Knapsack Flags - Bandera de Mochila

The Battle Flag That Never Was

1860 - 1927



NEWSLETTER: The New Tropical Telegraph








Back to agmohio Bill Combs online showroom



The knapsack flag in its most common pattern, displaying the royal crest and trophies surrounded by the unit designation.  The 1st Battalion of Princesa No. 4 fought in Cuba from 1896 to 1898 as part of the Brigada de la Trocha de Júcaro a San Fernando, Sancti Spíritus Division.

   The Knapsack Flag is a uniquely Spanish phenomenon.  In Spain it is called a Bandera de Mochila but is sometimes also referred to as a Bandera de Percha or "hanger flag."  Although commonly called a flag, the regulations refer to it as a pañuelo, i.e. a bandana or handkerchief.  A list of items to be issued to troops embarking for Cuba published in the January 12, 1898 edition of "Diario Oficial del Ministerio de la Guerra" references the knapsack flag as a pañuelo cubrepercha or "hanger covering bandana."  The knapsack flag was first issued in 1860 to the expeditionary forces fighting in North Africa.  This tradition of giving every Spanish soldier his own personal flag continued until 1927.  It is made of cotton, printed on one side, and generally about 80 by 60 cm in size, although dimensions can widely vary.  As issued, it has no way of readily attaching to a pole, although soldiers would sometimes added ties or loops on their own.  The early examples were all red in color, but soon, most were produced as tri-colors with three vertical bars in the national colors of Spain; red, yellow, red.  This is in contrast to the alignment of other Spanish flags, including regimental battle flags, in which the bars are horizontal.  In the center is either the arms of Spain, a branch of service insignia, or a regimental badge, generally printed in black but occasionally in multiple colors.  This emblem is often encircled by a unit designation.  Although an item of general issue for many years before, the knapsack flag was not specified in the regulations until the Royal Order of December 12, 1904.

A very early colonial knapsack flag dating back to the Ten Years War period, 1868 to 1878.  Note the archaic spelling of the Spanish word for army, "EGERCITO" with a "G" in place of the letter "J" used in the more modern spelling "Ejército" that was in common usage well before the Spanish American War.  The Batallón Cazadores de la Union No. 2 was formed as part of the permanent garrison of Cuba in 1855, fighting in Mexico in 1861 - 1862 and Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) in 1864.  The Battalion was reorganized under the same designation in 1878, later changing its number to "24" in 1889.  Disbanded in 1893, the old unit's name and number would appear again in Cuba in 1895 as an expeditionary line infantry unit, Batallón de Union, peninsular No. 2.  This particular flag probably dates to the unit's first period of 1855 to 1874.  One of the souvenirs brought back by Maj. Webb C. Hayes, the son of President Hayes, and is now housed at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center.

A typical knapsack flag from the 52nd Infantry Regiment "Andalucia."  This regiment existed from 1894 to 1931.   The 1st Battalion fought in Cuba from 1896 to 1898, forming part of Colonel Escario's Santiago relief column in the Spanish American War.  Note the soldier's initials "PA" on the side of the royal arms, viewer's left.  Knapsack flags are often found with owner's initials or handwritten names, a sign that they were personal property and not unit equipment.

Artifact and photo courtesy of Scott Anderson

While most knapsack flags list only the larger unit's designation, some will include additional information such as the battalion, squadron or company as seen on this example.  The 32nd Infantry "Isabel II" existed under that name from 1875 until 1931. The first battalion fought in Cuba between 1895 to 1898, serving in the Sancti Spiritus Division.  Although this particular flag has no documented history of colonial service, it has been in the possession of the same American family for decades and is likely a Spanish American War souvenir.

   Some non-unit specific examples also exist in the context of Spanish American War souvenirs.  Called "patriotic" patterns by some Spanish collectors, these flags are believed to have been used as generic knapsack flags but are better documented in period photographs being used as patriotic bunting.

A length of five uncut generic knapsack flags probably intended for use as patriotic bunting.  As often happens with these cheaply mass produced textiles, the yellow center bar has faded to off-white.  This variation differs from the other generic flag shown as it displays the full Spanish arms.  A souvenir brought home by Quartermaster Sergeant William W. M. Faidley, Company D, 4th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry from Cuba.

Photo courtesy of Divisional General Alfredo Ezquerro Solana, Spanish Army, Retired.

A photo of the welcome celebration for the arrival of the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment "Bailen" to Havana, December 7, 1895.  The balconies above the crowd and soldiers are decorated with generic knapsack flags, as well as a few larger banners, used as patriotic bunting.

A "generic" or "patriotic" knapsack flag without a unit designation.  This specimen displays the simple Spanish arms printed in red.  Collectors consider these flags less desirable than those from identified units.  They have only about half the value of unit marked flags unless they have inscriptions from their American captors.  Flags of this generic pattern were also commonly used as patriotic bunting.

Another "patriotic" pattern knapsack flag captured in the Philippines and labeled with the roster of Company B, 2nd Oregon Volunteers.  Several other "signed" examples are known.

   These soldier's flags preformed a number of practical functions.  Primarily, when a soldier was housed in barracks, the flag served as a curtain to cover his personal possessions.  It hung in front of a shelf behind his bunk, giving him a minimum amount of privacy.  On campaign the little flag would be carried in the knapsack (thus the nickname) and used to identify units in the line of march, by draping one over the pack of the first and last man in a column, and marking Company streets in camp.  In battle, it could serve as a position marker to show a commander that an objective had been successfully taken by force of Spanish arms.  Routinely, they were utilized as bandanas or neckerchiefs around the necks of hapless troops stationed in sultry tropical garrisons.

An 1899 photo of a Cavalry Remount Service barracks in Spain.  Note the knapsack flags covering the top shelves above each bunk.

Photo courtesy:

A recent museum display in Spain showing a soldier's bunk, ca. 1910, and shelf covered by a reproduction knapsack flag without a unit designation.  Note the framed original knapsack flags and Remington rifle instructional handkerchief displayed on the wall.  From the Museo Provincial de Pontevedra exhibition “Del pasado, honor; del presente, orgullo.”

Image courtesy of Luis Sorando

A knapsack flag serving as a position marker at an entrenched strong point in North Africa in the early 1920s.

A detail from a photo of several defenders of Santiago de Cuba fraternizing with American soldiers after the fall of the city, July, 1898.  The standing soldier closest to the camera is wearing his knapsack flag as a bandana around his neck.  The red and yellow bars of the flag are clearly visible.

   Perhaps the most sacred duty performed by the lowly knapsack flag was for the fallen soldier.  If his body could not be repatriated back home, which was the fate of most casualties during the colonial wars of the 19th. century, he would be buried with his face covered by his own knapsack flag.  This romantic notion of heroic death was wildly popular with the sensibilities of the Latin character from the very beginning of the knapsack flag's issuance and was even immortalized in an early soldier's ballad, "Banderita" (Little Flag), one line of which goes:

            "The day I die,

            if I'm away from my Fatherland,

            I just want to be covered,

            with my flag of Spain."

   Even though knapsack flags served the many purposes listed above, they were never a Regiment's battle flag or standard.

   Because of their bright colors and ready availability, knapsack flags became popular souvenirs among the victorious American troops during the Spanish American War.  As the years passed, many examples ended up in museums and private collections.  No one knows for sure when the transformation of this humble textile into a "battle flag" began.  The misidentification most likely originated with the American veterans themselves.  One example, observed recently, had a veteran's handwritten label stating that it had been captured in a trench at such and such place in Puerto Rico.  A very believable story until you do a little research and discover that the unit, The Batallon de Cazadores Alfonso XIII No. 30 named on the flag, had been reorganized as the 24th Battalion in 1893, several years before the war.  As a fair number of identical flags to this unit have surfaced which are all souvenirs from Puerto Rico.  It is logical to conclude that they were likely found stored in a depot after the fighting was over (It is believed that they were discovered in a barracks in Ponce), and that the hair-raising combat narrative was an old soldier's forgivable embellishment to a war story for his grandchildren. 

   An account of how this unit's knapsack flags were actually "captured" is recounted by Sergeant John Warner, First Philadelphia City Troop, Pennsylvania Vol. Cavalry. This unit served in Puerto Rico from August 2nd to the 25th, 1898, seeing no combat.  He said of the souvenirs, "The First Kentucky had the pick, and left us very little.  That lucky regiment, you know, 'went through' everything the (Spanish) soldiers had left behind, and they had taken very little with them; even the coffee was untouched on the tables.  Chests were opened and Spanish wardrobes rifled for anything that had value from association and could easily be carried away.  The officers forbade plundering, but then the officers could not be everywhere at one and at the same time.  It was from the First Kentucky, which we met at Ponce, that a great many of the curios brought back by the boys were obtained. Among these were the flags carried by each man of the Alfonso XIII. Regiment.  Sam Goodman has one—it is two and a half feet square—made of bunting, with three stripes, a red one top and bottom and a yellow one between, upon which is the coat of arms of the regiment.  The Spaniards bundled up their clothes in them."

In addition to the earlier flag with the unit number "30", two different patterns of knapsack flags with this unit's wartime number "24" are known in the souvenir record, one with the hunter's horn emblem, the other with the Spanish crest, proving that newer flags were being issued to the soldiers of this unit.  This unit was disbanded after the Spanish American War.


Three variations of knapsack flags used by members of the Cazadores Battalion Alfonso XIII.  Top: the flag with the unit number "30" used from 1889 to 1893.  Center: flag with a hunter's horn and the number "24."  Bottom: flag with the royal crest and unit number "24."  All are souvenirs of the Spanish American War. 

Artifact and photo courtesy of Sergio Rosado

A cavalry knapsack flag.  Soldiers from all branches of service were issued their own flags.  One squadron of the Regimiento Cazadores de Talavera 15 de Caballería fought in Cuba as part of the Regimiento de Caballería "Numancia"

Many units had their own distinctive center insignia on their knapsack flags such as this one for the Medical Service.  Note the soldier's signature, written upside down, at the base of the flag.

A special request concerning knapsack flags used in the Philippines

To date, all the knapsack flags that I have observed with Philippines' provenance have been of the "generic" or "patriotic" patterns.  No examples with unit designations have come to my attention.  I believe that such flags should exist, but I have not found one.  If any reader knows of any unit marked knapsack flags captured in the Philippines by American soldiers, repatriated to Spain by one of the Rayadillos, or still in the Philippines, please contact me.

   For years, the general consensus among many American museums, dealers and collectors was that these little banners were, in fact, one of a kind "tropical version" of regimental colors for which Spanish soldiers would fight and die.  This erroneous identification was even published in a major Spanish American War uniform reference book (Ron Field's The Spanish American War 1898, page 107) in 1998!  Since that time, almost every sale of a knapsack flag that I have encountered in the US has been offered as a battle flag.  A few years ago, one of these 'battle flags' sold at a well-known Illinois auction house for over $4000!  I wonder if that price would have been achieved had the buyer known the true nature of his purchase.  In Spain, were the collectors have always known the real story behind these flags, they sell for significantly less.  Knapsack flags with well documented colonial provenance will fetch a bit of a premium. 

   Of course, this was not intentional deception on the part of the auctioneers.  They were simply going by what they had been told or had read in supposedly accurate references.  In a similar manner, I have been offered several of these flags over the years and purchased a few when the price was fair, but they have always been offered to me as one of a kind battle flags.  The dealers were not being dishonest, they were simply misinformed.  

A Spanish American War souvenir knapsack flag from the 3rd Provisional Infantry Battalion of Puerto Rico.  This unit was formed in 1895 and disbanded at the end of the war in 1898.  It was acquired off of eBay where it was described, of course, as the unit's one and only "battle flag."  I am aware of two more just like it in the US and one in Puerto Rico.  This unit's short term of service and colonial provenance make this flag very desirable.  Knapsack flags with unquestionable used during the Spanish American War will fetch a premium price with both Spanish and US collectors.

   With recent Spanish participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tradition of knapsack flag has made a come back in many units.  This revival has seen flags issued to members of the Spanish Foreign Legion, the Marine Infantry, the paratroopers, the Royal Guards and the Melilla Regulares among others.  There is even a generic flag for the Ejército de Tierra.  Modern examples are made from nylon.  

Image courtesy

Several modern knapsack flags used by today's Spanish military.

A Request for period knapsack flag photos

I am looking for any period photographs of knapsack flags in use, particularly during the colonial period.  Images of American troops posing with captured flags would be especially interesting.  If you have anything that I may borrow, please contact me.



All material is Copyright 2012 by William K. Combs.  No portion may be used without permission.