Prior to WWI, the only military patches on record were sleeve patches used to depict ranking during the Civil War. Additional identification (or insignia) used by Civil War Union soldiers were corps, division or brigade identification which they would place on their caps.
First Patch Is Introduced
The first official military patch surfaced in May of 1918 – a patch which represented the US Army’s 81st Division. Army officials were encouraged to use the patch to informally acknowledge the division and to encourage esprit de corps – morale. Eventually all divisions were ordered to wear a patch and the custom eventually extended to the corps and brigades.
Longest Surviving Patch
The longest surviving military patch dates back to 1918 – the Big Red 1 – the patch (insignia) attached to the 1st Infantry Division of the US Army who has been active since May 24, 1917. The division officially received their patch on October 31, 1918. The Big Red 1 remains one of the most highly recognizable patches of all the insignia used in the US military.
World War II – Patches Expand
The use of military patches greatly expanded between WWI and WWII. In fact, by the start of WWII, all corps, divisions and brigades were being issued insignia patches. Each military patch is a unique representation of each division. Various eras, such as the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, also have slight color variations to better match the camouflage of the battlefield uniforms.
Collecting Military Patches
Collecting military patches has evolved into a lucrative industry. Veterans and civilians trade, buy and sell military patches. Overall, prices are relatively low unless seeking patches from the WWII or Vietnam era, which command a bit more money. A collector can be as specific or general as he’d like when it comes to collecting US military patches. With each branch in the service now using patches, the possibilities are endless. One can focus on a single branch, a single division or a particular era.
The story of military patches has progressed immensely since its meager beginning and has opened up an immense field of possibilities for the avid collector of military memorabilia.