We all know that a white flag (or cloth) signifies a soldier’s intention for surrender, truce or parley. In fact, waving a white flag is far from being a custom; it’s enshrined in the Geneva Convention. But have you ever wondered why the color white was chosen as an indication for capitulation?
Well, we decided to search for the answer for all of you useless info junkies out there. Let’s see what historians have to say.
White flags were used as a surrender signal in both Rome and China for thousands of years. What’s incredible is that the tradition is believed to have been developed independently in the West and East. More specifically, in the West we have records of white flag being used in A.D. 69 by Roman writer Cornelius Tacitus. While he was writing about the Second Battle of Cremona, Tacitus mentions that the Vitellians “waved a white flag when surrendering to the Vespasians”. In China, the custom is believed to have originated at around A.D 25-220 under the Eastern Han dynasty. So why do two very different cultures chose the same color? (the article continues after the ad)
SO, WHY WHITE?
Even though we can’t be 100% sure, historians agree that the color selection was just a matter of convenience. Since white cloths were quite common and always handy in the ancient world, this is probably the case of troops having to improvise with the materials they had on hand. In addition, white is highly visible in the heat of battle and against most natural backgrounds so it made sense to use them at the battlefield.
Moreover, i also believe that this happened for one more reason: a white flag didn’t have any emblems or insignia on it therefore, a soldier’s intentions appeared more “honest”. You don’t actually call for surrender when you raise the flag of your country, right?
Today, of course, white flag is considered a symbol not only for surrendering but also for the desire to call for a parley. In recent history, medieval heralds always carried white wands in order to distinguish themselves from combatants. During the American Civil War, soldiers were waving white flags when entering the battlefield to collect their wounded.