For the longest time, we’ve known that raising or throwing in the white flag meant that the person or group was surrendering to the enemies or opponents. Today, the white flag is an internationally recognized symbol of ceasefire, surrender, or truce, and that they’re open for negotiation. But where did the custom come from?

The White Flag

The use of a white flag to signify surrender was first mentioned during the far Eastern Han dynasty, around the first three centuries AD, although it was first associated with death and mourning for them. Later on, the color white became a symbol of surrender, as well as to show their sorrow in defeat and the soldiers that they had lost. At the same time, in ancient Rome, chronicler Livy narrated how a Carthaginian ship was decorated with “white wool and branched of olive” as a symbol of parley during the Second Punic War. On the other hand. Tacitus wrote about white flags that were also being displayed when the Vitellian forces surrendered during the Second Battle of Cremona in 69 AD.

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

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

Fast forward to more recent history, the white flag also started to be an internationally recognized symbol of the desire for a ceasefire or to conduct negotiations on the battlefield. The messengers of monarchs and noblemen called “heralds” would carry white wands to identify themselves from combat participants. In the Civil War, soldiers would wave their white flags first before collecting their wounded, a sign of a temporary ceasefire.

Hague Convention

The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 are international treaties and declarations negotiated during 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 in the body of secular international law. Among the laws defined were that armies were forbidden to use the white flag to deceive the enemies and fake a surrender with the purpose of ambushing the enemy troops.

Picture taken during the Second Peace Conference at The Hague in 1907 (Unknown authorCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Those same treaties also forbid armies from using the white flag to fake a surrender and ambush enemy troops.

Following are the Hague Regulations on The Flags of Truce from Case Matrix Network:

Article 23, Hague Regulations 1907:

“It is especially forbidden […]

(f) To make improper use of a flag of truce, of the national flag or of the military insignia and uniform of the enemy, as well as the distinctive badges of the Geneva Conventions.

Article 37, Additional Protocol I:

1 […] Acts inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or is obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with intent to betray that confidence, shall constitute perfidy. The following acts are examples of perfidy:

(a) the feigning of an intent to negotiate under a flag of truce or of a surrender.

Article 38, Additional Protocol I:

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

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[…]”

Article 85(3) Additional Protocol I:

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

[…]

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

Siege of Yorktown

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

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