Euthanasia on the Battlefield

It’s 1863, and one of your Union comrades has just been shot in the nuts by a Confederate bullet. He’s on the ground, screaming in agony. The field medic gives the prognosis: he has about an hour to live before he bleeds out, and it will be indescribably painful. The wounded soldier begs you to put him out of his misery so that he might go meet his God sooner rather than later. So you dutifully pull out your weapon and give him a kill shot, directly through the heart.

Fiction aside, has this type of battlefield euthanasia been known to happen in real wars?

Why would you possibly think it wouldn’t have? Really?

This one is recent for Canada, albeit for euthanizing a member of the opposing side.

Weren’t there powerful opiates that they could administer if someone was mortally wounded?

Ya mean like morphine? Intended for pain management, not battlefield euthanasia, but I wouldn’t doubt that it has been used for the latter. This was depicted in the movie Saving Private Ryan, when Ribisi’s character was shot to ribbons in an isolated location. His compatriates lacked the resources to stop the bleeding, so they loaded him up with enough morphine to kill him.

You don’t need enough morphine to kill the guy, just enough morphine to keep him unconscious until he dies of his wounds. Although if you have to abandon him, and he wakes up hours later…

Probably be better to shoot him in the head, though it would be a grim choice either way and one I’m glad I never had to make and hopefully never will.

Certainly. The accounts of this happening are too numerous to list. I wouldn’t be surprised if even today it happens with someone who is wounded horribly, in a lot of pain and with no way to get them back to (or hope of getting them back to) a medic or field hospital. I imagine it happens a lot more in fact in the Taliban and with the insurgents in Iraq than in the US or allied armies, but like I said, I wouldn’t be surprised if it occasionally happens even then. Certainly during WWII, Korea and earlier it probably happened relatively often. Certain wounds were almost always fatal and there were excruciatingly painful as well.


What does the UMCJ have to say about the subject?

Well, I would think that, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks (if not earlier), killing someone on your own side, even for euthanasia, would be frowned upon. In particular, I would have thought the US army took a dim view of it.

Well the term Coup de Grace dates from the 1600s and described exactly what is in the OP. Though my understanding is originates from dueling not from the military (though is often mentioned in the context of firing squads).

In relation to the OP, I am willing to bet that if it happened at all, it was more prevalent either A) on the Union side, or B) earlier in the war.

The Confederates were way too short on metals and powder by the end to waste valuable bullets on anything other than Union combatants.

I would also wager that the morphine idea, while romantic, didn’t actually happen. There weren’t a lot of battlefield medics to begin with, and the weapons used in the Civil War weren’t precise enough to really call it aiming, so it was too dangerous to try to retrieve your wounded before the battle was over for the day.

Anyone who’s badly wounded enough to bleed out in agony is going to bleed out in the hours before the medics can come fetch him at all.

Also, due to shortages, morphine wasn’t given out to many troops at all, and most operations (amputations for the most part) were simply done with nurses and other troops holding the patient down for the procedure. If the trauma and shock of getting shot didn’t do them in, often the trauma and shock of the operation did.

I just read the Bierce story Coup de Grace this morning:

IANAL, but I am pretty sure that the UCMJ would treat it as a murder. I was a medic and I never once heard anyone so much as imply that it might be okay to euthanize a mortally wounded patient.

Of course what actually happens may be a different matter, I never found myself in a position to find out.

here’s what i learned about it, many years ago.

my dad was a world war 2 veteran of the european theatre, and one of patton’s third army. as i got into my early teens, he began using me as a sounding board for his experiences in the military. little wonder: he enlisted when he was 17, lying about his age - only a few years older than i was at the time. i guess he felt there was a connection of some kind because of my age.

not only did he tell me about the use - or overuse - of morphine in the field, bill mauldin, two-time pulitzer prize winner editorial cartoonist and author, who also served during ww2, in his book, ‘up front,’ also mentions it, altho mauldin stopped short of saying that the practice of euthanasia actually happened.

mauldin does tell of the ‘m’ painted on the wounded’s forehead, but indicates only that the m represented a soldier who’d been given the maximum dosage before being transported to the rear.

according to my father, however, it was an open secret that the m actually meant that the soldier might - or more likely might not - recover from his wounds and that it was up to the isolated battlefield medical personnel to make the decision as to whether or not the wounds were actually something the injured could recover from. can you imagine having to make that kind of decision and do so under the radar of the superior ranks because there wasn’t time to contact them and say, ‘what do i do?’ i can’t. the very idea is terrifying.

as far for as in-the-moment non-recoverable battlefield injuries, dad refused to say whether or not euthanasia was a common practice or not. in my case, i got pretty good at reading between the lines and what i got in spades was that war wasn’t a movie. john wayne wasn’t coming over the next ridge with fresh reinforcements to save the day. it was… unimaginable.

dad once told me a story about being pinned down in some nameless field somewhere in france. the germans were throwing so much stuff into the air that in the words of the famous willie and joe cartoons (bill mauldin’s work, for the uninformed) Joe says, ‘I can’t get no lower, Willie, my buttons is in the way,’ pretty much summed up the situation.

right in the middle of this nightmare bombardment, dad happened to find a potato literally under his nose. rations were low. this was just before the battle of the bulge, and supply lines had gotten thin. dad said he ate it, dirt and all.

he told me, ‘if you get hungry enough, you’ll eat anything.’ who am i to doubt him?

and my mother couldn’t figure out why her oldest daughter refused to waste her time playing with dolls…:frowning:

I saw a documentaryon this recently…

This may have been accurate for your dad but not in general. The M, and/or pinning the syrette on the collar, was to indicate that the person had been given morphine so they wouldn’t be given more by someone else and die of an accidental overdose. This is still used today. You’re supposed to also put the time and amount of morphine, but I’m not sure if that was the practice in WWII. I think I’ve seen it in a WWII movie, but that doesn’t mean anything.

I’m not saying your dad is wrong, maybe your father was in an area where supplies were low and morphine was hard to find (you did mention the Battle of the Bulge), and only the goners were given it to ease their suffering. Or maybe your dad meant M3, or whatever notation they used to indicate 3 doses of morphine, which was supposed to be fatal at the time. Maybe in his area, M meant probably fatal, but in general, the M just means they’ve had morphine.

That’s not true at all. Smooth bore muskets (like those used in the Revolutionary war) are only good to about 75 yards or so. After that, where the musket ball goes is pretty much anyone’s guess. They used to say that you could stand 200 yards from a single musketeer and not fear getting shot by him. This was no longer true by the Civil War though. In the 1840s, there were two very significant changes made to muskets. One was the conversion from flintlock to caplock. Percussion caps were significantly more reliable and much more immune to weather. The second change was the use of the Minie ball and rifled barrels. The Minie ball, despite its name, isn’t a ball at all. It’s a conical bullet with a hollow space on its backside, so that the back end of the bullet flares out like a skirt when fired. To benefit from rifling, a bullet has to grip the rifled grooves on the side of the barrel, and the solid bullets used prior to the Minie ball wouldn’t fit down the barrel after it had been fouled by black powder after a few shots. By using an inflatable skirt, the bullet could be small enough to fit down a fouled barrel, but the expanding skirt would still grip the rifling so you’d end up with an accurate round.

The end result is that the so-called “rifled muskets” used in the Civil War (muskets like the American Model 1861 Springfield and the British Model 1853 Enfield) could hit a 4 inch circle at 100 yards and could hit a man sized target up to 600 yards away. So, accuracy-wise, Civil War muskets were pretty accurate, even by modern standards. Of course, compared to a modern rifle, their rate of fire is horribly slow (3 to 4 shots a minute). But their accuracy was quite good.

The Minie ball also had a fearsome reputation back in its day. That big heavy slug of lead moving at just under the speed of sound was devastating. In some ways, they produced worse wounds than what you get with a modern rifle. Civil War medicine being what it was, if you got shot in the arm or leg, you stood a very good chance of losing the limb. If you got shot in the torso, they would just dope you up with morphine and shove you off to the side to die while they operated on people that they could save (this of course assumes that they managed to get you to the field hospital to start with). If they ran out of morphine, well, those folks shot in the torso would end up dying a rather unpleasant death. It was every bit as agonizing as the OP’s soldier who had the misfortune of being shot in the nuggets.

I’ve never read of an account of battlefield euthanasia, but I have read many Civil War accounts where someone described hearing wounded and dying men begging to be put out of their misery.

Keep in mind, if you wanted to end someone’s life in the Civil War, your standard military musket was issued a bayonet that, unlike modern bayonets, was designed primarily to kill. You didn’t have to waste a powder charge on Mr. Unfortunate. You could just bayonet him in the heart and be done with it.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” a book set in WW1 has a very powerful scene where the main character and his friend try to provide aid to another soldier who has been hit by an artillery shell. As they are applying first aid they realize that the other soldier’s hip is shattered. Knowing that the wounded man is going to die, they draw their weapons intending on a mercy kill. They are joined by other soldiers before they shoot him and cannot do so. The book is classified as fiction but Remarque was in the thick of WW1.

Medieval lore : as early as the 12th century there used to be a type of stiletto called a “Miséricorde”, which is French for mercy. So called because after the battle was over, soldiers would tour the battlefield with them to finish off those who were too far gone to be patched up or taken for ransom. Quick jab to the heart under the armpit did the job even if the guy was wearing heavy armour.

The idea of ‘triage’ (“tree- aahjj”)is pretty common, for military aid stations, but also anywhere else where there are lots of serious injuries and not enough medical staff to treat them all at once. (You can see them doing triage a lot in MAS*H) The idea is you divide patients into three groups: those that are in good enough shape to wait for medical attention, those that can recover but only if they get attention immediately, and those that are probably hopeless even if they are treated quickly. You work on the second group, treat the first group when you have time, and let the third group die.
Tough job, but that’s what you’ve got to do it you want to save as many as you can.

Anyway, it’s standard practice whenever there are too many wounded. As mentioned, the ‘M’ was generally used to say “this guy’s gotten morphine, don’t give him more or he might overdose”, which doesn’t really say anything about which triage group he might be in.