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: