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Souveniers taken from the dead in time of war


Beau Geste
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One often reads that war brings out both the 'best' and the 'worst' in those involved. Currently, I'm reading Capt JC Dunn's "The War the Infantry Knew" and in it he describes how a British soldier actually cut off the finger of a dead German so that he could pocket his ring. I'm not any more squeamish than the next man and I accept that in war man's character often changes. However, I have always had difficulty coming to terms with this sort of behaviour and I'd be interested to read what others think.

Harry

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Harry - without any comment as to the morality of it - this ring with ruby and iron crosses was taken from a dead German by my Uncle Martin. I think there was a school of thought which said, "If I don't have it, someone else will."

Tom

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Harry - without any comment as to the morality of it - this ring with ruby and iron crosses was taken from a dead German by my Uncle Martin. I think there was a school of thought which said, "If I don't have it, someone else will."

Tom

I'm sure there was Tom. One of the things that surprises me ithough is that I haven't read or heard of one example where NCOs or officers tried to stamp it out. However way you look at it Tom it was wrong and not only because it was immoral. One often reads of soldiers leaving the comparative safety of the trenches at night and searching the dead in no man's land for "souveniers." I really do find that amazing. It's not too difficult to see how actions like this could threaten the wellbeing of one's colleagues.

Harry

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It's fairly common. I knew a WW II veteran who had rings he'd taken off of Japanese corpses.

I'm sure it is Pete and I can readily see the attraction. When my father came back home at the end of WW2, he brought with him a German bayonet in pristine condition, a Nazi armband and a German helmet. He didn't though rob the dead: he was captured at Lille in France in 1940 and spent the war years in Stalag 8 b in Lamsdorf, Poland.

I wonder if thievery of this type was as common among the German troops?

Harry

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Its a practice that appears to be as old a warfare itself. There are certainly accounts of it being carried out in the Napoleonic wars.

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My grandfather of the 17th London said the Ghurkas would ask guys what souvenirs they wanted--watches, pistols, etc--before they crawled oiled and naked into German trenches at night with only their kukris. All they'd keep for themselves were the ear lobes of the men they had slain. My dad also returned from WW II with lots of souvenirs.

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There is an excellent personal account of the campaign in Italy in the Second War by Stan Scislowski of the Perth Regiment. Stan admits to having been an avid looter, taking chances that scared his mates. For him, it was his way of dealing with the stress of war. I can't remember whether he tells of robbing the dead or not.

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Its a practice that appears to be as old a warfare itself. There are certainly accounts of it being carried out in the Napoleonic wars.

I appreciate that this is not WW1 but weren't many of the dentures that were being made post Waterloo period utilizing teeth removed from the soldiers killed?

Rather a morbid thought I have to confess.

My Father said that many of the gold teeth of dead Japanese soldiers in WW2 were removed.

Unsavoury as this may seem these things happened.

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Beau

Sadly it was not just enemy dead that were looted.

Friendly dead were, & worse still friendly wounded would lose items as they moved down the casevac chain.

I often think that most of the comments on GWF are pretty idealistic in outlook - that's nice but it's also naive. Men under pressure, & with a limited life expectancy can behave diabolically. Their officers & NCOs shared the limited life expectancy - in those circumstances it takes much effort, which exhausted men might not possess, to impose & maintain effective discipline 24 hours per day.

Centurion rightly described looting as: "a practice that appears to be as old as warfare itself".

And it still happens today - the Guardian recently published extracts from a British soldier's diary describing looting incidents whilst searching civilians & their property in Basra.

Harry

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Of course it happpened and happens what use does a dead man on a battlefield have for cash a ring or a watch?

Mick

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My grandfather of the 17th London said the Ghurkas would ask guys what souvenirs they wanted--watches, pistols, etc--before they crawled oiled and naked into German trenches at night with only their kukris. All they'd keep for themselves were the ear lobes of the men they had slain. My dad also returned from WW II with lots of souvenirs.

Akin "to red indians taking scalps" ? Surely not Pete. That was a virility symbol. Cutting a dead soldier's finger off to release his ring, a ring that might have meant the world to him, was surely different.

Harry

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There is an excellent personal account of the campaign in Italy in the Second War by Stan Scislowski of the Perth Regiment. Stan admits to having been an avid looter, taking chances that scared his mates. For him, it was his way of dealing with the stress of war. I can't remember whether he tells of robbing the dead or not.

Surely Michael that's the 64, 000 dollar point. I appreciate that soldiers under enormous pressure would look for ways of relieving those feelings and making sense of the situation they were being asked to endure. If a person said that he did this because it gave him that sort of outlet, I could go along with that. I just wonder though if that was the reason for the majority.

Harry

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Mick

If you were killed whilst under my command I would hope that your effects either got to your next of kin or else the cash realised by auctioning them within the sub-unit did.

Harry

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Beau

Sadly it was not just enemy dead that were looted.

Friendly dead were, & worse still friendly wounded would lose items as they moved down the casevac chain.

I often think that most of the comments on GWF are pretty idealistic in outlook - that's nice but it's also naive.

Harry

Thank you Harry. I agree totally. It's nauseating to think that one's comrades in arms were robbed as they "moved down the casevac train". Maybe it's nothing more than "human nature" but how does one reconcile that statement with the hundreds of thousands who perhaps shunned this odious practice? I say "perhaps" because we don't have the evidence to be more specific about this.

Harry

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an avid looter, taking chances that scared his mates.

Was it then a sort of "macho activity" ?

Harry

Mick

If you were killed whilst under my command I would hope that your effects either got to your next of kin or else the cash realised by auctioning them within the sub-unit did.

Harry

And so would any decent person Harry.

Harry

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No, there's no indication that he was doing it to show off, or "prove" himself. I think it took his mind off things. The "chances" were the distinct possibility that there were boobytraps.

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Akin "to red indians taking scalps" ? Surely not Pete. That was a virility symbol. Cutting a dead soldier's finger off to release his ring, a ring that might have meant the world to him, was surely different.

Harry, I didn't claim that those acts were analogous.

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Of course it happpened and happens what use does a dead man on a battlefield have for cash a ring or a watch?

Mick

Oh Mick, I can't believe you mean that. See Harry's post number 14.

Harry

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Assuming that we are talking about the Great War, several points occur to me. One, bodies lay unburied or only partially buried for days, weeks and sometimes longer. An environment where a foot sticking out of the side of a trench is patted for luck by passers by or used to hang a bag on is not conducive to respect for the dead. Looting of dead and prisoners was accepted by all soldiers. Every side complained of the rapacity of the other sides. I have a picture, in a French book, of a French soldier posing beside some German corpses. The caption comments on the fact that the bodies had been stripped of souvenirs including epaulettes and unit numerals. Captured German officers were routinely stripped of watches, binoculars etc.by Tommies. I have a German account where an officer commented on the fact that men stopped fighting to search prisoners who had already been searched several times. A corpse which might at any time be blown to smithereens would be seen as fair game by the majority of soldiers on the field.

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No, there's no indication that he was doing it to show off, or "prove" himself. I think it took his mind off things. The "chances" were the distinct possibility that there were boobytraps.

Thank you Michael. In the Great War I feel I could have found a lot of less dangerous ways of taking my"mind off things".

harry

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Assuming that we are talking about the Great War, several points occur to me. One, bodies lay unburied or only partially buried for days, weeks and sometimes longer. An environment where a foot sticking out of the side of a trench is patted for luck by passers by or used to hang a bag on is not conducive to respect for the dead. Looting of dead and prisoners was accepted by all soldiers. Every side complained of the rapacity of the other sides. I have a picture, in a French book, of a French soldier posing beside some German corpses. The caption comments on the fact that the bodies had been stripped of souvenirs including epaulettes and unit numerals. Captured German officers were routinely stripped of watches, binoculars etc.by Tommies. I have a German account where an officer commented on the fact that men stopped fighting to search prisoners who had already been searched several times. A corpse which might at any time be blown to smithereens would be seen as fair game by the majority of soldiers on the field.

Thank you for a very thoughtful and informative posting. Your suggestion that men of all involved nationalities became "hardened" to the tragedy that was unfolding around them makes a lot of sense. In other words, behaviour that would never have featured in their makeup prior to the war became common place. I wonder though what rough percentage of soldiers, of any nationality , involved themselves in this activity. Was it most of them? Fifty percent or what ? In other words, why did some become "hardened" in this way and others not?

Harry

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Whatever ones views are on stealing from the dead. I believe such practices would have been almost self-regulating. Image being taken prisoner and being found in possession of personal items from a fallen comrade or found stealing from a comrade who had just fallen, I believe justice would have been delivered rather speedily.

Regards

gerb

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I don't condone the practice, but as has been said above - it is as old as war itself. Having read "Agincourt" some time ago (forgotten the author but it's a very good read) it seems that relieving the enemy dead or injured of anything of value (armour, weapons etc) was part of the "spoils of war". Indeed, the injured were often "finished off" in order to take the valuables unless they were high ranking and worth a good ransom - which French king was it who was held in Tower of London for years before his ransome was raised?

I wonder therefore whether it is our modern sensibilities which are offended? Especially the sensibilities of those of us who have never been in the situation of trench warfare? Would the possessions of someone who has just tried to machine gun you, or bayonet you, or who had dropped some high explosive on you and your mates be respected and left with his watch, ring or wallet? I wonder.

Scalps were, perhaps, a virility symbol but they also said "I am the victor and here is some evidence". There is also evidence that it was not normal practice before the arrival of the "white man" and the indian practice of "counting coup" - getting as close to the enemy as possible and humiliating him without killing - was viewed as real heroics. I don't think we should judge this in terms of our views formed when never having been in the situation. I don't think I could cope with the horrors of WW1 for 5 minutes and certainly could not imagine my reaction to "valuables" found/stolen on the battlefield.

All in my humble opinion of course - and very much open to "what do you know about it" responses.

Phil

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Hi Harry,

I know this is not in the context that you mean, but in 1917 (the example I have) men were officially encouraged to search/check enemy dead in order to establish unit identification.

Early in the war men were after a while discouraged from collecting other souvenirs, i.e. nosecaps, due to injuries caused by these.

Regards,

Steve

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