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For a very long time we have known that raising or lowering the white flag meant that the person or the group surrendered to the enemies or adversaries. Today, the white flag is an internationally recognized symbol of a ceasefire, surrender or truce, and that they are open to negotiation. But where does the custom come from?

The white flag

The use of a white flag to signify surrender was first mentioned in the Han dynasty of the Far East, around the first three centuries of our era, although it was first associated times to death and mourning for them. Later, the color white became a symbol of surrender, as well as to show their grief over defeat and the soldiers they had lost. At the same time, in ancient Rome, the chronicler Livy told how a Carthaginian ship was decorated with “white wool and branches of olive trees” as a symbol of parley during the Second Punic War. On the other hand. Tacitus wrote of the white flags which were also displayed when the Vitellian forces surrendered at the Second Battle of Cremona in AD 69.

Jerusalem Mayor Hussein Salim Al-Husseini (with a cane and a cigarette), with his party under a white flag of truce, attempts to deliver the surrender document signed by Ottoman Governor Izzat Pasha just outside the boundaries west of Jerusalem on the morning of December 9, 1917, to Sergeants James Sedgewick and Frederick Hurcomb of the 2/19th Battalion of the London Regiment (fourth and seventh from the left in the photo). (Lewis Larsson, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Historians believed the choice of color for the banners was because white could be easily distinguished amidst the chaos of battle. Apart from that, it was quite easy to find white cloth in ancient times, something that soldiers could easily improvise with the material that was available to them.

Fast forward to more recent history, the white flag also began to be an internationally recognized symbol of the desire for a ceasefire or to conduct battlefield negotiations. Messengers of monarchs and nobles called “heralds” carried white wands to identify participants in battle. During the Civil War, soldiers first waved their white flags before collecting their wounded, a sign of a temporary ceasefire.

Haye Convention

The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 are international treaties and declarations negotiated at the two international peace conferences at The Hague in the Netherlands. These, along with the Geneva Conventions, are the first formal statements that define the laws of war, as well as war crimes within the body of secular international law. Among the laws defined, armies were prohibited from using the white flag to deceive enemies and feign surrender for the purpose of ambushing enemy troops.

Photo taken during the second peace conference in The Hague in 1907 (Author unknown, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

These same treaties also prohibit armies from using the white flag to feign surrender and ambush enemy troops.

Here is the Case Matrix Network Truce Flags Hague Regulations:

Article 23, Hague Regulations 1907:

“In particular, it is prohibited […]

(f) Improper use of a flag of truce, the national flag or the military insignia and uniforms of the enemy, as well as the distinctive insignia of the Geneva Conventions.

Article 37, Additional Protocol I:

1 […] Acts invoking the confidence of an adversary in order to lead him to believe that he is entitled or obliged to grant protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with the intention of betraying that confidence, constitute treachery. The following acts are examples of perfidy:

a) feigning an intention to negotiate under a flag of truce or surrender.

Article 38, Additional Protocol I:

“It is prohibited to make improper use of the distinctive sign of the red cross, the red crescent or the red lion and sun or the other emblems, signs or signals provided for by the Conventions or by this Protocol. It is also prohibited to deliberately misuse in an armed conflict other internationally recognized protective emblems, signs or signals, including the flag of truce and the protective emblem of cultural property.

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[…]”

Article 85(3) of Additional Protocol I:

“3. In addition to the grave breaches defined in Article 11, the following acts shall be considered as grave breaches of this Protocol, when committed intentionally, in violation of the relevant provisions of this Protocol, and causing death or injury serious to physical integrity or health:

[…]

(f) the perfidious use, in violation of Article 37, of the distinctive emblem of the red cross, the red crescent or the red lion and sun or other protective signs recognized by the Conventions or this Protocol.

Yorktown Siege

The Siege of Yorktown, also known as the Battle of Yorktown, began on September 28, 1781 and lasted until October 19. American Continental Army troops under General George Washington and Gilbert du Motier, and the Marquis de Lafayette, combined with French Army troops under Comte de Rochambeau, fought and defeated the British Army led by the Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis. It was a decisive victory that turned out to be the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. On October 16, Cornwallis surrendered by sending a drummer boy and an officer waving a white flag, signifying their intention to cease hostilities and their willingness to surrender. He did so lest his encircled troops be annihilated by the combined forces of the Continental and French armies.

While it was permissible to fly your own enemy’s flag as a “ruse of war”, especially in naval engagements, violating a white flag of truce could have very serious consequences. During World War II, the Japanese gained a reputation for violating or not honoring truce flags when offered with results that should have been predictable, they were generally not allowed to surrender.

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