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Flags at half mast - examples of use

Last modified: 2013-12-28 by rob raeside
Keywords: half-mast | new zealand | usa | fort mchenry | germany |
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Half Masting in Germany

After the Erfurt school massacre all Germany was flagged at half staff. Especially schools, that usually do not display flags, had flagged, for instance my old school at Gars am Inn, where I had never seen a flag before. As many flags could not be lowered to half-staff (especially the common vertical flags), they added mourning bands at the top of the flag. In the Ludwigstraße in Munich, one of the major streets with many ministries and other offices, it was interesting to observe which different ways they flagged. Most of the offices displayed the German flag plus either the Bavarian or the EU flag, as they usually have two flag-staffs, not three. The Bavarian Ministry of the Interior showed only the Bavarian and the EU flag, no German flag; I think this was clearly against the usual protocol. The Bayerisches Landeszentralbank (Bavarian State Central Bank) was the only one showing the federal service flag instead of the federal flag; I wasn't aware of the fact, that this bank (as part of the Bundesbank, the Federal Bank) is entitled to do so.

During the central funeral service for the victims in Erfurt, 3 May, three flags were displayed in the banner version, with mourning bands attached: the service flag of Thuringia (as sent by me 7 October 2001), the flag of Erfurt (see de-th-ef.html), and the German national flag.

There was even an article on half-staffing (in the series "Aktuelles Lexikon" = "Topical Lexicon) in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. A translation follows:


For a week the national flags in Germany are flown at half-staff, as a sign of mourning for the victims of the murders at Erfurt. Mourning flagging is ordered by the Federal Ministry of the Interior directing the federal offices and departments. The ministries of the states are informed. They can decide on their own then, how they proceed, including the cities and municipalities. These inform important institutions and bigger enterprises. Therefore also from the editorial building of the Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich flags with mourning bands are flying. The black bands are used, if the flags can't be hoisted at half-staff. For a nation-wide mourning flagging there can be different occasions: disasters like in Erfurt or on 11 September in New York; the death of important persons and foreign heads-of-state; furthermore the two regular dates, the Memorial Day and the Day of Memory for the Victims of the National Socialism. The tradition stems from shipping in the 17th century. Today it is commonplace all over the world. The lowering of the flag is to be understood as a symbol for the bow to the dead ones. Therefore the flag (according to the regulation of the federal government) "is first hoisted to the top and immediately afterwards lowered to half-staff".

- own observations first weeks of May 2002
- Süddeutsche Zeitung 4/5 May 2002, p. 1 and p. 6
- Süddeutsche Zeitung 3 May 2002, p. 2: Aktuelles Lexikon, signed "makr"
Marcus E.V. Schmöger, 26 May 2002

When flags cannot be half-staffed/half-masted

Ed. Note: From a question sent to FOTW:

After putting out our flag this morning, we received a call from that it should be at half-mast today. We knew this. but our flag is on a fixed mast and cannot be moved up or down. Although we continued to fly it...I've been wondering...what should you do in a case such as this? Not fly it or leave it at full mast when it should be at half-mast?

Specifically I have been recommending US AR 840-10, 2-4 Position and Manner of Display, section (4) paragraph h Placed in mourning. "Flags carried by troops will not be placed in mourning unless ordered by the President or the secretary of the Army. When so ordered a streamer of black crepe 7 feet long and 1 foot wide will be to the staff at the center of the streamer immediately below the spearhead of the US flag and the organizational flag. (See fig. 2-9)"

Figure 2-9 shows the streamer tied into a bow.

If black crepe or ribbon is unavailable in that length and with then I've been recommending black ribbon of sufficient length and width so as to be easily seen and understood as a mourning cravat.
Jim Ferrigan, 11 September 2002

When Queen Ingrid (mother of Queen Margrethe II) died, the Copenhagen metropolitan buses were faced with the same problem - they have these small poles, from which they fly the Dannebrog when there are official state visits or on ordinary flag days. These poles can not fly flags on the half, so in order to show that the flag-flying was a matter of mourning rather than celebration, they attached small black ribbons to the upper hoist corner of the flags.
Ole Andersen, 11 September 2002

Half-masting on Naval Vessels

Am I wrong in thinking that a command flag is a personal flag, and that personal flags are half-masted only on the death of the person they represent, and on no other occasion?
David Prothero, August 2005

You are quite correct. An appropriate example at this imminent bi-centenial of Trafalgar, is that Collingwood learned that he is now in command of the fleet, at the moment when the vice-admiral's flag in Victory was half-masted.

The ensign (and jack alongside or at anchor) is normally only half-masted when ordered for a national occasion of mourning such as at the death of a prominent national figure or for a national disaster, or in sympathy with foreign ships in company who has half-masted for similar reasons. Also when a member of a ship's company has died on board and while the body is still on board, the ensign may be half-masted until the moment that the body goes over the side (being piped over the side irrespective of rank). This is of course a peace time practice and does not apply during action, except for flag officers being killed which has an effect on the chain of command. While a body is being transported ashore in a boat, the boat's ensign will also be half-masted. For the burials at sea of casualties during war-time, the ship's engines will be stopped and the ensign half-masted for the duration of the service and re-hoisted immediately on completion. In peace time if a body is brought aboard for burial at sea, the ensign would be half-masted (and the jack too if at anchor or alongside) from the moment the body comes on board (piped again) until the moment it is consigned to the deep, at which point the ensign is again re-hoisted close-up. This does not apply for the strewing of ashes although a service might again be conducted. In all cases, if a burial service is conducted, whether by a chaplain or read by the captain, the Church pennant will also be hoisted for the duration to inform ships in company.
Andries Burgers, 16 August 2005

I think that we have to be a bit careful about definitions here, a command flag is a 'distinguishing' or 'rank' flag, and represents the office of the user rather than the person themselves. Whereas the 'personal' flags for Her Majesty's use abroad, (Canada, Australia etc) whilst being her distinguishing flags as head of state, also bear her monogram and are thus personal to her.

Without checking Queen's Regulations for the Royal Navy, I seem to remember that the command flag of an admiral may only be half-masted upon the death of the admiral it represents, and only then whilst his body remains on board (with it being struck after his burial at sea or when the body was removed)?
Christopher Southworth, 16 August 2005

US Navy Regulations are essentially as Chris says. Article 1264: "3. Personal flags, command pennants and commission pennants shall not be displayed at half-mast except as prescribed in these regulations for a deceased official or officer." Table 10, "Death of a Person in the Military Service," lays out the rules, which are restated somewhat more clearly in NTP-13(B), "Flags, Pennants, and Customs":

912. b. The personal flag, command or commission pennant of a ship or unit commanded by the following officers shall be half-masted from the time of their death until sunset of the day of the funeral or until the removal of the body from the ship or station [and then hauled down, according to Navy Regs--JM].

(1) Chairman or former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
(2) United States Military officer of 5-star rank
(3) Chief or former Chief of Naval Operations
(4) Commandant or former Commandant of the Marine Corps
(5) Commandant or former Commandant of the Coast Guard
(6) Flag Officer in Command
(7) Unit Commander who is not a flag officer
(8) Commanding Officer of that ship

In the very rare situation that a deceased President's body was transported aboard ship, I imagine the Navy would follow the same rules as for a deceased officer in command, but it's hard to imagine that this would ever happen.
Joe McMillan, 16 August 2005

Transatlantic Cable Incident

In A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable, by John Steele Gordon, Walker & Co., NY , 2002, on page 98 he recounts an incident where the ship laying the cable, the Niagara, lost it after it parted and sank to the bottom. The mood of the flotilla was dampened and a sailor aboard the Niagara lowered the ensign to half-mast; the other ships engaged in the operation, Agamemnon, Susquehaha, Cyclops and the Leopard all followed suit.
Jim Ferrigan, 13 February 2007