For those who don’t understand military history, the circular-shapes that adorn headgear and aircraft can be confusing. And while these may look like bull’s eyes to the aforementioned uninformed, they most certainly are not.
It is common for this symbol of concentric circles to be called a “roundel.” This term is only accurate when referring to the national insignia on military vehicles — notably aircraft. Roundels are actually among the oldest charges that were used in coats of arms and date from the start of the age of heraldry in Europe, circa 1200 – 1215 CE.
Roundels had different names depending on their respective tincture, and more importantly, roundels need not have been circles within circles. Even today, military roundels can have unique shapes within the outer circle – but even then, a roundel doesn’t need to be round.
While similar, concentric circle insignia on military headdress are not referred to as roundels, but rather, “cockades.” Where it becomes confusing is that the shape — and even colors — of the two insignias may be identical! The history of these symbols overlaps as well, but there are still key differences.
COCKADES FOR HEADDRESS
Cockades are typically worn on headdress, a practice that began in the early 18th century when these were pinned on a man’s hat, while women could wear a cockade on the hat or in their hair. It was usually a knot of ribbon sewn into a circular or oval-shaped device.
It is likely that cockades may have evolved out of the heraldic symbols and were worn by late medieval armies as a way to distinguish friend from foe on the battlefield. Here is where cockades may have been born out of roundels.
Whereas heraldry (including roundels) typically denoted a person of noble status, such as a knight or monarch, by the 18th and 19th centuries, colored cockades were used in Europe to denote the allegiance of the wearer to some political faction or other military alliance. In this case, cockades usually consisted of the national colors or the colors of the nation’s ruling family rather than those of a lord or other noble. Cockades took on a national identity more so than previous heraldic symbols or insignia.
In pre-revolutionary France, the cockade of the Bourbon dynasty was all white. Jacobite supporters in 18th century Great Britain also wore white in opposition to the British Army under the Havovarian monarchs — who wore black cockades.
During the American Revolution, the Continental Army wore cockades as an ad hoc form of rank insignia, in part because of a lack of traditional uniforms. Field officers wore red / pink cockades, while captains wore yellow / buff, and subalterns wore green cockades. In time, however, all officers reverted to wearing the black cockade (a tradition inherited from the British Army).
When the French became an American ally, the Continental Army began to utilize white over the black cockades, while the French pinned black over white — each as a mark of French-American alliance. These became known as the “Union Cockade” and may have been the first examples of multi-colored cockades.
A few years later, revolutionaries in France wore green, but the color was soon rejected as it was associated with the reactionary Count of Artois. The Paris militia adopted colors that would soon be associated with France itself: Blue, white, and red. This began when the cockades featured the traditional colors of arms of Paris, which were red and blue, but soon the Bourbon white was added, resulting in the Tricolore (three-color) cockade.
Despite contemporary depictions of the French revolutionaries adorned with the tricolor cockade, it was rarely used during the revolution. It was restored to prominence under Napoleon Bonaparte, who has been depicted in paintings as wearing the cockade on his hat as early as the Siege of Toulon in July 1793. It is more likely he adopted it sometime after the Revolutionary Wars in Italy, though.
Revolutionaries of the July Revolution of 1830 wore cockades. Soon after,the “citizen king” Louis-Philippe adopted the tricolor cockade — and also used the three colors for France’s national flag. The cockade adorned French headdress of the late monarchy, the Second Republic (1848-1852), Second Empire (1852-1870), and was even used into the Third Republic (1870-1940). During these times, the cockades were made of ribbon as well as painted metal that had been pressed to resemble the cloth material. The colors were red/white/blue, with red being the outer most and blue being the center.
GERMAN COCKADES (KOKARDEN)
By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the French had largely discarded the cockade on headdress, perhaps in response to its 19th century rival, Prussia, adopting cockades. Prussia’s kings had largely followed French in military uniform design during the 18th century and adopted a black / white / black cockade for its military headdress. During the Napoleonic Wars, Prussian soldiers wore leather cockades on their shakos. The cockade carried over to the 1842 pattern Pickelhaube (spiked helmet) and was worn on all subsequent models of the now-familiar helmet.
Following the Franco-Prussian War, the armies of the various German states continued to wear the Kokarden that denoted the respective states. In 1897, the “Reich’s Kokarde” was introduced to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kaiser Wilhelm I. It was worn on the right side of the Pickelhaube and on the center of the various German caps and hats.
State cockades were still worn as well: On the left side of the Pickelhaube or below the national Reich’s cockade on other headdress. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe all the variations of German Kokarden, except to note that during the Weimar Republic, the use of state cockades was discontinued while the national cockade became gold / red / black.
Under the Nazis, the Imperial colors of black / white / red were reintroduced. Cockades still adorned most (non-helmet) military headdress (with the exception of the SS).
After the fall of the Third Reich, both West and East Germany utilized cockades that were back in line with those of the Weimar Republic. East Germany adopted a cockade that featured its national emblem including the hammer and compass surrounded by a ring of rye over the black/red/gold flag.
All that said, France and Germany were far from the only nations to adopt cockades during the 19th century. It was a practice that began across Europe duringthe Napoleonic Era and remained the primary method for identifying a nation’s soldier by his / her cap or hat — even to this day. In nearly every case, the colors of the cockade correspond with the nation’s flag.
Cockades have been worn by rebels and revolutionaries, alike Polish insurgents during the January uprising of 1863 worn cockades. At the same time, across the world, soldiers of the Confederate States wore “Secession cockades” and ribbons during the American Civil War.Hungarian revolutionaries wore cockades during the 1848 Revolution and again in the 1956 revolution. Today, Hungarians wear cockades on March 15 to remember their struggles for independence.
Roundel and Vehicles
The other connection to roundels and cockades actually dates to 1909 when France formed its first military air service — the Établissement Militaire d'Aviation, later the Aéronautique Militaire, and finally, the Armée de l’Air. The French cockade was chosen as the emblem for its aircraft, although there is plenty of debate as to when it actually appeared. It is likely that French roundels were actually painted on planes after the outbreak of WWI.
During World War I, the use of an identifying insignia was found to be important as ground troops had a tendency to fire on friend as well as foe. Just as cockades helped identify soldiers on the battlefield, roundels were utilized to help denote friendly aircraft as well.
French planes were distinguished by the roundel, which was likely easier to identify from the tri-color flag as the blue / white /red could be confused with Germany’s black / white / red flag at a distance. In fact, the British had originally painted the Union Flag on its aircraft wings, but it was found that this could be confused with the Iron Cross that had been quickly adopted by German aviators.
Thus, the British copied the French roundel —even though the British Army hadn’t used a cockade on any of its headgear since before the Napoleonic Wars. British aircraft roundel colorswere the reverse of the French insignia.
Just prior to WWII, the British began to employ an extra thick outer ring of bright yellow to allow the roundel to be easier to see against a darkly camouflaged wing or fuselage. However, the British also adopted a “Type B” roundel that also attempted to reduce the visibility. This style removed both that yellow ring as well as the white ring — leaving just the outer blue and inner red rings.
So associated with early aviation, the term “roundel” has been used to denote all military aircraft insignia, even if it is not actually round. As a result, the German Luftwaffe’s Iron Cross (or later Balkenkreuz) and even the the red star of the Soviet/Russian Air Force would be denoted as “roundels.”
Finally, it should be noted that roundels — as opposed to cockades — have been adopted by political parties, used as corporate logos, and even some sport teams. Roundels’ place in pop culture has also been secured as its use by the “Mod” subculture of the 1960s when it was adopted by British rockers, The Who. In this case, a roundel could appear on a hat — only to completely confuse matters. But, whether in pop or corporate culture, the correct iconic symbol identifies friend or fan, just as the cockade of old identified friend and foe.
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