Honours of war

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The honours of war are a set of privileges that are granted to a defeated army during the surrender ceremony. The honours symbolise the valour of the defeated army, and grew into a custom during the age of early modern warfare. Typically a surrendering garrison was permitted to march out with drums beating and flags flying, after which they would become prisoners of war or granted free passage.

Full honours of war

When full honours of war are granted, the defeated army may march out with its flags flying, drums beating, and bayonets fixed.[1] During the matchlock era, musketmen would light their matches on both ends and place musketballs in their mouths.[2] As the defeated army marches past, its band can play a tune of its own choice, customarily an enemy tune.[3] However, there is no requirement that the defeated army select an enemy tune, and the British army at the Battles of Saratoga (1777) marched out to the tune of "The British Grenadiers".[4]

After the march-past, the defeated army will stack its arms and turn over any government property to the victor. However, officers may keep their sidearms and personal baggage. The defeated army may also take a couple of cannons with them, along with a symbolic supply of ammunition.[2][5][6][7]

Denial of honours

It is common for commanders to withhold the honours of war in retaliation for some other incident. The American defenders had been refused the honours of war when they surrendered after the Siege of Charleston (1780). When negotiating the surrender of a British army at Yorktown a year later, American General George Washington insisted: "The same Honors will be granted to the Surrendering Army as were granted to the Garrison of Charles Town."[8] As a result, the British had to march with flags furled and muskets shouldered, and the surrender articles insisted that the band play "a British or German march."[9]

The honours of war are considered to be a symbolic recognition of a valiant defense.[7] Therefore, a victorious general may also refuse to grant the honours of war if he feels that the enemy has given up too easily. For example, after the British commander was killed by a cannonball at the Battle of Fort Oswego (1756), his replacement quickly decided to surrender. The French General Montcalm refused to grant honours of war to the British because he felt that they had not put up enough of a fight.[6]


The honours of war became traditional in the age of early modern warfare, when sieges were more common, and logistical challenges made it difficult to corner a defeated enemy after a battlefield victory.[2] However, the practice continued into the age of industrial warfare. After the Siege of Metz (1870), the Prussians offered honours of war to the capitulating French army, but the French general Bazaine refused to accept them.[10] In World War II, the Germans granted the honours of war to the defeated French garrison at the Siege of Lille (1940),[11][12] and the British granted the honours of war to the defeated Italian army at the Battle of Amba Alagi (1941).[13]

The honours of war remain part of the laws of war, although terms such as the retention of cannons have become obsolete. The 2015 Law of War Manual from the United States Department of Defense specifies that:

Capitulations agreed upon between belligerents must take into account the rules of military honor. Conditions involving unnecessary disgrace or ignominy should not be insisted upon. Capitulations may include the right of the capitulating forces to surrender with colors displayed or other indications of professional respect for the capitulating forces. For example, it may be appropriate to allow surrendering officers to keep their side arms.[14]


  1. ^ Greenspan, Morris (1969). The Soldier's Guide to the Laws of War. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press. p. 10. Permission to withdraw with "honors of war," includes the right to march with colors displayed, drums beating, bayonets fixed and swords drawn.
  2. ^ a b c Wright, John W. (July 1934). "Sieges and Customs of War at the Opening of the Eighteenth Century". The American Historical Review. 39 (4): 629–644. doi:10.1086/ahr/39.4.629. JSTOR 1839311.
  3. ^ Tuchman, Barbara W. (2011). The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution. Random House. ISBN 9780307798572. He asked for the honors of war to be granted to his garrison in the ceremony of surrender. Among these were the right to attend the ceremony with flags flying and the right to march to music of their choice. For some Byzantine reason of European custom, the right of the capitulators to play the national airs or anthems of the victor was considered to imply that they had put up a good fight.
  4. ^ O'Shaughnessy, Andrew (2013). The Men Who Lost America: British Command during the Revolutionary War and the Preservation of the Empire. Oneworld Publications. p. 158. The band played the "British Grenadiers," a favorite of the British army in America, "which not long before was so animating, yet then it seemed by its last feeble effort as if almost ashamed to be heard on such an occasion."
  5. ^ "Articles of Capitulation Demanded by Mr. de Ramsay, the King's Lieutenant, commanding the high and low Towns of Quebec". 18 September 1759. The Garrison of the town, composed of Land forces, marines and sailors, shall march out with their arms and bagage, drums beating, matches lighted, with two pieces of french cannon, and twelve rounds for each piece; and shall be embarked as conveniently as possible, to be sent to the first port in France.
  6. ^ a b Anderson, Fred (2007). Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. Knopf Doubleday. p. 153. ISBN 9780307425393. Montcalm, as a professional officer exquisitely sensitive to the etiquette of surrender, judged that the brief British defense had been insufficient to merit magnanimity. He therefore refused to offer Littlehales the honors of war -- to have granted them would have allowed the British to depart with their colors, personal possessions, and a symbolic cannon, in return for the promise that they would not return to active service for a specified period -- and instead insisted on taking the entire garrison prisoner.
  7. ^ a b Steele, Ian K. (1990). Betrayals : Fort William Henry and the "Massacre". Oxford University Press. p. 64. ISBN 9780195363197. The honours of War are colours flying, Drums a beating, with one or two Pieces of Cannon & Match lighted & so many Rounds, and Days provisions; and the whole to march thro the Breach; But this is never alow'd to any, but those who make an obstinate defence.
  8. ^ "George Washington on General Cornwallis' Surrender at Yorktown". The American Revolution, 1763-1783. Library of Congress. Retrieved 16 December 2015.
  9. ^ "Surrender of the British General Cornwallis to the Americans, October 19, 1781". The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Article 3 states that: “the garrison of York will march out to a place to be appointed in front of the posts, at two o’clock precisely, with shouldered arms, colors cased, and drums beating a British or German march. They are then to ground their arms, and return to their encampments, where they will remain until they are dispatched to the places of their destination.”
  10. ^ Howard, Michael (2013). The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870–1871. Routledge. ISBN 9781136753060. Finally Bazaine completed the shame of his army by refusing even the honours of war which the Prussians spontaneously offered.
  11. ^ Keegan, John (1990). The Second World War. New York: Penguin. ISBN 014011341X. So, too, shortly would the divisions of the French First Army which were encircled at Lille and running out of ammunition. So bravely had they fought that, when they marched out to surrender on 30 May, the Germans rendered them the honours of war, playing them into captivity with the music of a military band.
  12. ^ Fermer, Douglas (2013). Three German Invasions of France: The Summer Campaigns of 1870, 1914, and 1940. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military. p. 208. ISBN 9781781593547.
  13. ^ Fuller, J.F.C. (1993). The Second World War, 1939-45 : a strategical and tactical history. New York: Da Capo Press. p. 102. ISBN 9780306805066.
  14. ^ Office of General Counsel, Department of Defense (June 2015). Department of Defense Law of War Manual (PDF). p. 842.
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