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War Ensign 1871-1919 (Germany)

imperial war ensign, kaiserliche kriegsflagge, later reichskriegsflagge

Last modified: 2012-09-05 by pete loeser
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War Ensign 1903-1919

[War Ensign 1903-1919 (Germany)]  3:5    Image by Carsten Linke
Flag adopted 26 Sep 1903, abolished 27 Sep 1919

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The war ensign (Reichskriegsflagge) from 1867 to 1919 was a white field, a black cross offset to the hoist fimbriated white and black with in its middle a white disc with the Prussian eagle, and a black-white-red flag with a black Iron Cross in the canton. There was a minor change in the eagle in 1892 and in the cross in 1903.
Norman Martin, 1998

In The World Encyclopedia of Flags by Znamierowski (1999) it shows three Imperial German Ensigns:

  • The first that of the North German Confederation dated 1867-1892
  • A second very similar, but with the new Prussian eagle dated 1892-1903 (below)
  • A third one with the same eagle and a wider cross dated 1903-1919 (below)
In Flags at Sea: A guide to the flags flown at sea by Wilson (1986) shows the first (the eagle is marginally different, but that is probably irrelevent) dated 1867-1903 and the third dated 1903-1921. This is wrong, since there is evidence of a real change in design of the eagle in 1892. The uncertainty between 1919 and 1921 is certainly due to the adoption of a new ensign in 1919 which most available evidence indicates was rarely or never actually used.
Norman Martin, 2000

In all three cases, the eagle was the Prussian eagle and therefore had the royal and not the imperial crown. The Iron cross in the canton is the same as in the jack - hence 5/9ths before 1903, and 226/333 thereafter. See also Proportions of the War Ensign and Jack 1871-1918.
Norman Martin, 23 May 2000

The Imperial Ensign was first adopted 4 July 1867 and put into use 1 October 1867. It was modified in 1892 and in 1903. Its use for war installations of the navy ashore and to sovereigns of German states was authorized in 2 March 1886 and later to authorities and installationsmof the army 8 November 1892. After the fall of the monarchy it was flown for political and sentimental reasons in the following years.
Norman Martin, 4 May 2001

War Ensign 1871-1892

[War Ensign 1867-1892 (Germany)]  3:5    Image by Jaume Ollé
Flag adopted 1867, abolished 19 Dec 1892

When the Empire was established in 1871, use of the Kriegsflagge (war ensign) of the North German League was maintained (despite the wording of the constitutional provision - Art. 55, "the flag of the navy and merchant fleet is black-white-red" — which one might think would require the black-white-red tricolor instead). By a Decree of 2 Mar 1886, its use was authorized for the rulers and princes of ruling houses of German states, for mayors of the Hansa cities, as well as for land installations of the Navy and coastal fortresses. By an Ordinance of 8 Nov 1892, its use was further extended to commands and installations of the Army. All of this was apparently confirmed by an Ordinance of 20 Jan 1893.
Source: my series of contributions to FOTW on the flags of the German Empire of 1998, much material from the article I wrote with Rüdiger Dreyhaupt (Martin and Dreyhaupt 1999) and some other material.
Norman Martin, 26 Jan 2001

War Ensign 1892-1903

  3:5    Image by Fornax
Flag adopted 19 Dec 1892, abolished 26 Sep 1903

In 1892 the Reichskriegflagge was modified, with small changes in the appearance of the eagle.
Voslapp, 11 Dec 1997

The 1892-1903 ensign (de-na92.gif) shows an incorrect eagle. The eagle should be the same as that shown for the 1903-1919 ensign.
Norman Martin, 19 May 2000

When in 1888, Wilhelm II succeeded to the throne, the eagles on the Prussian and Imperial arms were redesigned using what was believed to be a more heraldic rendition. By Imperial Order of 19 December 1892, the new version of the Prussian eagle replaced the earlier one in what by then was called the Deutsche- or Kaiserliche Kriegsflagge (and was later called the Reichskriegsflagge).
Source: my series of contributions to FOTW on the flags of the German Empire of 1998, much material from the article I wrote with Rüdiger Dreyhaupt (Martin and Dreyhaupt 1999) and some other material.
Illustrations (only major vexillological sources): Martin and Dreyhaupt 1999, no. 17; Crampton 1990, p. 42 (which is a copy of Meyers Konversationslexikon, 6 ed., vol. 4, facing p. 799) no. 2; Znamierowski 1999, p. 90; United States Navy 1899, p. 23. On the image in FOTW labelled "1892-1903 Ensign" the crown on eagle is in error, should be as in 1903 ensign.
Norman Martin, 26 Jan 2001

The change in the Reichskriegsflagge in 1892 seems to only concern the eagle - i.e. the replacement of the original Prussian eagle with the new (1888) one. This is also what the Flaggenkurier article (Martin and Dreyhaupt 1998) says. If I am correct, the jack and canton changed in 1903. It is hard to verify with certainty, especially since many illustrations of the Reichskriegsflagge have the Iron Cross slightly asymmetrically placed (in height) which must be incorrect, but makes it difficult to figure out exacly how. See also Proportions of the War Ensign and Jack 1871-1918.
Norman Martin, 27 Feb 2001

War Ensign 1903-1919

[War Ensign 1903-1919 (Germany)]  3:5    Image by Carsten Linke
Flag adopted 26 Sep 1903, abolished 27 Sep 1919

The iron cross in the 1903-1919 ensign is slightly small, it should be slightly more than 2/3rds (226/333) the height of the canton.
Norman Martin, 19 May 2000

This scan shows the Imperial war ensign as it appears in plate IX of Flaggenbuch 1939; there is however a post-1939 correction at the end of the facsimile Neubecker 1992 edition, according to which the dimension of 360 is the diameter of the white (inner) disc, that of its black fimbriation being 402. This correction is also shown in the detailed image of the eagle which can be seen in this scan. Neubecker 1992 also shows larger size details of the crown and sceptre.
Even though Flaggenbuch 1939 shows the 1933-1935 war ensign - theoretically identical to the 1903-1919 jack and to the canton of the 1903-1919 ensign - the size of the Iron Cross on the Imperial war ensign is shown as 240/315 which is more than 2/3rds, just over 3/4ths, whereas on the 1933-1935 war ensign the Iron Cross measures 226/333 of the flag's height (or 220/333ths not considering the white fimbriation around the cross). See also Proportions of the War Ensign and Jack 1871-1918.
Santiago Dotor, 23 May 2000

It should be noted that the reason behind the 1903 changes to the German war ensign - making the cross much thicker and setting a thick circle all round the eagle, instead of a partly interrupted circle - was the fact that it was ocassionally mistaken, at long distance and in bad weather conditions, with the British white ensign. Source: Neubecker 1939a.
Santiago Dotor, 25 Oct 2000

Allegedly as a result of an incident in which a Russian warship mistakenly raised the British white ensign to salute a German squadron, on 26 September 1903 both the ensign and the jack were changed. In that of the ensign, in addition to replacing the old with the new jack in the canton, increased the thickness of the overall cross as well as the border of the central disk.
Source: my series of contributions to FOTW on the flags of the German Empire of 1998, much material from the article I wrote with Rüdiger Dreyhaupt (Martin and Dreyhaupt 1999) and some other material.
Illustrations (only major vexillological sources): Martin and Dreyhaupt 1999, no. 17a; Crampton 1990, p. 43; Znamierowski 1999, p. 90; United States Navy 1899, p. 23; Smith 1975, p. 121; Flaggenbuch 1939, plate 9 (best rendition).
Norman Martin, 26 Jan 2001

War Ensign 1903-1919 (detail)

[War Ensign 1903-1919 (detail)]  Image by Martin Grieve
Flag adopted 26 Sep 1903, abolished 27 Sep 1919

Use of the Imperial War Ensign 1918-1921

     It is difficult to be definite about the closing date for the ensign. Clearly it was in use until the fall of the monarchy in November 1918. In the immediately following period, sometimes it was replaced by red flags. In December 1919, they were officially replaced by somewhat similarflags.
     Especially in the case of the ensign, it is unclear how much and even whether these new ensigns were used. It is clear that some free corps used the old ensigns, even though they were not technically able to do so under the old rules. Also, many (at least) Navy units (especially the 2nd Marinebrigade of Fregattenkapitän Ehrhardt - the core of the reactionary Kapp Putsch of 1920) for whom it was virtually used as a national flag. In any event by the Flag Ordinance of 1921, its use was clearly illegal by military and naval units starting 1 January 1922, and all authorities seem to agree that this time, the order was obeyed.
     From 1926-1944, the 1903 ensign was raised by the ships of the Navy on 31 May to commemorate the Battle of the Skagerrak (Battle of Jutland). It has also been used since World War Two by some neo-Nazi and other right extremist groups as a political symbol and has even been prohibited by some [federal] state governments. Starting 1921, the new jack and the new ensign were basically the old jack with a black-red-gold canton. On 14 Mar 1933, the cantons were removed, thus in the case of the jack restoring the 1903 jack and fixing the ensign as a larger version of the jack. Both were in turn abolished by the Sep 1935 flag law.
Source: my series of contributions to FOTW on the flags of the German Empire of 1998, much material from the article I wrote with Rüdiger Dreyhaupt (Martin and Dreyhaupt 1999) and some other material.
Norman Martin, 26 Jan 2001

     The following concerns a few uncertainties about the status of the German Reichskriegsflagge in the period between the fall of the monarchy in Nov 1918 and the adoption of the Reichskriegsflagge of 11 Apr 1921 (which was finally made permanent 1 Jan 1922). After the fall of the monarchy the Imperial Kriegsflagge was flown for political and sentimental reasons in the following years. After the creation of the provisional Reichswehr its continued use was authorized for the Navy by an ordinance on 16 Apr 1919. In addition, at least some of the units, particularly Freikorps units used the flag on the orders of their commanders.
     There appears to be some doubt as to the validity of this practice after the adoption of the Weimar constitution. At least, the 2nd Marine Brigade commanded by Lt Cdr (usually referred to as Kapitän) Ehrhardt (the Brigade Ehrhardt) flew this in their parades and over the castle which served as their headquarters and subsequently as their flag during the Kapp putsch which they spearheaded (of some 20 pictures of Kapp troops I have seen, 19 show the imperial Reichskriegsflagge, one the black-white-red tricolor. Some contemporary comment criticized Ehrhardt for this practice - of course, being contemporary is not necessarily the same as being correct. In any event, a new Reichskriegsflagge was adopted 27 Sep 1919 (made public 11 Nov 1919).
     According to Dreyhaupt 2000, p. 13, the production of this new flag was stopped shortly before the date for its use. In any event yet a third Reichskriegsflagge was adopted 11 Apr 1920 (effective 31 Jul 1920). The ordinance adopting this provided that the old flags could be until 1 Jan 1922. Many authorities specifically interpret this as providing for the use of the Imperial Kriegsflagge until that date. The puzzle is granting that there was assorted de facto use of the Reichskriegsflagge of 1903 until the end of 1920 (including some use by military and naval units), what was the official status during this period?
Norman Martin, 4 May 2001

I have a question about the Kaiserliche Kriegsflagge. I have never seen any photographs showing its use by the German army during World War I. Did the German army ever use the Imperial war flag/ensign in the period prior to 1919?
Devereaux Cannon, 21 Oct 2003

I also have seen a photograph (although only one) of the Reichskriegsflagge (literally I suppose State-war-flag/ensign) in use by a unit of the army, and would be interested in any regulations. As far as I know however, the Kaiserliche Kriegsflagge was only used by the Kriegsmarine, or at least, I too have never seen a photograph of its use elsewhere?
Christopher Southworth, 21 Oct 2003

The pre-1919 war ensign was only used by army units (or by military units ashore) in "overseas" locations. It was, for instance, in widespread use in the colonies. There are probably two reasons for the army not using this flag:
1. It was the dedicated flag for warships, such as the British white ensign, that is, as far as I know, also not used by army units.
2. Theoretically speaking there was no "German" army until the end of World War I, but only the armies of the constituent states of the Reich (Prussian army, Bavarian army, Württemberg army, etc.). The only common, "federal" military forces were the navy and the marines.
Marcus E.V. Schmöger, 21 Oct 2003

I agree with Marcus as far as the usage of the Imperial Reichskriegsflagge before 1919 (I don't have text on this). I should point out that it was used by people greeting returning troops in Berlin in the 1918-19 winter. It appears to outnumber its "competitors" (i.e. the black-white-red, Black-red-gold and red flags) in photos of the Pariserplatz of that period. Also it was the main flag used by the insurgent troops during the Kapp Putsch (although I have seen one or two with the black-white-red tricolor). Of course the largest and best-known of these units was nominally naval.
Norman Martin, 21 Oct 2003

As far as units in the colonies are concerned, then there is at least one article on the subject that I know of: JOLY, Wolfgang, 'Fahnen, Flaggen und Standarten deutscher Einheiten in Übersee 1885 bis 1918' in: Zeitschrift für Heereskunde 52 (1988) pp 61-7. The photos show the Reichskriegflagge and a n/w/r triband with the Imperial eagle on a white disc in the centre.
Ian Sumner, 22 Oct 2003

During 1978/9 I was an instructor at the SA Defence College in Pretoria and we paid several course visits to Windhoek, then still capital of South West Africa under South African administration, during this period. In the SA Army mess in the town, there was a framed German Imperial war ensign. The subtitle with this framed flag stated that the flag was captured from the German Schutztruppen when General Louis Botha drove them from the town with the SA Army in early 1915. This would confirm Marcus's statement above and answer the original question of whether the flag was ever used ashore. I regret to report that my vexillological sensitivity was not yet well developed at that time and I cannot now say what happened to this very historical item when the SA forces withdrew from SWA when the territory gained independence as Namibia in 1990.
Andre Burgers, 21 Oct 2003

False War Ensign 1990

      Image by Pete Loeser

This Reichskriegsflagge was originally displayed at the German reunification celebrations in 1990, then described as a self-made flag. It is shown in a picture that is part of the Deutsches Bundesarchiv collection (German Federal Archive - Bild 183-1990-1003-004). Since then replicas have been available for purchase on several websites on the internet.
Jim Ferrigan, March 2010

Image from German Federal Archive, 3 October 1990

Because members of the far right have been using the Imperial War Flags as a symbol, its use is considered to be a "breach of the public order" in seven of the German Länder and the flags are confiscated when seen in public places. In the other nine Länder, any provocative misuse of the flag can be persecuted as a misdemeanor (ordnungswidrigkeit). We are informed that the "False War Ensign" has become popular among football fans in Germany and reportedly can be seen at some German football events. In short, it is used by football fans and, sometimes, unfortunately, by neo-Nazis.
Pete Loeser, 14 March 2010

     To someone not interested in flags this would seem a possible variation of a First World War German Ensign. It's actually different from any known version. The only two descriptions I can recall for it that are more explicit about it are: "Ensign of the North German Federation, without Eagle;" and "Simplified Imperial German Ensign." However, as we know these two original flags, it's neither, as neither would result in red lines accompanying the cross.
     As one doesn't accidentally end up with red lines when creating a black cross, they would likely be an intentional part of the design. Now, this could be to create a black-white-red edge, for North Germany, suggesting the design was indeed intended for the Ensign of the North German Federation, as a less Prusian alternative. But I fear the red lines might also represent the red field of a different German War Ensign, whose central symbol can not be included as it's forbidden since the Second World War.
     What the flag is unfortunately used for, on the other hand, most people agree on - as an alternative, for right-extremists, for Nazi flags. In Germany today, in addition to Nazi flags being banned, flags from the Kaiserreich era are also banned, notably the German naval ensign. If that's so, then in Germany this redesign would be the only way to fly such an alternative.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 30 June 2010

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