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Helvetic Legion

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[Flag of Helvetic Legion]
by T.F. Mills

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Helvetic Legion

The flag above is one of the "demi-brigades" (batallion) of the Helvetic Legion. This is the 4th Demibrigade, as evident from the numeral on the flag.

Shortly after the French invasion of Switzerland in 1798 and the creation of Helvetic Republic, they formed the Helvetic Legion to help fight their wars. Recruiting was very difficult since Swiss sympathies were not with the French and their Revolution. Those who served figured they were serving their own country by helping prevent further humiliation by the French. Swiss regiments served the French well in Russia where they were almost annihilated covering the French retreat. The Swiss served less enthusiatically in Spain, where one regiment encountered another Swiss regiment in Spanish service and both decided to save their ammunition for another day.

The flags of the Helvetic Legion all had as their central device a picture of William Tell welcoming his son into his arms right after shooting an arrow through an apple on his head. This is the central event in the legend of the founding of the Swiss Confederation. Beside Tell is a lictoral fasces tied with a red, white and blue ribbon and topped with a red, white and blue liberty cap. The William Tell icon was actually the state seal of the Helvetic Republic, but the seal lacks the fasces and liberty cap. There could be a double or triple entendre with the cap. Tell's exploit with the apple on his son's head was the punishment inflicted on him for refusing to bow to the Austrian governor's hat which had been placed on a pole. That hat is now red, white and blue, and can be understood to represent Switzerland's passive resistance to the French. In fact, open revolt broke out in Switzerland in 1802 and Napoleon personally mediated a settlement which scrapped the Helvetic Republic and restored the old Swiss Confederation in 1803 with some modifications.

On the flags, the Tell scene was actually the image on the reverse. On the obverse was a less interesting scene showing the tree and fasces and a parade of flags emerging in the background. The borders were rendered in the colours of the Helvetic Republic (red, yellow, green), and their geometric shapes varied with each batallion. The reverse contained the same motto in French and German "Valeur et Liberté -- Müth und Freyheit 1308". (I assume that 1308 was then understood to be the date of the William Tell legend.) The obverse had two mottoes, also in French and German, "Liberté Unité Egalité" and "Amitié entre le Peuple Français et Helvétique 1798" (Freiheit Einheit Gleichheit -- Freundschaft zwischen den französischen und helvetischen Volk). The placement of mottoes depended on the design of the coloured borders.

Note: I have seen artists' renderings which show the border colours in red, yellow and BLUE. I'm not sure if this was true for some regiments, or an error of interpretation of actual faded flags. (Or maybe the GREEN is my error.)

T.F. Mills, 15 November 1997   Red dog casino