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Flags at half mast

Last modified: 2013-12-23 by rob raeside
Keywords: half-mast | new zealand | usa | fort mchenry | germany |
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Origin of the Term "Half Mast" or "Half Staff"

When, where and why did the origin of placing the flag at half-mast come from?

When: First(?) recorded instance July 1612.
Where: In what is now Canada.
Why: Not definitely known.

If you consider the phrase used, and the practicalities of hoisting flags, it is likely to be of naval origin and probably not earlier than the 14th Century.

Although flag pole is a common phrase no one flies a flag at half-pole. In British English it is, I think without exception, half-mast, and in American English, although Webster lists half-staff, half-mast is the main entry. So, since a mast is on a ship it's of nautical origin.

Also, you can't easily half-mast a flag unless you have a fairly tall 'pole', and a halyard. I think that it's not unreasonable to assume that most land flags of the Middle Ages were carried around on hand-held staffs, and that most flags flown from the tops of buildings were probably the same staffs inserted into sockets. Flags on staffs are usually tied on, tacked on, or have a sleeve at the hoist into which the staff is inserted. Not easy to half-mast.

It's probable that at this time, tall poles with a suitable hoisting mechanism were found only on ships, and that ships with masts of this size did not become common until around the 1300's.

Some earlier accounts of half-masting, refer not only to the flags but also to the sails. In a book entitled "Naval Customs" written by Lt. Cdr. Leland P. Lovette USN and published by USN Institute in 1934:

"The half-masting of colors is in reality a survival of the days when a slovenly appearance (untidy, careless) characterized mourning. Even in the British Merchant Service today there are recent cases of trailing rope ends, 'slacking off' of rigging, and scandalizing yards as a sign of mourning."

He goes on to describe the last occasion on which Royal Navy ships 'cock-billed' their yards whilst lying off Lisbon after the murder of Don Carlos King of Portugal in 1908. When possible, it seems that the sails were deliberately set badly, not fully hoisted, yards scandalized or askew, "cock-billed as a sign of mourning". The idea was that an untidy, slovenly, careless appearance where one would normally expect to see everything 'ship-shape', indicated mourning. This concept goes back a long way. I seem to remember passages in the Bible that refer to people tearing their clothes and rubbing ashes into their hair when in mourning.

It has just occurred to me that a ship that had been in battle would have an disheveled appearance, so perhaps there was also the idea of simulating the aftermath of a battle with its consequent deaths.

Half-masting a flag is probably the last symbolic gesture of what was once in some cultures a common way of showing grief.

Some suggest that the part lowering of a flag indicates the passing of the authority represented by the flag, or that it is to leave space for 'the invisible flag of death' to be flown above the lowered flag, but these are modern attempts to explain a practice which has much older origins.

The reference to 1612? "on the occasion of the murder of James Hall by Esquimoes during the first expedition in search of the North-West Passage, in which Baffin took part, when the 'Heart's Ease' rejoined the 'Patience' with "her flag hanging down and her ensign hanging over the poop, which was a sign of death". On entering the Thames two months later the 'Heart's Ease' again lowered her flag and ensign "in token and in sign of the death of Mr. Hall", so that it was at that date well understood to signify the death of the commanding officer of a ship." from "British Flags" by W.G.Perrin.

The idea that a slovenly appearance at sea is a sign of mourning is in "Naval Customs, Tradition and Usage" by L.P. Lovette.
David Prothero, 28 February 1998, 25 May 1998

In his book 'Signal', Captain Barrie Kent writes that in 1952, Buckingham Palace asked the Board of Admiralty for information on the origin of the custom of half-masting colours to signify a death. The Archivist Peter Kemp replied:

The earliest record we have of the lowering of a flag to signify a death was an occasion in 1612, when the Master of the 'Hearts Ease', William Hall, was murdered by Eskimos while taking part in an expedition in search of the North West Passage. On rejoining her consort, the vessel's flag was flown trailing over the stern as a mark of mourning. On her return to London, the 'Hearts Ease' again flew her flag over the stern and it was recognised as an appropriate gesture of mourning.

It was the habit, after the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, for ships of the Royal Navy to fly their flags at half-mast on the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I on 30th January 1649, and it is from this custom that, so far as we can trace, the present practice of announcing a death by the flying of a flag at half-mast has evolved. The earlier practice at sea was to fly a black flag or to set a black sail.

We know that the hoisting of black sails was a sign of mourning from the very earliest times. The black sail was superseded by the black flag, probably because it was a nuisance to have to carry black sails for use only on rare occasions. It was probably the position, rather than the colour, that caught the attention, particularly at a distance.

David Prothero, 26 July 1997

According to US Navy custom, there is/was only one flag that could be flown above the US national flag . . . this was the church flag (white pennant, blue cross lengthwise), flown during religious services. This might have been amended since to include the UN flag, but it was not permitted then. Having some familiarity with US Navy tradition, I doubt it.

The national flag was two blocked (raised to the top of the halyard) and flown there. When flown at half mast, it was first two blocked and then lowered to the proper position half way down the length of the halyard (rope). The reverse was done when lowering the flag at sunset.

Only the national flag was flown from a single halyard, but that might have been done otherwise by other services or when used by civilians. There were only two sites where the flag could be flown at night: Fort McHenry and the battleship Arizona memorial. This custom has been amended since so that the flag can be flown at night if illuminated. Naturally, the flag can be flown anytime during battle.

It is only natural that customs differ elsewhere, particularly in those countries having a history much older then here. I'd be most interested in hearing about them.
Alvin Fisher

When are Flags Flown at Half Mast?

In the United States the flag is flown at half-staff, by order of the President, to honor the memory of high ranking government officials upon their death.
Duane Streufert

James Dignan, Nathan Augustine, T.W. Hall and Anton Sherwood all mention that flags are flown at half mast in memorial of the dead by schools, corporations, fire stations, government institutions and individuals.

My understanding is that the flag is theoretically not flown at "half" mast, but one flag's depth down from the masthead (in practice, it's often more than that) to allow for the "invisible flag of death" to be flown at the top of the mast. The idea goes back to mediaeval times, I think.

The same protocol applies in New Zealand for deaths of the head of state and other Royal Family members, the Governor General, the Prime Minister and other Ministers of the Crown. The days on which the flag is half masted (day of death, day of funeral, days in between) vary according to the status of the deceased. ANZAC Day (our Memorial Day equivalent) is another half-mast day (usually morning only). Of course, many official and private organizations also half mast the flag in respect of deaths of other people of special significance to them.
Stuart Park

In Denmark flying half-mast is the appropriate thing to do at funerals and on some holidays (Good Friday comes to mind).
Ole Andersen, 13 December 1997

How Far Down the Flagpole is "Half Mast"

This is originally a naval term, referring to the pole or area on the mast of a ship where the flag is flown under way. This area is about three flag widths tall above the ship's main structure to allow for the occasional two-flag display (the US flag always on top) and room for lowering the flag to half mast. Because the mast area and the pole at a ship's stern are short, half mast is one flag width below the top. A flag pole is not a mast, so the flag should not be flown half-way up a tall pole. It is properly raised briskly to the block (top) and lowered slowly one flag width to the "half-mast" position. This makes it clearly not "two-blocked" and signals respect, but still keeps the flag high enough to prevent fouling and the sloppy appearance of a "half-pole" position, especially if the flag is very large. The flag, even at half mast, should be fully visible and flying freely and proudly in the wind.
Richard Olsen

I'm sure I'm not any kind of authority on proper flag etiquette but I would like to respond to the letter from Richard Olson.

It seems to me that even though the "half-mast" is a naval term, it has become a common and proper term in American English (and British English?). Also, flags flying at the actual half-pole position, seems to me to be 'proper' since that is what I've seen all my life.

Trying to imagine what a flag would look like at one flag width below the top, seems like it would appear that someone made a mistake about the position of the flag. A flag at the half-mark of a pole is clearly intended to be there and has always made me query as to who died.

Also, Mr. Olson says that the flag is only one flag width below the top because it is short. But the fact is, is that it IS at half-mast. Were the mast on the ship to be taller, would it still have been at half-mast? Or is the rule in the Navy, one flag-width below the top no matter what the height of the mast?

Nonetheless, whether the origin of the flag being at half-pole is from the Navy or elsewhere, it certainly has become proper to lower it to half-mast (mast is also defined as a vertical or near vertical pole: Webster) in our culture and society today and I see no reason to change it.

The act of raising it to the top of the block, then to half-mast when raising the flag and then raising it again to the block before lowering it seems logical to me. The placement of the flag at half-mast is not the 'norm' for the placement of the flag. Its symbolic representation of the nation (branch of military, etc.) should be at a high point for all to see and respect. The 'lack of respect' of placing the flag at half-mast seems, to me, to place the nation second to the death of an important figure. Raising the flag to the block before and after raising it seems symbolic that this is where the flag should be but because of a great loss due to death, we will forgo that place of honor so as to honor the dead more. Returning the flag again to the block returns the flag to its honored position saying (maybe) that the nation goes on despite the death.
Michael Menninger

Duane Streufert posted an article concerning the etiquette of flying the flag at half mast from the Nov.-Dec. 1994 National Flag Foundations "Standard Bearer" Magazine. This article remains the copyrighted material of the National Flag Foundation and is presented here by permission.
Nathan Augustine posted a reply.

In Spain, the most frequent alternative to flying a flag half mast to indicate mourning is to stitch a small piece of black material (a short cravatte, a square piece of material, occasionally even a black Handkerchief) to the centre of the flag. This is done almost only with flags not intended for hoisting, such as flags displayed on balconies etc. Flags not intended for hoisting but which would be inappropriately defaced by such an addition (namely military colours) tend to use a black cravatte attached to the finial.
Santiago Dotor, 27 April 2001

The US Department of Defense Directive 1005.6 (27 May 2000) now mandates that "The term "half-staff" means the position of the flag when it is one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff." This is (all too typically) a case of standardization that fails to take into account empirical realities that were more than adequately covered already by individual service regulations--things like flagpoles with crosstrees, guy cables, and those standing too close to buildings for the flag to fly free if positioned exactly half-way up the pole.
Joe McMillan, 12 September 2002

The rules on half-masting in New Zealand don't specify one width below the top - that is apparently the minimum that a flag should be lowered in order to be half-masted. The full text of this section of the booklet, "The New Zealand Flag," are as follows:

The flag is half-masted by first raising it to the top of the mast and then immediately lowering it slowly to the half-mast position. The half-mast position will depend on the size of the flag and the length of the flagpole. The flag must be lowered to a position recognisably "half-mast" to avoid the appearance of a flag which has accidentally fallen away from the top of the flagpole. The flag should always be more than its own depth from the top of the flagpole.

In practice, lowering by one flag-width or slightly more seems to be the normal half-mast position. It is certainly rare to see a flag literally halfway up the mast. Even the diagram shown in the booklet shows a flag about 2/3 of the way up the mast.
James Dignan, 20 September 2003

Half-mast or Half-staff

Some websites I found on the CBC web page, of a vexi-nature (CBC is the government-sponsored broadcaster in Canada)
David Kendall, 9 November 2000

It is clear that although "half-mast" is more common in usage in the United States, the correct term is in fact "half-staff". This is somewhat intuitive, since "masts" are on ships and a "flagstaff" is on land. (What's more than one? "Flagstaffs"? "Flagstaves"? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives both plurals as correct for the word "staff"...) Of course, "flagpole" is also a common term, and "half-pole" is clearly incorrect.
Stever Kramer, 13 November 2000

My impression is the same as Steve's, that people here in the U.S. tend to say "half-mast" even though the legal term is "half-staff." Naval usage, whether referring to a ship or a shore installation, is "half-mast." That includes the US Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
Joe McMillan, 19 November 2000

In Britain we say "half-mast". It's even a colloquial term used for anything that isn't quite as high as it should be, such as the mother telling her son that his trousers are at half-mast.
Graham Bartram, 13 November 2000

In France, we usually do not use the direct translation, which would be 'mi-hampe' (staff) or 'mi-mât' (mast), but 'EN BERNE' ('mettre un drapeau en berne' = half-staff or -mast a flag).

In his 'Dictionnaire de la langue francaise' (1872, suppl. 1877), P.E. Littré wrote:

"BERNE Mar. Pavillon en berne : Pavillon hissé mais roulé sur lui-même." (Mar. Ensign hoisted, but furled on itself.)

In his 'Dictionnaire alphabétique et analogique de la langue francaise'(6 vol., 1955), P. Robert wrote :

"BERNE n.f. (1672; origine obscure) Mar. Pavillon en berne : hissé á mi-mât en signe de deuil ou de de'tresse. Par ext. Drapeau en berne : non deployé, roulé." (Mar. Ensign 'en berne': hoisted at half-mast as a sign of mourning or distress.) By extension. Flag 'en berne': not unfurled, furled.)

'Petit Larousse Illustre' (1991) says:

"BERNE n.f. (du néerl. berm, repli ?) [from Dutch berm, withdrawal?] Pavillon, drapeau en berne : Hissé á mi-drisse en signe de deuil" (Ensign, flag 'en berne': hoisted at half-halyard as a sign of mourning.)

There was therefore an evolution in the concept of BERNE: Littré listed only the maritime use, and mentioned only furling of the ensign, not half-staffing. Robert, as expected, gave the most comprehensive definition, including use on land and at sea, half-staffing and furling. Larousse dropped the furling, which seems to be incorrect regarding the current use: on buildings, when the staff is oblique and short, the flag is furled around it because it cannot be properly half-staffed. The vertical banners are also furled at the lower, floating edge.

I would be very interested in learning the use or non-use of BERNE in other countries where French is spoken.

Another way of signalling mourning on sailing ships is described in 'Grand Larousse du XXé siécle' (1928), as:

"PANTENNE (du provencal moderne pantano) Vergues mises en pantenne : que l'on dispose en croix de Saint-André en signe de deuil" (Yards displayed in 'pantenne': displayed in a St. Andrew's cross pattern, as a sign of mourning).

Then it is said:

"When the captain of a vessel has passed away, the ensign is put 'en berne'; for the death of a squadron commander or a national mourning, the yards are displayed 'en pantenne'. When a vessel transports a dead man to the land, the ensign is put 'en berne' until coming alongside. On sea, the ensign put 'en berne' means that the vessel has a man missing on board (fallen into the sea). Putting the ensign 'en berne' is also a way to require a pilot or assistance."

I have a scrapbook full of notes concerning the flag terminology in French and its evolution. I shall try in the future to clear up my notes and send the results to the list. It would be interesting to confront them with similar studies in other languages, too.
Ivan Sache, 14 November 2000

The word "mast" is US Naval Service (US Navy and Marine Corps) terminology. When members of these services use this term together with flags and pennants, it isn't necessarily to refer to naval equipment, but rather because it is their jargon.

When referring to flags and pennants, the official definition of the words "mast" and "staff" by the Navy and Marine Corps have two separate meanings (see link to MCO P10520.3B below):

A "staff" refers to an un-fixed (portable) flag pole that can be carried by troops. Any flag carried by troops marching on foot or by horseback is flying from a staff. When that same flagpole is placed into a portable stand, it is still called a "staff." Small flags (such as the ones placed on veterans' graves on Memorial Day) have staffs, and so do the miniature flags that some people have displayed on their office desks. One very unique thing about staffs are that flags cannot be lowered to "half-staff" on them. The flags are usually permanently fixed to the top of the staff, and the staff is too short to feasibly allow the flag to fly at its mid-point without touching the ground or looking awkward. To signify mourning, flags flying on staffs are draped with a black mourning streamer in lieu of being lowered to half-staff.

A "mast" refers to a fixed flagpole. This fixed flagpole can be located on dry land or on a US Navy warship, but if its purpose is to have a flag raised and lowered on it, then it is always called a "mast." Unlike staffs, flags on a mast can be lowered to "half-mast." Whenever a US Navy warship is underway, the flag flies from the highest point on the ship---the ship's mast. But whenever that ship is anchored or moored pier-side, the flag flies on the ship's stern. So, when the ship is not underway, the flag is still flying from a mast---the flag mast that is affixed at the stern of the ship, but not from the ship's true mast which most people understand as being the upright shaft on highest point on the ship.

In fact, the definitions of flags in the Naval Services goes even further. When the flag is a carried by troops, it is called the "colors." When it flown from fixed flag poles aboard Navy ships and Navy & Marine Corps shore bases, it is called an "ensign." It is only referred to its general term of "flag" if it is displayed outside of those two areas such as when it is draped over a coffin or displayed on a wall.

You can find the Marine Corps Flag Manual and Navy Regulations (annex D) here: Note the definitions in paragraphs 9 and 10 on page six, and the use of those two words throughout the manual.

There is a lot of history and tradition woven throughout the customs of the US Navy and Marine Corps. When a civilian uses the term "half-mast" instead of "half-staff," that person, in most cases, had some kind of tie to our Naval Services by either having served in it or being acquainted, raised by, or a related to someone who has, and so they naturally use the term because it is the jargon they learned or grew up with. But in any case, it is a term that has been around since the founding of our US Naval Services in 1775, and therefore the terms "half-mast" and "half-staff" have been synonymous in American culture for longer than our nation itself. Much like being able to pick out what part of our country someone is from by their accent, Navy and Marine Corps personnel (current or former) can be picked out by the jargon inserted into their normal conversations. To dismiss their use of the word "mast" because it is not the "legal term" would be like trying to make a southerner speak like a northerner because the northern accent is the "proper accent."

Frank Furtado, 22 May 2012

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