Dear Straight Dope:
I like historical fiction and have read several books relating to medieval and napoleonic times, which inevitably involve warfare. They always make a big deal about the standards that the armies used to rally around, but it's never been clear to me exactly how they played a part in battlefield tactics. Were they used like signal flags? It mostly seems to be used as a point where the infantry would bunch up together, but what's the point of that? Bows and later cannon should have discouraged that kind thing.
I'm thinking of declaring myself an earl and grabbing a bunch of serfs to do battle with my evil neighbors, so this information is quite important. If you play your cards right, a knightship might be in it for you.
When I was in the service, unit flags were referred to as “guidons” because while marching we would guide on the pennant. I’m not current on medieval martial minutia, but I can say that during the fog of battle, it’s not uncommon for one to lose track of who is where, and where one is supposed to be. It might be handy to know that one is in the 2nd platoon, and those guys are over there. Currently, motorized units often use colored stripes, or different colored chemlite sticks to indicate what unit a vehicle is in.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.