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Souveniers taken from the dead in time of war


Beau Geste
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I have to say that War or active service brings out the magpies, soldiers are prone to loot anything and if there is an item on a body from equipment to personal items it is fair game. There are stories of our wounded being liberated of items on their way down the casualty chain, Robert Wilson in his book Palestine 1917 describes having his sword and various other trophies liberated by the RAMC.

As to the enemy well they were fair game if dead in No Mans land, lets no forget badges were trophies at Manchester Hill the CO who was awarded the VC for his action was stripped of his insignia

Rob

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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

Indeed there were standing orders from well before 1917 that ALL material recovered from enemy dead was to be sent to Intelligence for evaluation. Like so many general orders etc this was often honoured more in the breach than the observance (my Shakespeare quote for the night).

On the slightly brighter side there are instances of letters etc being forwarded to the next of kin when circumstances allowed (after the war sometimes) - this seems to have applied to both sides.

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During my time in the printing industry I worked with a guy who was a very likeable quiet old chap who was in the Recce Corps during WW2 and also served as a sniper.

Afer working with him for sometime I asked him what Regiment he served with and during subsequent conversations he told me in a very matter of fact way of some of his exploits one of which included cutting the finger off a dead German sniper who he had tracked down to get at an emerald ring just as a souvenir of the encounter.

He did nor boast in any way of these activities it just seemed to be accepted as part of his war to him and his colleagues and I would find it hard to condemn similar actions as I have never been in any situation such as these men found themselves.

When he retired he presented me with his Lincolnshire Regt and Recce Corps badges which have a special place in my collection as I knew the person who had worn them.

In the book our member quoted "the war the infantry knew" I am also reading it and have just read the part which says about the Germans arm sticking up through the soil at the corner of the trench still wearing a wristwatch which the soldiers wound up until some Tommy pinched it!

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On the slightly brighter side there are instances of letters etc being forwarded to the next of kin when circumstances allowed (after the war sometimes) - this seems to have applied to both sides.

Absolutely. And perhaps this goes some way to redressing the balance?

S.

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Robert Wilson in his book Palestine 1917 describes having his sword and various other trophies liberated by the RAMC.

Presumably hence the unkind nickname for the RAMC of "Rob All My Comrades"

:rolleyes: I suppose our museums would be empty of exhibits if our soldiers hadn't liberated items from our enemies over the centuries.

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An old friend of mine was wounded at El Alamein - all his German souveniers were stolen while in an English Field Hospital. He was the first one to introduce me to the term 'RAMC - Rob All My Comrades'

Another friend told me of knocking the gold teeth out of Japanese skulls on Bougainville in 1945, until the Padre stepped in and stopped them doing it.

It seems that the only way to mentally survive close combat - when you are killing other men and seeing your friends killed - is to 'de-humanise' yourself and those around you. That way, a body is not a man - just a thing. Easier to take a ring, a watch or a wallet from a 'thing' than it is to take it from a dead man. And sometimes, doing it in a humorous way makes it easier to accept e.g. the story of the watch on the buried German's wrist.

By our standards today, such acts seem reprehensible. By the standards then, they were normal behaviours and, in the words of Patsy Adam-Smith 'those that couldn't cope went mad'.

"A Souvenir King !" 2296 Private John "Barney" Hines, A Company, 45th Battalion, with his trophies (souvenirs) obtained on the morning of the advance of the 4th and 13th Brigades at Polygon Wood, in the Ypres Sector, during the Third Battle of Ypres.

post-8878-1196152633.jpg

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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

Interesting point Gerb

Harry

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Thank you Phil for an excellent response. You raise a number of important issues.

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 have nothing against picking up weapons or anything else for that matter that is left lying about on the battlefield. The temptation to become a modern day Autolycus ( "a snapper up of unconsidered trifles" ) would no doubt have been great. I can also understand "finishing off" a wounded enemy who moments before was trying his best to kill you. In that latter situation "reason" might be lacking and "emotion," and the adrenaline it creates, could well have taken control of the individual to such an extent that he is no longer fully in control of his actions. What I find difficult to adjust to is the way this form of behaviour became almost institutionalised. It became accepted and in my reasonably extensive reading I can hardly remember one example where it was criticised by the ones who might, and I stress the word might, have been able to put a stop to it.

I wonder whether it is our modern sensibilities which are offended?

Perhaps, but wasn't the period 1914 -18 "modern" ? When did the "modern era" you speak of and that we live in today begin ? Was it after WW1 or did it begin at the end of WW2 because it apparently went on then too. I don't know Phil, do you ?

Especially the sensibilities of those of us who have never been in the situation of trench warfare? 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.

An excellent point Phil. How would we have reacted if we found ourselves in a similar situation ? I haven't a clue, but like you I have a sneaking feeling that I couldn't have coped for 5 minutes either. Don't let's forget though Phil that by all accounts there were many who shunned this practice.

But you raise a far more important point here when you say that we shouldn't judge this behaviour when we have never been in a similar situation. If that is true Phil The Forum loses a lot of it's value. If it's OK to eulogise, quite rightly, the many wonderful things that happened in those awful years, it must surely be OK to question those issues that were perhaps not quite so laudable.

Harry

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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

Thanks Steve.

Harry

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QUOTE (Rob B @ Nov 26 2007, 08:06 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I have to say that War or active service brings out the magpies, soldiers are prone to loot anything and if there is an item on a body from equipment to personal items it is fair game. There are stories of our wounded being liberated of items on their way down the casualty chain, Robert Wilson in his book Palestine 1917 describes having his sword and various other trophies liberated by the RAMC.

As to the enemy well they were fair game if dead in No Mans land, lets no forget badges were trophies at Manchester Hill the CO who was awarded the VC for his action was stripped of his insignia

Rob

So by definition a soldier is "a thief"? That's what you seem to be saying Rob. If soldiers "are prone to loot anything," how do you explain the fact that not all soldiers chose to indulge themselves in this way ?

Picking up items dropped on the battlefield; searching enemy dead for information that might be useful vis a vis the battle I can understand. Cutting someone's finger off to get access to a ring, or killing a wounded and helpless adversary in cold blood so that you can then rob him, or stealing from one's own wounded comrades are actions I can't understand or condone.

You mention though that the Germans were playing the same "game". Has anyone any other information on this?

Harry

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Robert Wilson in his book Palestine 1917 describes having his sword and various other trophies liberated by the RAMC.

But he obviously held onto the camera he took from a Turkish prisoner as the photos in the book include two that were already in the camera at the time

Worth noting that Wilson's trophies were taken from the living not the dead (is there a difference in taking from one and not the other? Robbing the dead seems to get more condemnation that robbing the living)

Wilson also mentions having a sword stolen en voyage and trophies stolen when he got back to civie street. Which gives me the thought that universal conscription would certainly have brought a lot of habitual criminals into the forces who would doubtless continue their activities when in uniform given half a chance.

Re the point about officers not preventing the practice - isn't there an old military saying to the effect "never give an order that you know won't be obeyed"?

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Indeed there were standing orders from well before 1917 that ALL material recovered from enemy dead was to be sent to Intelligence for evaluation. Like so many general orders etc this was often honoured more in the breach than the observance (my Shakespeare quote for the night).

On the slightly brighter side there are instances of letters etc being forwarded to the next of kin when circumstances allowed (after the war sometimes) - this seems to have applied to both sides.

Thank you Centurian. I have no problem, as I've said previously, with this type of activity. It makes a lot of sense.

Harry

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Robert Wilson in his book Palestine 1917 describes having his sword and various other trophies liberated by the RAMC.

Presumably hence the unkind nickname for the RAMC of "Rob All My Comrades"

That's a new one on me Cliff.

:rolleyes: I suppose our museums would be empty of exhibits if our soldiers hadn't liberated items from our enemies over the centuries.

A heck of a lot was picked up on the battlefield so I don't think museums would have suffered.Harry

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It seems that the only way to mentally survive close combat - when you are killing other men and seeing your friends killed - is to 'de-humanise' yourself and those around you. That way, a body is not a man - just a thing. Easier to take a ring, a watch or a wallet from a 'thing' than it is to take it from a dead man. And sometimes, doing it in a humorous way makes it easier to accept e.g. the story of the watch on the buried German's wrist.

By our standards today, such acts seem reprehensible. By the standards then, they were normal behaviours and, in the words of Patsy Adam-Smith 'those that couldn't cope went mad'.

An excellent posting Bob and I'm sure there is a lot of sound common sense in your statement that one has to "de humanise" oneself to survive close combat.

How come then that so many survived without doing this ?

Harry

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I can give an instance of prisoners' belongings being returned. My GF was wounded first day of Loos and had to be left behind when his comrades withdrew. The Germans picked him off the field, ( head wound ) and he was transported back to Corps HQ ( Phalempin) where he died in hospital. My grandmother received a package through the IRC containing his effects and a letter from a German medical attendant, in English, which explained what had happened. The letter explained that x amount of francs had been put to a fund for the patients. Chocolate and tobacco had been shared among patients in the ward. His pipe was returned as were letters, photos and a pocket watch. The letter also stated that he had been properly buried with a funeral.

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I have a British Army compass, 1916 dated. The name of a british officer is scratched out and a German Leutnants name written on the leather pouch.

I often wonder hos that was "Souvenired"

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I can give an instance of prisoners' belongings being returned. My GF was wounded first day of Loos and had to be left behind when his comrades withdrew. The Germans picked him off the field, ( head wound ) and he was transported back to Corps HQ ( Phalempin) where he died in hospital. My grandmother received a package through the IRC containing his effects and a letter from a German medical attendant, in English, which explained what had happened. The letter explained that x amount of francs had been put to a fund for the patients. Chocolate and tobacco had been shared among patients in the ward. His pipe was returned as were letters, photos and a pocket watch. The letter also stated that he had been properly buried with a funeral.

Wonderful. A great posting Thank you.

As I've said throughout this thread, looting wasn't practised by everyone that's for sure.

Harry

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Hi,

I think the taking of objects can be split into 4 categories:- a) a combat trophy- to signify a combat with another person, B) a souvenier- just general items as keepsakes, c) useful items- to use oneself if not issused/ better quality, d) for sale- to sell to get more urgently required items such as extra food, clothes and misc.

The majority of 'thieving' would be just to get extra food in the manner of bartering as food is always in short supply also getting better equipment ( german optics carried a high premium) but i am sure officers private purchase equipment was much after by the rank and file (pistols especially). This applies to the neapolonic war as it does today, a rifleman in wellington's army was accused of the 'crime' of shooting a french sentry- his excuse was that he was hungery and wondered if there was anything to eat in the sentry's knapsack, even today british soldiers are known as the 'borrowers' and will steal in sight. so there are multiple reasons for taking objects and this applies to all nations.

Ian

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Hello Beau/Harry,

Thanks for your considered and thoughtful reply to my post (makes a change from the "Crucifix at Aveluy" !)

I must stress that they are purely personal thoughts from a rank amateur in these matters.

A couple more thoughts

"What I find difficult to adjust to is the way this form of behaviour became almost institutionalised. "

My point was that it did not "become institutionalised" in WW1 but had been going on for hundreds of years and may (I stress "may") have just been accepted as normal, especially in the circumstances. There are a couple of quotes in my GF's diary which illustrate the difficulties in interpreting the motives - in one, a bullet went between his legs when sitting reading a newspaper and he says (words to effect of) "if I had been leaning forward, it would certainly have biffed me, got the bullet as a souvenir". Later he says after a battle "Got a German helmet as a souvenir". Also, when I was a youngster (about 10 or 11) I broke my watch and asked my Dad if he had a spare I could borrow and he said "the only one I have is one Grandad got in WW1 - it's German and still works perfectly - but look after it and we'll get yours repaired". Now, the bullet is explicable, but where did the helmet and watch come from? Robbed from a body? Found on the battlefield? Traded from a mate? I don't know and never asked. I still have a pair of German (Zeiss) WW1 binoculars from my other Grandad -how did he come by those?

"wasn't the period 1914 -18 "modern" ? When did the "modern era" you speak of and that we live in today begin ? Was it after WW1 or did it begin at the end of WW2 because it apparently went on then too. I don't know Phil, do you ?"

Harry - I don't think I really know, but my suspicion is that our "modern sensibilities" and the "modern era" stems from the era when most of us have not had to go to war (I'm not talking about war technology here but the time when most of us have not faced what the majority of our parents/grandparents had to go through - we can all spout about the evils of war and "reprehensible" actions of people on the battlefield but most of us do not know anyone who has faced the environment of battle - another quote from GF "I have not had my boots off or changed my socks for 5 weeks" - how disgustingly unhygienic - how could he have done that??!!

I also remember my Dad telling me what a great time he had with "borrowed" German BMW motorbike in WW2 and how a mate had "liberated Mussolini's P2 Alfa -Romeo Grand Prix car" and they had driven round Rome in it before hiding it in Cinecitta so they could reclaim it "after the war". It was discovered in the 1990's still hidden in Cinecitta and sold for millions of pounds - Dad wrote to the auctioneers and asked for the proceeds of the sale of "his" car but got no response!!)

"by all accounts there were many who shunned this practice."

I'm sure there were - just as there were many who shunned it in earlier centuries - there were all sorts in the war - just as there were those who refused to go to war. There were heroes, cowards, thieves, vagabonds, profiteers, men of honour, - Another quote from GF

"On guard, setting the gun. Very quiet here. In a very bad temper. Cannot find who has stolen my haversack. Would not care if they would return the slide rule. There are some rotters in this troop - just about fed up - they would sneak a chap's false teeth. Temper cured - received a parcel from home, a real topnotcher."

[b]"we shouldn't judge this behaviour when we have never been in a similar situation." If that is true Phil The Forum loses a lot of it's value. If it's OK to eulogise, quite rightly, the many wonderful things that happened in those awful years, it must surely be OK to question those issues that were perhaps not quite so laudable."[/b]

I can't disagree with part of that Harry, - I don't have any problem with people questioning the issues that were not quite so laudable, but I also think that we should make allowances for men who were in a dreadful situation and a situation with which they were totally unprepared and totally unaccustomed to - again GF is my example - he was the son of a tenant farmer in the Yorkshire Dales, a peaceful life but extremely hard work for little reward, struggling to make a living, and was transported to the hell of N France. How did these poor guys make that change? However, so many of the questions on the forum are about our forebears (sp?) and we all have a great interest in what motivated them and how they managed to survive (or not). We may question some of the things they did but I have no doubt that all of us admire the fortitude of these ordinary men, and whether or they performed laudable deeds or unlaudable deeds I have a great admiration for every one of them.

Sorry for long post, have actually consumed a fair bit of red wine during writing it so hope I make just a little bit of sense!

Regards to all

Phil (just off for another glass!!)

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It is well remembered in our family that my great grandfather (Scots Guards) came accross a dead German with spanking new boots on. When trying to take them (not so much as a souvenier but to replace his own worn out boots) the dead Germans leg came with it. He still got the boots but this shows how dehumanised someone becomes in such times.

I have been given a short Mauser bayonet taken from a dead Turk as a souvenier. That I have no qualms about that but the thought of taking a watch or a chain even a wedding ring from a dead man does not sound too nice. However I wasnt there I dont know what I would have done had I been there. If a gold ring got you an extra portion of food then who knows.

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Hello Beau/Harry,

Thanks for your considered and thoughtful reply to my post (makes a change from the "Crucifix at Aveluy" !)

I must stress that they are purely personal thoughts from a rank amateur in these matters.

A couple more thoughts.

Thank you Phil for a brilliant response. I really did enjoy reading it. With your permission sir I will respond as best I can tomorrow. This evening I plan to watch the Man U game on Sky. One has to get their priorities right you understand. No, seriously Phil the wine did you a power of good. A great posting. I'll read it again before I go to bed and try to respond sensibly in the morning.

One question though: what was the meaning of that remark about Crucifix Corner at Aveluy ? That thread was quite different to this. It was purely an attempt to assess whether or not the crucifix there is original or a replacement. Poetry is really difficult with that sort of subject.

Harry

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I've read you could probably reconstruct the Red Baron's plane by scouring attics in Australia (the Anzacs were in the sector at the time of the crash). Within an hour of its crashing it was completely stripped for souvenirs. The officers who turned uo to inspect the sight found a few bits of wood and metal and..the naked body of the pilot. Apparently the soldiers had away with the lot! Perhapsa myth, but I have it in print.

Stu

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I've read you could probably reconstruct the Red Baron's plane by scouring attics in Australia

I suspect you could build a whole Jagdgruppe of DrIs from the fragements on the market and in museums etc claimed to be from VR's aircraft.

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It is well remembered in our family that my great grandfather (Scots Guards) came accross a dead German with spanking new boots on. When trying to take them (not so much as a souvenier but to replace his own worn out boots) the dead Germans leg came with it. He still got the boots but this shows how dehumanised someone becomes in such times.

Happened in the Falklands - the Argentinian boots were considered better and some were "reused" by the British forces.

Maj Gen Julian Thompson

With the exception of a few specific items of kit, Argentine units were as well equipped as the British. Their clothing was superior. Acquiring a pair of the excellent Argentine boots to replace their own sodden footwear was a high priority for British soldiers and marines, leading to much amusement when on at least one occasion the ‘corpse’ being stripped jumped to its feet and ran off into the darkness.
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Harry,

"what was the meaning of that remark about Crucifix Corner at Aveluy ? That thread was quite different to this. It was purely an attempt to assess whether or not the crucifix there is original or a replacement. "

Nothing significant, a throwaway remark - just remember having a conversation on the board with you about the crucifix, your researches on it, contacts with your friends in Aveluy and and also your avatar (my wife remarked something about "what a lovely horse" but failed to remember you sitting on said lovely horse!!)

Look forward to your reply to my post - feel free to "tear me apart" - in the meantime enjoy the match (while I enjoy another glass of the red stuff!)

regards

Phil

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