The flag above is one of the "demi-brigades" (battalion) of the Helvetic Legion (reverse side).
This is the 4th Demi-Brigade, 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 enthusiastically 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
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
battalion. The reverse contained the same motto in French and German
"Valeur et Liberté – Muth 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).
This picture (from the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin) shows the obverse side of the
flag drawn by T.F. Mills (see above). All flags of the Helvetic Legion had identical obverse emblems:
Liberty Tree with a hanging quiver of arrows, lictoral fasces with a red, white and blue liberty cap,
rising sun and military symbols of the French Republic and the mottoes, described by T.F. Mills.
Martin Karner, 21 April 2023
This picture (watercolour painting from the Musée de l'Armée, Paris, b/w photo) shows another
example of the reverse side of a Helvetic Legion flag, the flag of the 3th Demi-Brigade. All reverse
sides had the apple-shot scene with William Tell and his son, the Liberty Tree, the fasces and the
mountainous landscape in common. Apart from this the design of the flags could vary (cf. with image from
T.F. Mills above). In this picture the symbols are placed on a white octagon, framed with a yellow-green
border with the mottoes, placed on a flag quarterly of green and red. The unit numbers in the corners and
all inscriptions are golden.
Martin Karner, 21 April 2023