The Australian Red Ensign

Myths and Facts

Our opponents in this debate like to rewrite history and pretend that our current national flag - the blue Australian ensign - has been our national flag forever and that people have "fought and died" for it. This is one of their prime arguments against change, and they use it very emotively. They ignore the Red Ensign, despite its overwhelming use in Australia and overseas during the first half of the 20th century.

There are many problems with this argument. The first is that the blue ensign became Australia′s national flag only in 1954. Prior to that date, its use by ordinary citizens was strongly and actively discouraged. The blue flag was not some glorious and romantic flag of the people, but an instrument of Government, much like the Coat of Arms.

This meant that the public didn′t officially have a flag to fly other than the Union Jack, which is what many people did. In this official vacuum, if anyone wanted a more Australian symbol they used the red ensign as a de-facto Civil Flag. It was not strictly correct, but it happened at every level of the community, including the Armed Services.

The second problem with this argument is that members of the Armed Services in Australia never "fought and died" for a flag anyway. They fought and died for our country - a subtle but important difference.

The third problem is that there is a wealth of pictorial evidence which proves that the red ensign was the flag which both the public and members of the Armed Services overwhelmingly related to and "adopted" as Australia′s de-facto national flag prior to 1954. This period of course includes both World War I and World War II.

In fact, in 1967, prime minister Robert Menzies wrote in his book Afternoon Light, Some Memories of Men and Events

"In the year of my birth 1894 - Queen Victoria was on the throne of the United Kingdom and Ireland and the Dominions and Colonies beyond the Seas... For us, the maps of the world were patterned with great areas of red, at a time when red was a respectable colour."

It seems clear Menzies′ arbitrary changing in 1954 of the then popular Red Ensign to blue, without consulting the Australian people, was for blatant political purposes in his campaign against the "red" communist peril.

Finally, if you don′t believe that the anti-change brigade rewrite history, have a look at the example below.


derrick

This image is the original image held by the Australian War Museum of Sergeant T.C. Derrick (DCM, and later VC) of Adelaide raising the Red Ensign at Sattleberg in Papua New Guinea on 3 December 1943.

Sergeant Derrick led a South Australian Unit in a successful attack against the Japanese held village of Sattleberg, and hoisted an Australian Flag.

Derrick′s biographer interviewed men who were there and confirmed that it was a Red Ensign.


fighting

This is the same image used on the cover of the book Five Fighting Years. What you wouldn′t realise by looking at this, and what they don′t tell you, is that the original red ensign has been obliterated by a hand-drawn colour image of the Blue Ensign.

For many anti-flag changers, the real history of the Australian flag is terribly inconvenient for their argument. When it doesn′t suit their "patriotic" purposes to be historically accurate, they merely invent something more suitable.


The best indication of what the soldiers themselves thought is in the ensigns that are on display at the Australian War Memorial and the RAAF Museum. In the Australian War Memorial, the red ensigns on display outnumber the blue ensigns in the World War I period by about ten to one.

Look at all the following images and draw your own conclusion.

australian-flag-mythology

Most of this material is courtesy of Ted Harris of the Digger History website, reproduced with permission.


Marching infront of old parliament house

Not a Blue Ensign within cooee

Opening of Federal Parliament at Canberra, 9 May 1927. Note that the Australian flags are Red Ensigns. Septimus Power (1878-1951) Historic Memorials Collection, Canberra. Courtesy of the Parliament House Art Collection, Department of Parliamentary Services, Canberra ACT


Tea Towel

This 1916 "souvenir" tea towel depicting scenes from the Dardanelles clearly shows an Australian Red Ensign.


Recruiting poster

Red Ensign being used alongside the Union Jack in AIF recruiting (Maryborough, Victoria).


Red Ensign Flag

A WWI Australian Red Ensign overlaid with "The Famous Battlefields of the Australian Forces". Each of the stars is labelled with a country or campaign name:

  • Gallipoli
  • Egypt
  • France
  • Flanders
  • New Guinea
  • Palestine


Red Ensign Flag

Cloth embroidered with a King′s crown with the British and Australian (Red Ensign) flags on either side. The crown is surrounded by a green wreath and two scrolls, one at the top and one at the bottom.

These scrolls contain the words ′FOR ENGLAND HOME AND BEAUTY/AUSTRALIA WILL BE THERE′.Associated with 6311 Private Alfred Samuel Smart. Smart enlisted on 6 April 1916 and served with 19 Battalion. He returned to Australia on 30 January 1918


Red Flag 1

Autographed Australian red ensign carried by NX17521 Corporal W E Watson as a POW in Greece, and later in New Guinea. NX17521 Corporal William Edward Watson served with 6 Division AAOC and 7 Division Provost Company. He was captured on Crete on 1 June 1941, shipped to Athens and then Salonika. He escaped from Salonika on 29 June 1941, joined up with other POW escapees and hid in the Greek mountains until 1942, when he successfully escaped by boat to Turkey on 5 May 1942. Watson was discharged medically unfit on his return to Australia and subsequently joined the American Small Boats Division, serving in New Guinea. He was awarded the Military Medal for ′courage and perseverance in escapes from POW camps′.

In 1914, Watson′s father, who had served with a British Regiment before emigrating to Australia, was farewelled by the Australian Attorney General W M ′Billy′ Hughes (later Prime Minister) as he returned to Britain with other Imperial Reservists for service in the First World War. Hughes presented Watson with an Australian red ensign which he carried with him throughout the war. Watson claimed that it was the first Australian flag to be flown in France during the war, and on his safe return to Australia presented it to the Australian War Museum (later War Memorial) for display. His son, W E Watson, asked that the flag be returned to him to carry during his service in the Second World War, but his request was refused.

Watson then applied to Billy Hughes, who was again Attorney General, for another flag, and this red ensign is the one that Hughes sent to him, together with the words, ′I would like to say that it is my earnest prayer that you will be spared to carry it triumphantly throughout this present conflict. You will bear it through lands where the valorous tradition of the A.I.F. is a by-word. I know that this glorious heritage will be safe in the keeping of Australia′s sons of the 2nd A.I.F.′. Watson junior carried it throughout his service in Egypt, concealed it during his captivity in Crete and Greece, and again carried it during his service in New Guinea.


Red Flag 2

This ensign was presented to the Imperial Reservists who left Australia in 1914, by the Honourable W M ′Billy′ Hughes, then Attorney General and later Prime Minister, and personally handed to Corporal Edward Dawson Watson of the East Lancashire Regiment. The Imperial Reservists were men who had recently served with a British Regiment before emigrating to Australia. On the outbreak of the First World War they were recalled to serve with their old units and sailed in the first troop convoy to leave Australia. Dawson took the flag to England and France, and carried it during the retreat from Mons.

After a spell in England he took it back to France in March 1917. Watson remained in France until the German Advance in March 1918, when he was wounded. He brought the flag back to Australia in 1919. Watson claimed that it was the was the first Australian flag to fly in France during the First World War, however the NSW Volunteer Ambulance Unit may also have carried one in France in 1914.

Watson presented the flag to the Australian War Museum (later War Memorial) in 1925 on the condition that it be returned to him for each year′s Anzac Day march. He died shortly after Anzac Day in 1934 and the flag has been part of the War Memorial′s permanent collection since this date.


Red Flag 3

William Pearson Tewksbury, a successful Melbourne businessman, conceived the idea of raising funds for wounded Australian soldiers by raffling a flag autographed by the world′s most famous men, including national and war leaders, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Prime Minister W M Hughes and General Monash.

The flag was sent around the world to obtain the signatures and 20,000 pounds was raised from the raffle. The flag was advertised as the ′Kitchener Flag′. It was won by a retired seaman who sold it to Edward Solomon, a Melbourne philanthropist and collector, who had already purchased other autographed flags at fund raising auctions for the war effort. Solomon later presented his entire autographed flag collection, which he had acquired during the First World War, to the Australian War Memorial.

During the Second World War William Tewkesbury again raised funds for wounded soldiers by raffling an autographed flag known as the ′Churchill Flag′, this time raising 28,000 pounds.


Barr Flag

Printed cotton Australian red ensign signed in black from ′The One Woman / One Recruit League′. Union Jack has recipient′s name, ′25/14′ and ′AU-REVOIR′ applied in ink. Each of the five stars of the Southern Cross are also signed: ′Bon Voyage′, ′A Speedy Return′, ′To Dear Australia′, ′May Victory be Yours′, ′ We are proud of you′. The six pointed star is signed: ′As you carry this flag into / far distant land / Remember kind thoughts / blessings, good wishes / and God speed follow You / From / The One WOMAN / One RECRUIT League′.

7441 Private Percy Vernon Barr, a labourer of Mirboo North, Victoria, enlisted on 25 June 1917 at age 30 and embarked for overseas service aboard HMAT Nestor on 21 November 1917 as a member of the 25th reinforcements of the 14th Battalion. He was wounded in France on 18 September 1918 and returned to Australia on 2 February 1919. This Red Ensign was presented to him upon his embarkation by an anonymous donor simply signed as ′The One Woman One Recruit League′, for which no information exists. Speculatively, the ′The One Woman One Recruit League′ may have been his wife, Clara. Percy Barr carried this flag with him during his active service in France and his return to Australia. It remained a significant relic for his family. His grandson Ross recalls that it was used during the Royal visit to Australia in 1954, when he and some mates travelled some 60 km from Korumburra to Warragul in the back of a ute to see the Queen, waving this flag, which was wired to a rough pole. The subsequent repairs were made by Ross′s mother on a sewing machine.


1917 Postcard

1917 postcard sent from UK to Australia.


Victory Assorted Toffees

Murray′s "V" for Victory Assorted Toffees, circa 1943.


Red Ensign Flag

Murray′s "V" for Victory Assorted Toffees, circa 1943.


Red Ensign Dog Flag

Framed moulded-paper bulldog mascot superimposed on an Australian red ensign: Private P J Bradshaw, 6 Battalion, AIF.

Associated with 713 Private Percival James Bradshaw, 6 Battalion AIF. He enlisted on 24 February 1917, served on the Western Front, and returned to Australia on 13 July 1919. He acquired the mascot from the battalion sergeants′ mess when he was an orderly.


Sullivan

NX55941 Coproral Edward Gordon Patrick ′Pat′ Sullivan was born in Deniliquin, NSW, in 1902. He enlisted for service in the Second Word War on 1 July 1940 and was assigned to 2/18 Battalion. The battalion sailed to Malaya with 8 Division and subsequently took part in the fight against the Japanese before the fall of Singapore in February 1942, when all the survivors were taken prisoner. Sullivan quickly realised that he would need a hobby to occupy his mind rather than giving way to depression. A friend from 2/9 Field Ambulance gave him a bag of embroidery cottons he had found during the fighting in Singapore. Another prisoner showed him some basic embroidery stitches and helped him with his first attempts at needlework. All the designs on his embroideries were his own work.

The Commonwealth Bank cash bag came from the paymaster of 2/18 Battalion. Sullivan intended this bag to be an embroiderer′s work bag after he had completed it. Work on the bag took several months to complete. A cushion cover and a tablecloth were the first works to be finished. Sullivan had a single needle which he carried in an improvised bamboo case. His embroidery was carried out in spare time when he was not required to work by the Japanese, both in Changi and on the Burma-Thailand Railway. A British officer intervened when the Japanese attempted to confiscate one of the embroideries Sullivan was working on, and fellow Australians also helped to conceal his work during other Japanese searches.


Turner

NX3048 Sergeant Richard Sydney Turner was born in Sydney in 1916. He enlisted on 28 October 1939 and served with 6 Division Supply Column, Australian Army Service Corps. After service in Africa he was captured by the Germans near Megara during the Greek campaign in June 1941, but escaped from the train taking him to Germany. He was initially sheltered by the Greeks but this became too dangerous when Italian troops offered large rewards for the capture of Allied soldiers and threatened to shoot anyone harbouring them.

Turner and a companion hid in the mountains south of Thessaly during the winter of 1941-1942. Weak from malnutrition and malaria he was considering of giving himself up when he met Ioannis Kallinikos from the village of Livanatas, who sheltered him for the next year and a half. Turner joined the Greek resistance in the summer of 1943 and led a band of fifty Greek andartes. He later joined the British Military Mission in Greece (Force 133), which operated behind German lines. He was awarded the Military Medal for his endurance and service in Greece. Turner was killed by Greek communist insurgents, during the civil war which broke out in Greece following the withdrawal of the Axis forces, on 17 December 1944 while in a truck on his way to Athens airport to be repatriated to Australia. Turner carried this small flag throughout his service in North Africa and Greece.


Turner

This poster, circa 1916, clearly shows that the Red Ensign was used extensively in semi-official advertising.


Story of Anzac book cover

The Red Ensign was chosen as the cover of this 1917 book


Fund raising for the wounded

This Digger is clearly holding an Australian Red Ensign. Badges like this were sold in South Australia (and elsewhere) to raise funds for the support and comfort of wounded ANZACs of WW1.


Anti-German League

Anti-German League pin-back badge circa 1915.


Liberty Stamps
RSS & AILA

These WW1 Liberty Loan stamps clearly show the Red Ensign as does the 1942 RSS&AILA advertising above.


Red Ensign Hughes

Cardboard Australian flag improvised for the visit of Prime Minister W M Hughes to France : 7 Infantry Brigade, AIF. Made by the staff of 7 Infantry Brigade Headquarters on the occasion of Prime Minister W M Hughes′ visit Australian troops in France in 1918.


WW2 Birthday cards
WW2 Birthday card

A WW2 birthday card showing a sailor, a nurse, an airman and (on the inside) a Digger and another nurse all showing the Red Ensign. The twin quotations are "There will always be an England" & "Advance Australia".


Tasmania Red Ensign

This is believed to be the Tasmanian Red Ensign of 1875, which corresponds to the very short-lived original Tasmanian Blue Ensign.


Certificate to Whitehart

J.J. Whitehart served with the 2nd Ninth Battalion 2nd AIF at the Siege of Tobruk. Even a quick look will show that the Australian Red Ensign has a place of pride on this document.


Booklet produced in WW2

The Red Ensign makes another showing on this booklet produced in WW2 to explain the various insignia used in Australia by various bodies including the USN, US Army & USAAF


Ki
Patriotic Cloth

Printed cotton patriotic cloth. The cloth is surrounded by a pale blue border and headed by the words ′A SOUVENIR OF THE GREAT WAR′. To the left of this heading is an airship, to the right is a biplane. In the centre of the heading is a portrait of Lord Kitchener. On either side and slightly lower are portraits of General French and General Joffre. Below Lord Kitchener is a portrait of Grand Duke Nicholas. A calvary charge is depicted to to the left of these portraits while to the right an artillery attack is printed. In each corner are larger portraits of King George V, the Czar of Russia, the King of Belguim, with a burning town behind him, and President Poincare.

Printed clockwise around the cloth are portraits of the King of Servia with a flag behind it, General Botha with a mounted soldier and red ensign on either side, General Smith Dorrien, General D Henderson with an aeroplane behind it, General Allenby, Colonel Sam Hughes with two infantry soldiers and a red ensign on either side, General Leman, Lord Landsdown, Rear Admiral Beatty, Hon. W Churchill and Lord Fisher with an anchor between them, Admiral Jellicoe, General Douglas Haig, Sir Edward Grey and Hon. A Bonar Law with a ship and the flags of Australia and New Zealand behind them, (note the Australian flag is depicted as an Australian Red Ensign) Hon. H H Asquith, Lord Roberts with two soldiers on either side, Maharajah of Behar, Viceroy of India with a red ensign and an elephant on either side and Mikado in front of a Japanese flag.

In the centre of the cloth is a piece of paper with signatures and red seals printed in front of the flags of the United Kingdom, Belgium, France and possibly Imperial Russia. Behind the flags is a sun with the words ′LIBERTY & PEACE′ written near the top. At the base of the paper is a lion and a scroll with the words ′OUR WORD IS OUR BOND′. To the left of the flags are French soldiers manning a field gun. To the right is a mounted Indian soldier. Below the centre image is depicted a fleet of warships with aeroplanes flying above them.


NZ organised Anzac Show

A NZ organised Anzac Show uses the Australian Red Ensign on the programme.


Memorial Thank you card

This shows the use of the Red Ensign on a Memorial Thankyou card for a fallen soldier.


match box protector
match box protector

This AIF "match-safe" or match box protector from WW1 clearly shows the use of the Red Ensign was common, far more common than the use of the Blue Ensign.


Arthur Skyring flag

Acquired in Glasgow on 11 November 1918, the day the Armistice was signed, by 1378 Corporal Arthur William Skyring, of 4 Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company, AIF.


Victory parade

Acquired in London on 12 November 1918, the day after the Armistice was signed, by 1378 Corporal Arthur William Skyring, of 4 Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company, AIF.

It was hard to obtain Australian flags in Britain during the First World War and this very small example was all that Skyring could find in London.


Patriotic Carnival

Queensland Public Service Patriotic Carnival at the Exhibition Grounds, 12 October 1918. "To assist our Soldier Boys, their Wives & Dependants".


421324 Flying Officer RAAF

Associated with 421324 Flying Officer Morris Dolf Freudenstein RAAF, who served with 640 Squadron RAF (Wellington Bombers) during World War Two. It is claimed he carried the ensign whilst on operations.


Dont Run Poster

"These Colours Don′t Run"
Poster by Department of Munitions, Melbourne 1942. Screen-printed in black, blue and red on white.

It was hard to obtain Australian flags in Britain during the First World War and this very small example was all that Skyring could find in London.


To my aunty postcard

Unusual WWI Postcard with the embossed words on front "To My Aunt From Camp", followed by the written words "with love from Bob and Bill".

The back reads: "Dear Auntie & Uncle Just a few lines to let you know that I am still alive. Cousin Jack is looking after us very well. We stayed out at his place last Saturday night and enjoyed ourselves. Well this is all I have to say. So Goodnight. I remain your loving nephew. Bill & Bob".


Join The Colours Poster
Auld Lang Syne

Australian Red Ensign. USA National Flag, Union Flag of UK. AIF Recruiting poster, circa 1917. Australia will be there (with a Red Ensign).


Australian Comforts Fund pin

Australian Comforts Fund pin back button with the Red Ensign in the background, 1918.


Hindley St Decoration Committee

Hindley St Decoration Committee for the visit by the Prince of Wales (with Red Ensign).


Corop Peace Day
1917 Australia Day pin

Australian Comforts Fund pin back button with the Red Ensign in the background, 1918.


America Day badge

America Day badge (with Red Ensign).


Aust. Comforts Fund Appeal badge

Aust. Comforts Fund Appeal badge with Red Ensign.


Great White Fleet

This 1908 souvenir of the visit of the American "Great White Fleet" to Australia shows the Red Ensign (with the original 6 point Federation Star).

The fleet and its hosts had nothing to do with the Merchant Navy so it is just another example of the Red Ensign being used as a Civil Flag.


certificate to Private Albert Sherlock

14th Battalion AIF certificate to Private Albert Sherlock for Great War service clearly showing the Red Ensign along with an (authorised) photo of King George V.


catalogue for a piano solo march

This 1916 catalogue for a piano solo march honouring the Anzacs clearly shows an Australian Red Ensign, stylized in the same or similar manner to that applied to the other national flags.


Tribute To The Australian Forces

The Allied Commander Pays The Highest Tribute To The Australian Forces

On November 7th 1920 the remains of an Australian soldier and a French soldier were buried in the Amiens Cathedral. The Bishop of Amiens and Marshal Foch expressed themselves thus:

The Bishop of Amiens: "We bow to you, Messieurs les Australiens, for the magnificent deeds that you did in those days, now happily at an end, for your country and for France, and for the victory of hope and sanity. The soil of France is transfigured to a new divinity by your sacrifices. In the whole of history we cannot find an army more marvellous in it′s bravery, and in the war there was none that contributed more nobly to the final triumph".

Marshal Foch: "We intend today in Amiens to express to you and the Commonwealth of Australia our gratitude......Our aspirations and our will had to be agreed, they could not be too closely allied. Although our task was never easy, it was made less difficult by the patriotism and the passionate valour of the Australians which served as an example to the whole world. That wonderful attack of yours at Villers Bretonneux was the final proof, if any were needed, that the real task of the High Command was to show itself equal to it′s soldiers. You saved Amiens. You saved France. Our gratitude will remain ever and always to Australia.

Note the Australian Red Ensign.


America Day badge
1917 Australia Day pin
America Day badge
Aust. Comforts Fund Appeal badge

Four pin-back badges from 1918 or 1919 showing the use of the Red Ensign and the Union Jack.


Also See

History of the Australian Red Ensign(Ausflag page)
Flag of Inconvenience?(Magazine article 1993)
Australian Flag Myths Exposed (Ausflag media release 1994)
New flag advocates see red over historical blue ensign(Newspaper article 1997)
The debate on a new flag(Newspaper editorial 1998)
A flag for the New Millennium(Magazine article 2001)
Flag group sees red on giveaways(Newspaper article 2001)
Australia′s national symbol by default(Newspaper article 2001)