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Austro-Hungarian Empire: War Ensigns

Last modified: 2014-04-12 by rob raeside
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War Ensign of 1880-1915 (Kriegsflagge)

[Austria-Hungary War Ensign]  by Željko Heimer, 22 September 1996

The flag above (officially the "Kriegsflagge") was specified in 1880 and was a slight modification of the Kriegsflagge of 1786, so that 1880 or 1786 might arguably be regarded as the date of adoption.
Norman Martin, 11 October 2001

This flag was used as the War Ensign and Jack from 1880 to 1915, but previously was used as the merchant ensign (Handelsflagge) until 1867.
Željko Heimer, 15 October 2001

As jack and boat-flag (Bug- und Boots-Flagge) this flag had a ratio of 4:5.
Marco Pribilla, 11 October 2001

Actually the Austro-Hungarian War Flag was used during World War II as well! It was flown by the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (though only once due to the war) that took the tradition of the Austro-Hungarian Navy by an order dated 12 June 1940.
Source: John R. Angola & Adolf Schlicht - Die Kriegsmarine: Uniforms & Traditions Vol 3
Marcus Wendel, 16 October 2000

1915-1918 War Ensign (Kriegsflagge) and Jack (Gösch

[Austria-Hungary War Ensign]  2:3, by Željko Heimer

Version in ratio 2:3, with full Hungarian arms, according to the source: P. Diem (1995): Die Symbole Österreichs, Wien
Željko Heimer, 22 September 1996

[Austria-Hungary War Ensign]  1:2, by Željko Heimer

Version from the book "Horthy - a tengerész" (Horthy - the Sailor) by Dr. Károly Csonkaréti (Zrínyi Kiadó, Budapest 1993) I have found a copy of the decree for the new Austro-Hungarian naval ensign signed by emperor Franz Joseph I on 11 October 1915, with a black-and-white image attached. In this the Hungarian crowned coat of arms consists only of the dexter half, i.e. the silver-red striped part. The ratio of the flag is 1:2, not 2:3. The decree also suggests that the old flags are only to be replaced gradually after they are worn out, not immediately. Note the missing yellow fimbriation of the Hungarian coat of arms as well as the more rounded form of the shields, all according to the image in the decree.
Marco Pribilla, 11 October 2001

Marco Pribilla obtained from the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Military Museum) of Vienna a reprint of a flag chart with the title "Dienst-Flaggen und Standarten der k.u.k. Kriegs-Marine, Wien 1896 (Nachtrag 1902)". The 1:2 version of the Austro-Hungarian war ensign shown here is based on this reproductoin.  Note that the flag is in the ratio 1:2, the second coat of arms is Hungary Ancient only (barry Gules and Argent) topped with the crown of St. Stephen. The crown has a curved lower edge similar to the crown on the Austrian shield at the hoist, but it has much more details the the hoist crown which is basically the same one as used on war ensign until 1915. Both shields overlie the lower red stripe and are more curved (and not as more often depicted almost horizontal edges with protruding points in the middle), and the Hungary ancient shield does not have any golden outline as the Austrian one has.

The whole construction looks somewhat "stretched" (not in the sense of elongating material), or "unbalanced" to me and if any flag was ever made to fit these new prescriptions, I wonder if it was not made more "balanced" - e.g. giving yellow border to both shields (or to none), simplifying the Szent Korona ("Holy Crown", i.e., St. Stephen's Crown), and probably making the flag in (what is more usual for this region) a 2:3 naval ratio. But, of course, that is quite a speculation. Unless we get some proof that such flag was ever made, I guess we can say is "probably such a flag was never used" until the end of the WW1, when it was abandoned.
Željko Heimer, 29 October 2001

This rendition differs from that in Baumgartner [bmg77] in a number of ways: in Baumgartner:
1. The dimensions are 2:3
2. Both shields are gold bordered
3. The Hungarian shield is almost at the center
4. The Austrian Crown is the (Austrian) imperial crown-as e.g. the imperial standard
Overall, the Baumgartner rendition is more balanced.
Norman Martin, 30 October 2001

Diem (1995) wrote about the white pearls in the crown of the war ensign: ""The originally 30 pearls of the war flag, however, became in the course of the decades 18 which were supposed to symbolize the Crown Lands."

Text of decree, 11 October 1915 (translated from Hungarian by Marco Pribilla)

Army and Naval Order

As to its colours unchanged naval ensign the ancient Hungarian red-and-white coat of arms is to be shown next to the coat of arms of the "Austrian House". 

These orders are to be to the most distant times as living proof of the self-sacrificing and gladly co-operating force of all the Monarchy's peoples, which is so nobly manifested in the victorious heroic deeds accomplished by my Army and Navy in this
current war.

To the Flag and the Naval Ensign shall always sound the renewing oath of the soldiers: that with united forces they shall defend, and rock-solidly they shall protect the connection of Austria-Hungary with my House.

The current flags, which are the witnesses of the many times proven military virtues of my Army, shall remain with their regiments and be replaced by the new ones only according to appearing need. The existing flag ribbons remain in the use they are meant for.

The new command flags are to be used after their completion.

On a day yet to be decided, at the same hour, the navy shall hoist the Ensign, which will take over every glorious tradition of my Fleet.

All matters necessary for the execution of the above I entrust to my Minister of Defense and the Commander of my Navy.

Issued in Vienna, on October 11th in the year 1915.
Francis Joseph

Marco Pribilla, 11 October 2001

Baumgartner has references to the Normalverordnungsblatt für die k.u.k. Kriegsmarine, 48. Stück, 12 Oktober 1915 and Normalverordnungsblatt für die k.u.k. Kriegsmarine, 26. Stück, 25. Juli 1916. It is not clear how much description of the flags these contain. Considering the politics of Austria-Hungary, it appears to me incredible that there was an Hungarian, but no German text of the 1915 edict.
Norman Martin, 2 December 2001

Contemporary reports

Here is a webpage about the k.u.k. Kriegsmarine, the Austro-Hungarian Navy, written partly in English and partly in (apparently) Hungarian: It contains charts of its signal flags over the years, in addition to
the ensigns and rank flag.
Miles Li, 15 March 2008

Just as a curiosity, take notice on the page at describing the battle of Lissa (today Vis) of 1866. There is a number of interesting illustrations there, but what I wanted to pointed out are the series of various illustration depicting the battle issued in various newspapers world wide. Obviously, photographs were still not part of the usual journalist method, but various editors at the time employed illustrators (some of whom are known for being masterful artists remembered today). However, the journalists, editors and illustrators of the period were just as ignorant to the flag as some of them are still today :)

There are at least two drawings showing the Austrian ships flying the flags with black double-headed eagles - a practice that was not customarily for almost a century before the battle!!!

On an other lithograph, by Kollarz, the flag atop a ship is red-white-green horizontal tricolour. Presumably this depicts an Italian ship, but at least one would expect Kollarz to know better - a lithographer from Vienna, where the hot issue of Hungarian flag devised in 1848 must have been heard of (Kollarz was lithographing many scenes from the 1848 revolution in Vienna as well). I seriously doubt that Kollarz was implying that there was a Hungarian flag on any of the Austria-Hungarian ships in the battle. Although the country was already dualized, the Navy was not (at last not in regard to symbols), and would certainly not permit such flag aboard.

The ships from the battle are well documented in various sources, and there is no doubt as to what flags were used - the red-white-red Austrian on the one side and red-white-green vertical Italian tricolours on the other (each with the coat of arms).

Some of the drawings show us sets of signal flags on some ships - in view of the above, I guess we should not take those signal flags very seriously - at least not in those drawing that obviously have incorrect naval ensigns.

A few other tidbits worth of mentioning:

Photo of the church of St. George on the islet of the same name (S. Giorgio given in the photo - today named Sveti Juraj in Croatian and Sveti Đorđe in Serbian/Montenegrin) - a natural island in front of the port of Perast in the Bay of Cattaro. Unlike the neighbouring small island Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks) with a sanctuary to the Lady protecting the sailors that was artificially built (by throwing stones in the sea as part of the custom for a long period, and finally by building a church on it) - the island of Sv. Jurjaj is a natural island and a church of St. George was built upon it. A Benedictine monastery was there already in 9th century. The church was rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1667, with graves of the families of Perast (with lots of heraldic monuments in it), acting as the city graveyard until 1866. Throughout its history it was also used as a naval fortress. How it looks today, see at (to the left, the right island is Our Lady of the Rocks)

Obviously, the Church of St. George on the island had specific meaning for the Austrian-Hungarian Navy, or marines in general. The photo shows it when it is ornamented with a hoist of numerous flags. Most of them the Austro-Hungarian naval ensigns, but others as well. The US flag is clearly visible at the top of the docks. There is a Swedish-Norwegian union flag (jack) there in the middle (to the right of the main dome).

To the right of the US flag, near the entrance to the church is a flag very much like the current flag of Georgia - white with a cross and four crosslets - probably denoting the church patron St. George. The foremost flag in the photo is a white flag depicting a saint. I am guessing that this may be St. Tripun, the patron of the Bay of Cattaro Marines (Bokeljska mornarica) - the association of merchant marines from Kotor and Perast.

The topmost flag is hard to interpret from the photo - it is possibly an other flag depicting a saint, maybe depicting St. George slaying a dragon.

Also, there is a flag above the Swedish-Norwegian and mostly behind the largest Austro-Hungarian flag in the photo. The flag seems to be a horizontal tricolour. I am ready to assume that it was the Croatian tricolour (the people of Perats and Kotor were all Croats at the time), but it may be quite a few others - Hungarian or Dutch (as it seems that the top stripe is of equal shade as the red stripes in nearby Austrian ensigns), but weather the bottom stripe is blue or green, it would be hard to say - but it is obviously different from the top one.

Can you find any other flag there?

Another photo I was going to mention is at The foremost ship is SMS Reka of Huszar Class moored in Pula port, and behind it a few other ships of the same class: SMS Pandur, SMS Scharfschütze, SMS Dinara, followed by a dozen of smaller ships all in an orderly fashion, and all ornamented with what look like the flag gala (dressed ship) - however, it is none of the sort - these are the sailor's laundry being aired!!!
Željko Heimer, 15 March 2008