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Flags on the ground


Last modified: 1999-09-23 by phil nelson
Keywords: flags | ground | salute | vailing |
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I noticed that the regiment present (I believe it is the RCR, the Royal Canadian Regiment), had its flag on the ground when the Governor-General walked by. Being taught that a flag is never to touch the ground, can anybody tell me whether this is military practice?
Rich Hansen July 1999

That was probably the regimental colour of either The Governor General's Foot Guards or The Canadian Grenadier Guards (these two regiments do most of the ceremonial parading on Parliament Hill). For guards regiments, the National Flag with one of the company badges on the maple leaf forms the basis for the regimental colour. I can't remember what the Queen's colours look like. Are they crimson with the royal crest?

This touching of flags to the ground as a salute is also done on Remembrance Day: the flags carried by the veterans are slowly lowered to the ground while "The Last Post" is being played; they remain there during the moment of silence and the lament; then they are quickly raised during "Reveille".
Dean Tiegs, 04 July 1999

The lowering of flags to the ground in salute goes back to at least the late 16th century, and used to be called "vailing". On the march the flag is lowered perpendicular to the body of the ensign (flag bearer). Standing troops lower their flag so that the pike touches the ground, and this is usually done with a flourish so that the flag drapes flat on the ground. The only modern concession the British have made is for the ensign to loosely roll the flag on the pike if the ground is wet in order to minimise soiling.

This is probably the most common form of salute for marching troops in the world, but Americans are usually stunned or horrified when they see it for the first time because they have been conditioned by the idea that the American flag dips to no man (sometimes to the consternation of foreign heads of state who do not understand this American custom and take it as a personal insult), and that if the American flag has touched the ground it must be burned. These American customs are not only "foreign" to most of the world, but basically the opposite of normal usage. (Tom G can correct me, but I believe non-national colours in the US armed forces dip about 45 degrees in salute rather than the British 90 degrees.)

"Public duties" in Ottawa are closely modeled on the British, and are performed by the Ceremonial Guard, which consists of one company of the Governor General's Foot Guards and one company of the Canadian Grenadier Guards, plus the eremonial Guard Band.

The Regimental Colour of the GGFG can be seen at:

The Regimental Colour of the CGG can be seen at:

The Canadian Army copies the British with regard to Colours for the Guards regiments. While the national Colour is normally called the Queen's Colour, in the Guards this is reversed and it is called the Regimental Colour. The Queen's Colours in the Guards are crimson.

In the Commonwealth, Colours are dipped for the Sovereign, some other members of the royal family, representatives of the Sovereign (viceroys, high commissioners, governors, etc.), foreign sovereigns, and field marshals (but Guards do not dip to them unless they also happen to be the Colonel of the regiment). There are also occasions when a General Salute is given in honour of the Sovereign without any representative necessarily present. No distinction is made between national and regimental Colours when salutes are required. In the 17th century ensigns would dip Colours to important generals, and in addition would kneel for the Sovereign or a Prince.
T.F. Mills, 05 July 1999

US military practice is (1) that the National Color is never lowered in salute and (2) that all other flags and colors are lowered from the vertical carry position to an angle of about 45 degrees from the body, without touching the ground. The exact angle is more or less dictated by the size of the flag.

When a guidon is lowered in salute, the staff is brought parallel to the ground; since the guidon is only 27 inches on the fly, this can be done without its touching the ground.
Tom Gregg, 05 July 1999

For those into ceremonial details, following is from the 1950 British War Office publication entitled "Ceremonial," p. 65. It describes precisely what happens in a British or Commonwealth (or other British influenced) flag salute:

13. To lower the colour at the halt On the caution "Royal Salute", the colour will be let fly.
1st Motion.--Raise the colour pike just clear of the socket of the belt.
2nd Motion,--Lower the colour.

Carry the colour well to the right and lower it with a sweeping motion to a position in front of and in line with the right toe, the head of the pike just clear of the ground, the colour being spread on the ground and to the right of the pike.

If a strong wind is blowing from the right, carry the colour well to the left and lower it with a sweeping motion to a position in front of and in line with the right toe, the colour being spread to the left of the pike.The pike should be held under the right armpit, the back of the hand towards the ground, and the right elbow close to the body.

Joseph McMillan, 06 July 1999

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