The Vexation of Flags    by Mike creasy


Do you have any flags on your fine model? ​​ Are they properly displayed? ​​ Not to worry; a little vexillology (the study of flags, of course) will help us find the problem.

Some background: flags were used on land well before there were any navies or yacht clubs looking for some way to use pieces of coloured cloth to impart information to friend and foe. ​​ Ancient warriors encased in protective armour found it useful to have some means of recognizing the enemy at a glance. ​​ Imagine a Monty Python sketch with a bunch of heavily wrapped fighters milling about in confusion while Michael Palin and John Cleese discuss who was wearing what!! ​​ (I thought Igor the Impaler was wearing his blue tunic today….)

Anyhow, flags have been used for many centuries. ​​ There is some archaeological evidence that flags were used in Iran over 5,000 years ago to mark the territory of local warlords and tribal chiefs. ​​ The vexillum (that little square flag hung from a pole) was used by the Romans to identify their legions as they marched into battle. ​​ Flags continued to be used through the middle ages, primarily to identify a religious or military affiliation. ​​ As the battles moved onto the water, ships began to carry flags too.

The place of honour - where the ship was steered and where the officers stood in varying states of confusion - was the stern, and so it was here that flags began to fly. ​​ In the early days, ship captains saw the need to communicate while under way, and signal flags were soon developed into a complex language (the VMSS' string of flags used at display events actually spells out "Welcome Aboard").

The use of flags aboard naval vessels probably reached its zenith in the mid-1800s, just before the introduction of steam power. ​​ The large navies of the time - Britain, France and Spain - regularly met in large fleet actions, with plenty of commerce raiding thrown in. ​​ Flags were used constantly, and a very complex set of rules evolved, rules which were generally followed by all combatants. ​​ The idea of "Battle Flags" came from the need for a larger flag to make national identities clear during the battle. ​​ Ships would often hoist three or more national flags, since masts and rigging were regularly shot to pieces during battle. ​​ Flag etiquette held that if a ship were to lower her colours during battle, she was considered to have surrendered, and multiple flags helped prevent any misunderstanding. ​​ Once captured, a ship would fly the captor's flag above the surrendered flag at the stern. ​​ This Royal Navy Ensign was introduced in 1801 and remains in use today. ​​  

Other flags, such as a commissioning pennant, Admiral's rank flag, royal standard and various other flags are sometimes flown at the mainmast, usually on the port side. ​​ The starboard is reserved for the "courtesy flag" showing the country in whose waters the ship is sailing. ​​ A smaller flag, known as a "jack" is flown at the foremast when the ship is not under way. ​​ Depending on the country, this "jack" may be completely different from the national flag.

Signalling flags are usually flown on each side of the ship alongside the mainmast, on a dedicated signalling stay. ​​ Any fleet manoeuvring instructions would be executed at the moment the flags were pulled down.  ​​​​ 

By comparison, merchant ships fly a different version of the naval ensign, or the national flag, at the stern. ​​ House flags are generally flown at the mainmast, along with "courtesy" flags and signal flags, such as a request for a pilot. ​​ House flags may also be flown at the foremast while under way.

Canada, as might be expected of a British colony, began with an adaptation of the British flag. ​​ This plain red ensign flew over British North America from the time of the first settlers until about 1773, when a dispute over tea became a focal point for the American Revolution. ​​ The Americans went on to design their own, based on this East India Company flag, and using stars in place of the British Union flag inset. ​​ The Colony of Canada continued to use the plain red ensign until after Confederation, when the original Canadian coat of arms was added. ​​ In 1921, a new coat of arms was added, and this flag was flown from Canadian merchant ships until 1965. ​​ Canadian naval ships wore the white ensign, identical to the Royal Navy's flag. ​​ The Canadian Blue Ensign was worn as a jack, for use when the ship was moored. ​​ In the mid 1950s, Canadian warships began to fly the Canadian Red ensign at the masthead, in order to identify themselves as Canadian rather than British. ​​ Then, in 1965 all of these flags were replaced by the new red and white maple leaf, which is still in use today.

It would take many pages and pictures to adequately explain all the fine points of flag etiquette, but fortunately there are lots of reference sources available. ​​ Without question, a fine set of flags - correct for the time - are the crowning glory for any fine model and, if you do the research, it becomes much easier to tell the mall show "expert" that he's got it all wrong: your model is perfect!!



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Flags, William Crampton, Bloomsbury Books, 1959

The Story of Canada’s Flag, George F. G. Stanley, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1965

Chapman Quick Reference to Nautical Flags, Hearst Books, 2006