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Maritime flag used for national identification of ships
National civil ensign of New Zealand flown from the stern of Hikitia
An ensign is the national flag flown on a vessel to indicate nationality. The ensign is the largest flag, generally flown at the stern (rear) of the ship while in port. The naval ensign (also known as war ensign), used on warships, may be different from the civil ensign (merchant ships) or the yacht ensign (recreational boats). Large versions of naval ensigns called battle ensigns are used when a warship goes into battle. The ensign differs from the jack, which is flown from a jackstaff at the bow of a vessel.
In its widest sense, an ensign is just a flag or other standard. The European military rank of ensign, once responsible for bearing a unit's standard (whether national or regimental), derives from it (in the cavalry, the equivalent rank was cornet, named after a type of flag). In contrast, the Arab rank of ensign, liwa, derives from the command of a unit or units with an ensign, not the carrier of such a unit's ensign, and is a general officer. In Arab armies, "ensign" is a unit title equivalent to a Western brigade, and as a rank is equivalent to a divisional commander.
In nautical use, the ensign is flown on a ship or boat to indicate its appartenance. While this includes its nationality, it may well indicate more information (e.g. civilian, naval, or police vessel) rather than being the national flag itself. This is particularly common for European and Commonwealth countries.
Ensigns are usually at the sternflagstaff when in port, and may be shifted to a gaff (if available) or mast amidships when the ship is under way, becoming known as a steaming ensign.
A civil ensign (usage symbol ) is worn by merchant and pleasure vessels. In some countries the yacht ensign, used on recreational boats or ships instead of merchant vessels, differs from the civil ensign.
A state ensign or government ensign (usage symbol ) is worn by government vessels, such as coast guard ships.
Several Commonwealth countries' national flags had their origin in the ensigns of their original colonising power, the United Kingdom. Most notable of these national flags are those of Australia, New Zealand, and several smaller island nations. It is also very likely that the original design from which the flag of the United States developed was strongly influenced by the British Red Ensign or the flag of the (British controlled) East India Company.