The cap badge is a special part of British army headdress intended to represent the emblems of unique regiments. Regimental insignia derives from military traditions in the Middle Ages, and thus cap badge designs are a type of heraldry. Cap badges were first worn in 1897 following a period of changes in army headdress. Cap badges are typically made of metal but during World War II the British produced them from plastic due to metal shortages.

Each badge is highly symbolic and reflects the history and achievements of the regiment it represents. More than just an identifying mark, cap badges connect soldiers with feats from past wars and the traditions of their regiments. Cap badges can include symbols or wording representing battle honors, ancient or heraldic imagery, mottoes, symbols related to the duties of particular regiments, and mythological figures or beasts. They can be worn on berets and slouch hats as well as peaked caps. The tradition continues in the British Army today.

Here's a closer look at some famous cap badge symbols and the fascinating legends behind them.

cap-badges-lancers-skullDEATH OR GLORY - Among the most famous British cap badges, the skull and crossbones of the 17th/21st Lancers was inspired by the death of General James Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec in 1759. Fatally wounded, Wolfe died victorious. The regimental motto “Death Or Glory” continues in use today. cap-badges-
intelligence-rose-secrecyA ROSE FOR SECRECY - During World War II, soldiers of the Intelligence Corps could be found at Bletchley Park and undertaking covert missions. Their cap badge features a Tudor Rose symbolizing both British heritage and secrecy. The badge has been jokingly referred to as a “pansy resting on its laurels.” cap-badges-berkshireIN AMERICA AND CHINA - The Royal Berkshire Regiment gained a Chinese dragon as its symbol due to its actions during the First Opium War. This cap badge was frequently worn with a downward red triangle backing to represent a daring attack against Americans during the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. cap-
badges-hampshireTHE CAT AND CABBAGE - The Hampshire Regiment badge, dubbed “the cat and cabbage,” bears the symbol of the Royal Bengal Tiger due to actions in India and also features the Hampshire rose associated with Henry V. Nicknamed the “Tigers,” the Hampshires were the first British troops ashore on D-Day. cap-badges-fusilier-
flameWHERE THE FATES CALL - As with most fusilier regiments, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers cap badge is shaped like a fiery grenade. The image of England’s patron St. George slaying the dragon may derive from service under William of Orange. It includes a Latin motto meaning, “Where the fates call.” cap-badges-
warwickshireBOBBY THE ANTELOPE - The Royal Warwickshire Regiment, first formed in 1674, was represented by an antelope. The symbol is said to have derived from a Moorish banner captured during the Battle of Saragossa. Men of the regiment adopted live Indian blackbuck antelope mascots named Bobby for many years. cap-badges-
wellingtonTHE IRON DUKE’S OWN - The most famous member of the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment was the Iron Duke, who served in and commanded it. After his death, the regiment took his name and heraldic arms on the anniversary of Waterloo. The badge bears his motto, “fortune favors the brave,” in Latin. cap-badges-
welshANCIENT WELSH SYMBOL - This unusual leek cap badge is that of the Welsh Guards. The leek is a national Welsh symbol and was allegedly worn by Welsh soldiers in their caps as a means of identification, including by soldiers serving the Black Prince in the Middle Ages. This insignia continues in use today. cap-badges-
sphinxMEMORIALIZING MINDEN - The sphinx of the Lancashire Fusiliers honors their fight against the French in Egypt in 1801. A laurel wreath recalls their heroism at the 1759 Battle of Minden, where despite heavy losses they disobeyed orders to stand down and broke a charge by French cavalry. The badge is shaped as a flaming grenade. cap-badges-
seaforth-deerA LEGENDARY STAG - The badge of the Seaforth Highlanders derives from the legend of Clan Mackenzie’s founder who in 1266 saved King Alexander III of Scotland from a raging stag, allegedly by severing its head. The head, depicted without a neck, is shown above a Gaelic motto meaning, “Help the king.” cap-badges-parachute-
regTHE RED DEVILS’ WINGS - Soldiers of the Parachute Regiment are known for their moniker “The Red Devils” and their cap badge first issued in 1943. The simple design features a winged parachute. British airborne troops earned renown during World War II. Among their notable leaders was General Richard “Windy” Gale. cap-badges-
sherwoodSHERWOOD FORESTERS - The badge of the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derby Regiment) displays a stag and oak leaves relating to Nottingham and the forest known for its association with Robin Hood. Soldiers of the regiment famously created “The Wipers Times” trench newspaper during World War I. cap-badges-
royaltankOLDEST TANK REGIMENT - The Royal Tank Regiment is the oldest tank regiment in world history. Its badge features a World War I tank and the motto, “Fear naught,” with laurel leaves and an imperial king’s crown. This badge was famously worn by Bernard Montgomery during World War II on his black tanker’s beret. cap-badges-
lrdgDESERT EXPLORERS - The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) formed in 1940 and became famous for deep-desert exploration and aiding commando raiders against the Germans in North Africa. The badge is said to have been designed by early recruit Gunner Grimsey based on a scorpion that stung him. cap-badges-britanniaTHE HOLY BOYS - Britannia, a helmeted woman with a trident, first appeared on Roman coins representing the British Isles. As an emblem of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, she was once allegedly mistaken by Spanish troops for the Virgin Mary, earning the men the nickname of “the Holy Boys.” cap-badges-
buffsTHE MYSTERIOUS DRAGON - The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) originated in 1572, used the symbol of a dragon since 1751 and wore it as their cap badge from 1896. Legends of the dragon’s origins differ but it is said to derive from the heraldic arms of Elizabeth I. cap-badges-
royalvetsA MYTHICAL HEALER- The Royal Army Veterinary Corps formed in 1903 and continues to be responsible for care of military animals, performing with distinction in World War I. Reflecting its duty to heal, it adopted the symbol of the centaur Chiron of Greek mythology, known for his mastery of medicine. cap-badges-
dorsetshireCASTLE OF GIBRALTAR - The Dorsetshire Regiment’s badge displays Gibraltar’s castle for service during the 1779-83 siege, an Egyptian sphinx for the capture of Fort Marabout from the French, and the Latin phrase for “first in India.” The regiment famously fought for Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey in India.

this article first appeared in military history quarterly

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