The Spoils of War

Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.
-Thomas Love Peacock, The War-song of Dynas Vawr

Dredging through the annals of history, it is possible to compile a fascinating anecdotal collection of stories about the discoveries made by those who hold the field at the end of the day of battle (if you want to call them the victors) and collect the ‘spoils’. Many are grisly, some darkly humorous, and some tragic.

In the horrible carnage of the recently vacated battlefield and in wake of the sudden displacement of armies and soldiers, much is left behind. The first and most obvious is the dead; the collection of their accouterments and the armor of the dead continues today as it certainly did in antiquity. The ability to trade up one’s ragged and worn equipment and steal trophies and trappings of combat for resale has presented an opportunity the guerrilla and the helot could not pass up when booty from richer hauls was out of reach. The economy of seizing weapons from fallen enemies has been a tactic for Taliban and others waging small ‘wars of the flea’, and part of their tactics as much as it was part of Che’s.

The dead are themselves sometimes part of the spoil. The collection, cleaning, and preparation of enemy heads for formal review by victorious Samurai Daimyo presented an opportunity for retainers to advance in rank and gain wealth based on this record of their kills. Great wealth was also awarded the Janissary who brought Murad II the head of his enemy, the King of Hungary, at Varna. In more classical and ostentatious presentations (potentially exaggerated or invented), decapitated heads supposedly sat over the doors of Celtic houses, swung from the saddles of Hunnic horsemen, and were taken to the grave of a fallen comrade as a token to appease the restless spirit. These are not wholly in the realm of fiction, as the shrunken heads of certain Amazonian peoples suggest.


Heads, given their uniqueness, tend to be a very personal and intimate mark of verification. In North American History, scalping fulfilled a more numerically-based standard for counting coup. Likewise, the incidents of scalping parties being paid by foreign agents for their takings was one of early America’s oft-cited reasons for opposing their European Colonial neighbors, though American and Mexican authorities did this as well in their wars with the Indians. More bizarre, the taking of the dead’s hair for wigs and teeth for false sets were noted on the fields of Waterloo, though likely enjoying a much longer history than that, and making for one of the best lines in True Grit.

In warfare in which dynamic leadership is reinforced by captured status symbol and the army’s social cohesion is cemented by plunder, plunder and booty provides a powerful incentive to continue fighting. Hence the tradition of rights of plunder accorded to soldiers in certain circumstances, such as that usually given to medieval and early modern soldiers who overran a fortified place (hence performing one of the most dangerous acts with such high potential for death or injury). From these provisions come the stories of the terrible massacres of Beziers, Limoges, Rome, Antwerp, and Magdeburg by the plundering soldiery, and the stories still make the blood run cold.

So powerful was this incentive for wholesale and disproportionate larceny and butchery to desperate and frenzied men, often without alternate means of livelihood and opportunity, that it is notable that throughout history rules of plunder have been codified in statute and in scripture. The Qur’an contains explanations of the God-given legality of booty taken in war, with references to specific proportions noted in Hadith and the early historians of Islam. Violations of statutes also had to have consequences for the maintenance of discipline, which in the past came from Heaven as example for those on earth. The taking of ‘unclean’ booty from Jericho was the sin of Achan, whose action led to military reversals for the Israelites. This sin against God’s command was rectified by his being stoned to death by his fellow warriors.

But booty is a very powerful incentive to go to war, and it is hard to prevent the occasional excesses and taking of objects in a time of war, even beyond the need for economic gain. The number of captured Japanese and German swords sitting in American homes to this day reflects that, especially when taking a weapon from an enemy is seen as a symbol of further triumph over him or for participation in his overthrow.Taking an Ak-47 off a dead Russian was not just a way to gain firepower for a Mujaheddin with a bolt-action rifle, but also a way for him to show prowess which his society approves. Hence entire cottage industries in the FATA dedicated to making artisinal reproductions of British, Russian, and American weapons (known as Khyber Pass Copies).  In armies of civilian-soldiers, this taking of the more impersonal weapon possibly replaces the brutal act of taking a head or a scalp. However, armies are big places which attract all sorts of people, some of whom would not and do not pass up the opportunity to mutilate bodies to look for secreted valuables and removing gold fillings from the dead’s teeth, as was done in the Pacific as it was done in Auschwitz.

The spoils of enemy baggage and remainders of camp sites always provide interesting anecdotes of findings, some slightly humorous. The discovery of the garter belt of Frederick, the Elector of the Palatinate of the Rhine and King of Bohemia, by an Imperial soldier on the battlefield of White Hill was rewarded by a substantial sum of money from his General, Count Tilly. Political cartoons from thence showed the dispossessed Elector stumbling around Europe with his stockings around his knees.

In a similar vein, American troops at the battle of Cerro Gordo discovered the carriage of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (leader of Mexican troops at the Alamo), his dining set, and his false leg, left behind in his rapid flight. He too was subsequently depicted riding away from the battlefield missing his leg, and some errant songster composed a parody on the popular tune “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, calling it “The Leg I Left Behind Me“. The artificial leg was presented to General Winfield Scott, who let his soldiers keep it as a mascot.


It makes for interesting collections of objects and vivid images; US soldiers have entire huts filled with the rather odd collection of captured weaponry from Iraq, including gold-plated AK-47s. Their forebears, the Union soldiers following the route of the Confederate advance to and retreat from Shiloh discovered the road littered with camp furniture, discarded packs of winter and summer clothes, primitive body-armor, and even a grandfather clock. Rampaging German mercenaries in the sack of Rome in 1529 are supposed to have broken into the vestments chambers of the Churches and rode about the streets on asses dressed in the papal and cardinal robes. Likewise, in what might be the most important capture in history, the legend goes that Polish and Austrian soldiers looting the camps of the defeated Turks at Vienna in 1683 discovered coffee grounds freshly brewing, and introduced the Turkish drink to Europe ( another story being that the captured Turkish banners, with their crescent designs, were also celebrated by the creation of the Croissant by Viennese pastry chefs).

But getting close to your enemy is not without consequence. The capture of booty is the interaction with the things of the enemy, and because of its intimacy is often painful. The notable episode of young Paul’s encounter with the French soldier in the trench, whom he mortally wounds and whom he must stay with while he dies is one of the most poignant in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Later in the scene, Paul discovers a photo of the man’s family and his name, making the terrible connection of personal responsibility in the death of a man with a name and a family, not much different from him (“I have killed Gerard Duvall, the Printer”). His enemy is at once human, and the reaction is one of intense sadness (so great that he distances himself from the dead man by referring only to his profession from thence).

“Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us. . . .”

Such scenes are backed up by instances of this happening from wars like Vietnam and the American Civil War, in which soldiers often stitched papers with their names and addresses to their underclothes so that they might be identified, as well as writing similar addresses on pictures and letters. Such discoveries are often recollected by those who make them as being moments in which the weight of the tragedy of war fully hit them, otherwise unable to be so cogently expressed in a mind singed by the heat of combat. Some kept these letters and effects, and a remarkable few sent them home or have used them as tools of reconciliation. Perhaps it is in this shared understanding of tragedy implicit in war that something most positive can come from its spoils.

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One Response to The Spoils of War

  1. Pingback: The Spoils of War | battlegroundhistory

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