly show the tricolor. For example, at the battle of Arcole, Napoleon is said to have flown the flag of the 5th infantry demi-brigade, a white standard with  golden fasces lictoriae in the center and four red and blue lozenges at the corners. Under the Empire (!804-1815), Napoleon standardized the flag to a white field chape-chausse of red and blue. In 1812, he changed it again to something more like the one the modern version. With the first exile in 1814, Louis XVIII decreed the royal flag of the Bourbons, lilies on a white field as  the official French flag. Then Napoleon returned for the one hundred days and with him the tricolor. Then back again the Bourbons and the fleur-de-lisle. The revolution of 1830 saw the restoration of the tricolor. With some variations along the way, it has remained the flag of France. And yes, Frenchmen now proudly march under its banner to the strains of La Marseillaise.