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The surrender gesture seems to be obvious to us - you drop your weapon, put your hands up and maybe drop to your knees or even prostrate yourself.

But were those gestures universal across the globe in the past? Were there situations, when soldiers continue to attack surrendering enemies not because of the "blood lust" or the "take no prisoners" order but simply because they didn't understand, that their opponent gave up fighting?

I have vague recollection of such instances during the Kosciuszko uprising 1794, where Polish peasants didn't understand surrender gestures made by Russian soldiers and Rommel's complains about the brutality of New Zealand Maoris killing surrendering German soldiers *, but I can't bring any evidence here.

In the "white flag" article on Wikipedia, we can read that

Before [the introduction of the white flag], Roman armies would surrender by holding their shields above their heads

This gesture would definitely be lost on many other cultures, probably even ones existing at the same time in Europe.

This was during conversation between Erwin Rommel and the captured NZ officer George H Clifton where the German general berates the Kiwis for their "gangster" tactics in killing unarmed prisoners of war after what must have been the Breakout at Minqar Qaim, for which the Clifton replied that the massacre was due to their being a "large number of Maoris in the Division".

  • White Flag of Truce or Surrender is very old: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_flag – AllInOne Jan 14 at 22:55
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    @AllInOne from the same link Before that time, Roman armies would surrender by holding their shields above their heads - this is a gesture that would be lost on many other cultures. – Yasskier Jan 15 at 1:41
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    @Yasskier: That is a gesture that would not be lost to any culture that had previously fought those same Romans with spear or sword (or anyone who has experience in that sort of combat in general). The gesture is the same as holding up your hands: You show that you have no intention to defend yourself. – DevSolar Jan 15 at 8:28
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    @Yasskier: What I am trying to point out is, the "universal gesture" is that of dropping your weapons and showing yourself defenseless. That hasn't changed over the ages; just the weapons and defenses. You can drop a sword / spear, but as long as you hold the shield it's hard to tell you dropped your weapon. You can't drop a shield at a moments notice (it's designed to not be dropped inadvertently), so you hold it up (where it does you no good). It's not the same gesture as holding up your empty hands, but it conveys the same message, in the same way. – DevSolar Jan 15 at 9:54
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    (ctd.) I am pretty sure that a Roman unencumbered by a shield would show his empty hands; whether up, our outward, or to the front, doesn't really matter. It's not the "empty hand, up" that's universal, it's the "I am unarmed and defenseless". The white flag just tells the same thing, by convention, at a larger distance. – DevSolar Jan 15 at 9:57

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