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Remembered Today:

Souveniers taken from the dead in time of war


Beau Geste
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My grandfather, a gentle and gentleman, brought a whole host of stuff back from WW2. Flags, medals, bayonet, a cross out of a french church (he was an atheist) and three beautiful watches taken from German soldiers...one a superb, museum standard self winding example. I don't know whether the items were taken from the living or the dead, am I going to criticise my grandad for it, of course not, do I care whether they were dead or alive? probably not, can I understand the circumstances in which this looting was carried out? no. Like many men of his age my grandfather lost his dad in WW1 and watched his mother work herself to death trying to keep the family of four children together. He joined the TA in 1938 in the knowledge that sooner rather than later he would be able to have a go at the Germans and exact revenge on his fathers killers. He admitted that his whole raison d'etre during the war was to kill as many Germans as possible, something that he admitted to on his death bed, and something that had worried him for 40 years. I think that deep down the only thing that he actually regretted was not stopping a group of Canadian troops leading away and shooting German prisoners shortly after D-Day**

Andy

** Of course, Kurt Meyer was convicted by a Canadian court for his part in the illegal killing of canadian prisoners shortly after D-Day....a case of victors justice??

Thank you Max for such an honest and sensitive posting. Had I been in your position I have little doubt I would have posted a similar contribution.

Harry

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Harry,

"What I find impossible to accept though are those instances, and they weren't a rarity by all accounts, where wounded men were killed in cold blood or wounded soldiers on their way down the casevac chain were robbed of their personal possessions, items that very often were as precious to the owner as life itself."

I'm afraid I don't know enough about this - to be honest, I hadn't realised it occurred on any scale except maybe by a few "rotters" (quote from GF)

None of us do Phil. We read and chat with like minded friends and try to build up a picture. My feelings are that it went on on quite a scale, not just amongst our own British troops but amongst the soldiers of all involved nations. You use the term "a few", well I'd like to think that they were very much in the minority. Perhaps someone can pick this up and comment on it.

"Are you suggesting that society has, in some way improved itself during the years since WW2 ? If you are, then how do you explain the growing level of violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour on our streets that.. etc.."

No, I don't think that society has improved, but I do think that the remoteness of most of us from the horrors of war allows us to pontificate (maybe the wrong word and I am not saying that anyone on the board does it!) about how we would react in this situation - perhaps seeing your mates killed/wounded in terrible circumstances hardens you sufficiently that you lose respect for the dead (and the living or barely living) - survival of the fittest and all that? We all react differently to pressure and there can't be much more pressure than knowing (perhaps for years?) that you might be killed any minute. It's the same thinking that makes me sympathise with those who were executed for "cowardice" in WW1 - yes there probably were a few who let down their comrades - but how would I have reacted to "going over the top"?? Were they really cowards? or just unable to take the stress. So, my "modern era" is me who has never been in a war, expressing an opinion on WW1 "attitudes". However, as you say "That doesn't mean though that we can't give issues careful thought and express our opinions." We may be wrong but we will learn from others opinions - as I have done in this thread.

I agree with every word of this Phil. We don't know how we would have reacted. I suspect that we wouldn't have reacted half as well as those who fought in The Great War. Ironically perhaps, their lifestyles might have helped them to accept and endure the hardships that faced them on a daily basis. Having said that not everyone coped equally well and that's not a criticism. By all accounts the vast majority bahaved in a manner that often leaves me in tears when I read about it while some were irretrievably broken. To answer your question as best I can, "no" a lot of those you refer to were not cowards. Public and medical opinion at that time might have branded them as such but we know today that many of those poor souls were simply suffering horribly as a consequence of what they had had to put up with.

Phil, your postings are as interesting and valuable as anyone elses. You keep an open mind and as you say, like me, you are just trying to learn. There really isn't any need to apologise. .

The armed forces is a disciplined institution. If it isn't that, it's nothing ! So what went wrong Phil ?"

Harry - same as society. We should live in a society that is disciplined because we should have regard to the rights of others in society. We also have the discipline of laws, of the police, of our parents, teachers, bosses etc - but there are always plenty of "wrong-uns" - not sure that there were more wrong-uns in the WW1 forces than there are in society as a whole. Were there?

I don't know Phil but I do believe that the armed forces, or any other large organisation for that matter, is a microcosm of the society that creates it. Yes I agree, there were "plenty of wrong-uns" in the population during that period as there were before the Great War and is today. What the war of 1914 -18 did, and also the Second World War, was to give people like this an outlet in which they could exercise their "tendencies" in any way they chose. Today with a smaller army and a more rigid selection process, this isn't quite the problem it might have been previously. Although one reads from time to time incidents involving troops that embarrass those who served previously in the same regiment.

However, I would like to think that in percentage terms we are talking about a relatively small number of troops who became so hardened that they would kill a wounded enemy in cold blood so that they could loot his remains. Your analogy is a good one. Today we lose sight of all the good kids because the "wrong-uns" are so easily identified and because they get so much publicity. (See 'Today's Generation' where this was discussed in detail). I have a feeling it was a lot like this during The Great War.

"Took over old German dugouts today - what luxury and so deep that it is no wonder they sat out our bombardment" - I wonder whether, in the haste of retreat a watch, a helmet and pair of binocs were left behind?? Is that how most souvenirs were obtained?

Another bit of diary said

"Fine rat hunt this afternoon -killed one big one, thirteen young ones and found in her nest two handkerchiefs, two gas goggles, a sunshade & Shee's wristlet watch."

Sounds like even the rats were taking souvenirs!!

I'm pretty sure that most souveniers were picked up on the battlefied and that would have included trenches and dugouts of course. A lot would have been taken from those who had been killed and in many cases personal items like rings, watches, letters etc did find their way back to relatives. Most of it though would have left the war in the possession of the soldier and would have been passed down the family chain as, I think yours were. I would like to emphasise that I have nothing against this. It's only those instances, and I would like to think they were relatively rare, where an injured soldier was murdered to gain access to his possessions or those instances where people in a position of trust, stretcher bearers for example, stole from the wounded they were ferrying to an aid post, that I find abhorrent.

Kind regards

Harry

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Harry why don't you start a pole on this, the numbers won't be conclusive, but would give a good indications of the trend.

You would need to think whether you limited to direct antecedents, i.e fathers, grand fathers, or great grandfathers. How complex is voting software that the forum software comes with? Becauseto get a percentage you need to know the number of people included. Or you could start another thread a have some sort of input table that people fill in the posts below, and then we'd need to build a spreadsheet.

Here's my first stab where souvenirs covers in my case personal processions or bits of uniform, if we do it we will need to decided upon a clear definition.

GW Served GW Souvenir's WW2 Served WW2 Souvenir's

Allies

Grandfather Yes No No No

Uncle No No Yes Yes

Axis

Grandfather Yes No Yes No

Mother No No Yes No

My uncle served in the RN and was on HMS Bulldog when they captured U110, we still have German U boat badges, but alas she burnt the uniforms before I was born. :o

What do people think?

Regards

Mart

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Harry why don't you start a pole on this, the numbers won't be conclusive, but would give a good indications of the trend.

Hello Mart,

What you suggest sounds like a good idea. However, stats have always been an area that is like a "winter fog" to me. When I was involved in teacher training a part of the syllabus covered the sort of things you mention. I have to admit that if I had had to teach it I would have emigrated !!

If you think that with the relatively small response one is likely to get from such an experiment it would be worthwhile, I would be more than happy for you to run it as a parallel thread. What do you think ? I would, of course, help in any way I can.

Can I say though Mart, I'm gratified that this thread has created the sort of interest it has and prompted you to suggest a way of taking it a step further.

Harry

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Harry

I'm game on, to design a table (and collate the results), along the lines I outlined above, I think it would be very useful, already in my family 25% "Looted", and I was thinking never happened......

The big question is whether we differentiate bits of kit/uniform/badges and personal items such as rings etc..

What do other people and would they be prepared to contibute?

Regards

Mart

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Harry

I'm game on, to design a table (and collate the results), along the lines I outlined above, I think it would be very useful, already in my family 25% "Looted", and I was thinking never happened......

The big question is whether we differentiate bits of kit/uniform/badges and personal items such as rings etc..

Regards

Mart

Thanks Mart. After sending you my reply to your last posting, I was really embarrassed. You made a really useful and interesting suggestion, and I felt I had thrown it back in your face. Honestly, that wasn't my intention. I really do NOT handle stats well at all. Anyway I'm more than happy to follow your lead. Please feel free to PM me with advice on anything I can do to help. I think this thread has got some way to go yet.

Harry

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Been following this thread with great interest, "spoils of war" are as old as human kind, and I suppose once it was payment for the soldiers and a way of proving the enemy was beaten. At least it's no longer considered necessary to bring the heads of fallen enemies home. It would be easy for me to sit here and point the finger of blame but after a great deal of thought, I find I can't. I've never had to kill or be killed, never been exposed to the full horrors of war, I think it must be very hard to continue having respect for ones fellow man in those conditions. I would hope that some might exist for one's own side as to lose that would be very bad indeed. Grandad dragged himself back from the barbed wire after the Somme, even though he could no longer walk, Uncle came back from Burma and had screaming nightmares for years, Dad had to move the bodies of the fallen from where they had died in battle so they could be decently buried, I wonder what each of them thought about the enemy? Yet they were all lovely gentle men.

Barbara

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It is really difficult to get my head around all the different aspects of this. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to go out on the one hand to kill in order to follow orders, defend one's country, fight for freedom etc., while on the other you are trying to maintain dignity, your own moral integrity look out for your mate and just try to survive.

I am following all the different thoughts and arguments with interest, Harry you are doing an amazing job in summing up the directions from time to time, that really helps me follow it. I especially appreciate the words of those of you who have served in the armed forces, and we can only keep on trying to get to grips with such matters to understand the horrors and moral dilemmas of war.

Cheers

Shirley

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I wonder what each of them thought about the enemy? Yet they were all lovely gentle men.

Barbara

Thanks Barbara. I can't answer your question but I really did enjoy reading the sincerity and thoughtfulness contained in your posting. If I may be allowed to suggest something, and I feel that I'm being impudent to suggest such a thing, "the gentle gentlemen' in your life would perhaps have honoured them as a foe who like them, didn't choose to fight but found themselves caught up in the tragedy that was The Great war.

God bless,

Harry

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It is really difficult to get my head around all the different aspects of this. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to go out on the one hand to kill in order to follow orders, defend one's country, fight for freedom etc., while on the other you are trying to maintain dignity, your own moral integrity look out for your mate and just try to survive.

I am following all the different thoughts and arguments with interest, Harry you are doing an amazing job in summing up the directions from time to time, that really helps me follow it. I especially appreciate the words of those of you who have served in the armed forces, and we can only keep on trying to get to grips with such matters to understand the horrors and moral dilemmas of war.

Cheers

Shirley

Thank you Shirley,

A few postings ago I felt I had to apologise to some pals because I felt I hadn't adequately "controlled" things. It's really gratifying to know that you at least have found my efforts useful.

It is really difficult to get my head around all the different aspects of this. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to go out on the one hand to kill in order to follow orders, defend one's country, fight for freedom etc., while on the other you are trying to maintain dignity, your own moral integrity look out for your mate and just try to survive.

That Shirley must be the 64,000 dollar question that every Great War Forum pal has asked him/herself time after time. I too am an ex serviceman with 26 years behind me but I couln't begin to answer your question. OK, I could, like everyone else, come up with an answer that might sound plausible but how could we possibly know ?

Survival was of course the first priority but so many "ordinary" lads went that incredible one step further and will remain forever a mystery to the rest of us . All I can say is God bless them.

Harry

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My uncle (Fife & Forfar Yeo/Tank Corps) brought back, from Dunkirk WW2, a belt with about 20 assorted badges, pips etc attached. They were all British and he`d taken them from British dead spread around the beaches and dunes. So it`s not only enemy bodies that are susceptible!

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Been following this thread with great interest, "spoils of war" are as old as human kind, and I suppose once it was payment for the soldiers and a way of proving the enemy was beaten. At least it's no longer considered necessary to bring the heads of fallen enemies home. It would be easy for me to sit here and point the finger of blame but after a great deal of thought, I find I can't. I've never had to kill or be killed, never been exposed to the full horrors of war, I think it must be very hard to continue having respect for ones fellow man in those conditions. I would hope that some might exist for one's own side as to lose that would be very bad indeed. Grandad dragged himself back from the barbed wire after the Somme, even though he could no longer walk, Uncle came back from Burma and had screaming nightmares for years, Dad had to move the bodies of the fallen from where they had died in battle so they could be decently buried, I wonder what each of them thought about the enemy? Yet they were all lovely gentle men.

Barbara

If you did point the finger of blame Barbara, who would you point it at ? As you said youself they had to endure horrors we can't even begin to imagine. We go through the motions but do we ever, even in our nightmares, come close to what they had to endure ? I doubt it. Respect yes, that is the easiest thing for me. I respect them and their sacrifice totally. The problem for me is understanding how so many of them were able to live through it all and emerge as "lovely gentle men"

You speak in the past tense Barbara so I guess these heroes are all gone. Cast that " finger of blame" into the dustbin Barbara and just marvel and applaud what they achieved without losing their humanity.

Kind regards,

Harry

QUOTE (Phil_B @ Nov 29 2007, 07:36 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
My uncle (Fife & Forfar Yeo/Tank Corps) brought back, from Dunkirk WW2, a belt with about 20 assorted badges, pips etc attached. They were all British and he`d taken them from British dead spread around the beaches and dunes. So it`s not only enemy bodies that are susceptible!

Absolutely not Phil and I don't see anything at all wrong with what your uncle did. Incidentally, welcome aboard.

Harry

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It would be interesting to see the tabulated results. I like facts and figures. Having said that, might I make just two comments. I was born during WW2 and remember the years just after. I remember men coming home. Almost every one of them had souvenirs. I myself had a Greatcoat belt to wear when I went to war with my chums in the back greens. I have worn stahlhelms and swastika armbands, waved German flags etc. Is there any reason to believe that the Great war was any different? I am not sure that the sample we could gather would be statistically significant, in fact I know it wouldn't be because we have no measure of the population we are sampling. Secondly, how was the souvenir collected? We have only anecdotal evidence for that. That is not something we can do anything about, it just happens to be so. What man would come home with an Iron Cross and tell his family that he killed a wounded German to get it? How many would admit to taking it fom a wounded German? The evidence for how the momentoes were gathered wil always be weak. I would still like to see some numbers though, as long as we remember that there are some statistical queries to be set against the results.

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Although the looting of corpses was fairly common, I think that the majority of war souvenirs were found after they had been discarded. Mainly it was stuff that was merely lying around. On another forum I read that when the enemy is retreating rear-echelon soldiers often had more opportunities for souvenir-hunting than front-line infantry, who had the enemy to worry about. My point is that in most cases there are no lurid explanations--be they corpse-robbing or battlefield heroism--to explain how these things were acquired in the first place. The Model 99 Arisaka 7.7 mm rifle my dad brought back from occupation Japan was something he won in a raffle at a Christmas party there in 1945!

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It would be interesting to see the tabulated results. I like facts and figures.

The evidence for how the momentoes were gathered wil always be weak. I would still like to see some numbers though, as long as we remember that there are some statistical queries to be set against the results.

I agree. As I said in an earlier posting, stats are not something I grapple with easily. I realise, of course, that the size of the sample and the accuracy of the data collected can influence greatly the quality of the end product. I'm sure Mart is also aware of the problems but thank you, it needed someone to spell it out and you've done that very clearly indeed.

Kind regards,

Harry

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Although the looting of corpses was fairly common, I think that the majority of war souvenirs were found after they had been discarded. Mainly it was stuff that was merely lying around. On another forum I read that when the enemy is retreating rear-echelon soldiers often had more opportunities for souvenir-hunting than front-line infantry, who had the enemy to worry about. My point is that in most cases there are no lurid explanations--be they corpse-robbing or battlefield heroism--to explain how these things were acquired in the first place. The Model 99 Arisaka 7.7 mm rifle my dad brought back from occupation Japan was something he won in a raffle at a Christmas party there in 1945!

Thank you Pete, I don't doubt for a minute that you are right. There seems to be enough anecdotal evidence in the literature etc to support the view that the vast majority of souveniers were, indeed, picked up on the battlefield or lifted from those who had died in battle. Can I emphasise though that it is the killing of the wounded to gain access to souveniers or theft from one's own injured colleagues that I find particularly nauseating.

Incidentally, I loved your example.

Best wishes,

Harry

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The old Japanese rifle rests on pegs above my sliding glass door, deliberately placed too high for people who might want to take it down and fool with it. The bayonet on it was a battlefield pick-up from Okinawa by a member of the SeaBees, the U.S. Navy Construction Battalions. The guy who found the bayonet was the same person I mentioned earlier in this thread who had rings that he'd taken off of Japanese corpses.

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I have a family anecdote to recount. (I am going to be a bit vague, as to battle, date, etc. as, speaking of "looting", I have good reason to think that someone is collecting some of the material I post for later publication by himself.)

My father was laying wounded in a French dugout in no-man's-land. His comrades had to abandon him, as they had to abandon him, the worst wounded, as they were all wounded themselves. Sitting against a wall, my father heard men enter and, I guess, probably heard French spoken. (He had good French.) He slid his P 08 under his butt so it could not be seen.

Two French soldiers saw and approached him, and one opened a knife. He bent over, and instead of stabbing Pop, he started to cut a unit badge off his left sleeve. Pop's unit of the Prussian Guard wore a Death's Head, the personal insignia of Crown Prince Wilhelm, on the sleeve, at the order of the Kaiser, after the unit's 150th flame thrower attack. The French soldier cut off the badge and then stuffed some French paper money in my father's pocket. They left. Pop was found some time later by German soldiers looking for wounded.

As I tell people: "You can find collectors everywhere."

Bob Lembke

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My concern has always been that making civilised rules only serves to justify war and make it tolerable. It should be as brutal, bloody and horrific as possible because only in that way can it be brought to a swift end. Kill everyone and everything in your path. Welcome to total war.

There is another aspect here to be considered: after the Great War some people in Germany started thinking along these same lines--that rules in war are a contradiction in terms, so why bother observing them. During '39-'45 that kind of thinking led to actions that gave Germany and its military the reputation of being moral pariahs that might possibly never be forgiven. The irony is that Germany had a pretty good military reputation before World War II. Even though British and American forces have been guilty of moral lapses, I'd hate to see our armed forces commit crimes that would lead us to held in contempt by everyone in the world for centuries to come.

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Two French soldiers saw and approached him, and one opened a knife. He bent over, and instead of stabbing Pop, he started to cut a unit badge off his left sleeve. Pop's unit of the Prussian Guard wore a Death's Head, the personal insignia of Crown Prince Wilhelm, on the sleeve, at the order of the Kaiser, after the unit's 150th flame thrower attack. The French soldier cut off the badge and then stuffed some French paper money in my father's pocket. They left. Pop was found some time later by German soldiers looking for wounded.

As I tell people: "You can find collectors everywhere."

Bob Lembke

Thanks Bob. He must have thought his time had come. I applaud the French soldier for not harming your father and paying for the badge.

Harry

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There is another aspect here to be considered: after the Great War some people in Germany started thinking along these same lines--that rules in war are a contradiction in terms, so why bother observing them. During '39-'45 that kind of thinking led to actions that gave Germany and its military the reputation of being moral pariahs that might possibly never be forgiven. The irony is that Germany had a pretty good military reputation before World War II. Even though British and American forces have been guilty of moral lapses, I'd hate to see our armed forces commit crimes that would lead us to held in contempt by everyone in the world for centuries to come.

I agree Pete. I remember my father , who served in India and the Second World War , criticising the British for the way they had acted in parts of The Empire. The things they did didn't come close to the horrors perpetrated by the Hitler regime in continental Europe but one has always to be on guard because it could, I'm sure, happen again.

Or am I being naive or alarmist here? What do others think?

Harry

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Harry, we need to keep this thread apolitical. If we start discussing current events it won't be long until the moderators step in.

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Just found this while looking for some info for another forum member about 13SB RGA. It comes from

Thomas, L MS Diary – Imperial War Museum Dept of Documents 74/148/1

"2nd (Aug 1915) Germans fire aerial torpedo. We are put on to it and blow it up. Weather very wet. On right end of British lines. Me and Reaz got through our lines into the French lines to a place called Aix-Noulette. Nice place & plenty of French civvies and soldiers. They got all round us & wanted our buttons & cap badges as souvenirs. Off a railway bridge could see the French and German lines & the shells bursting on them. Nice sight. Also village blown to bits."

Some souvenir hunting was obviously pretty innocent! But maybe it also does show that souvenir hunting was not just about robbing people but having memos????

I'm still convinced that 99% of "souvenirs" were obtained with similar motives - but then my wife always says that a major failing of mine is that I see the best in everyone - I don't think it is too bad a fault though it costs me a fortune in charities and street beggars who "need a quid for a cuppa"!!

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Harry, we need to keep this thread apolitical. If we start discussing current events it won't be long until the moderators step in.

Yes Phil, I had that happen with Today's Generation. I appreciate your warning but I thought this posting simply supported the point you were making. Did I misinterpret what you said. If so I apologise.

Harry

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