Hors de combat

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Hors de combat (French: [ɔʁ də kɔ̃ba]; lit.'out of combat') is a French term used in diplomacy and international law to refer to persons who are incapable of performing their combat duties during war. Examples include persons parachuting from their disabled aircraft, as well as the sick, wounded, detained, or otherwise disabled. Persons hors de combat are normally granted special protections according to the laws of war, sometimes including prisoner-of-war status, and therefore officially become non-combatants.

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, unlawful combatants hors de combat are granted the same privilege and to be treated with humanity while in captivity but unlike lawful combatants, they are subject to civilian trial and punishment (which may include capital punishment if the detaining power has such a punishment for the crimes they have committed).

Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions defines:[1]

A person is hors de combat if:

(a) he is in the power of an adverse Party;
(b) he clearly expresses an intention to surrender; or
(c) he has been rendered unconscious or is otherwise incapacitated by wounds or sickness, and therefore is incapable of defending himself;

provided that in any of these cases he abstains from any hostile act and does not attempt to escape.

In literature[edit]

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Froggy Parker as Amory Blaine flirted with Isabelle in This Side of Paradise:

    On her right Froggy was hors de combat already, although he hadn't quite realized it.

  • Baroness Orczy wrote in her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel:

    When we find them, there will be a band of desperate men at the bay. Some of our men, I presume, will be put hors de combat. These royalists are good swordsmen, and the Englishman is devilish cunning, and looks very powerful.

  • Kurt Vonnegut described himself as hors de combat on the title page of his famous anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five:

    ...who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war, witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden...

  • Jules Verne, in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, has Captain Nemo explain:

    Professor, I am sorry for one of the best vessels in the American navy; but they attacked me, and I was bound to defend myself. I contented myself, however, with putting the frigate hors de combat; she will not have any difficulty in getting repaired at the next port.

  • Alexandre Dumas's characters in The Three Musketeers several times refer to men wounded as "hors de combat", specifically when describing fights to others as a method of recounting casualties, such as the King Louis XIII of France to the Musketeers after a violent time in the city:

    Seven of his Eminence's Guards placed hors de combat by you four in two days! That's too many, gentlemen, too many![2]

  • The safari-hunting author Peter Hathaway Capstick uses the phrase in various contexts in his books The Last Ivory Hunter, Death in the Long Grass, and Death in the Silent Places.
  • Tom Wolfe in the final chapter of his last novel Back to Blood:

    Publisher desPortes did not seem to be in any rush to avenge the honor of the Miami Herald. In fact, as his presumed French ancestors might have put it, he seemed decidedly hors de combat.

  • In William Faulkner's The Mansion the character V.K. Ratliff refers to the episode where Hoake McCarron's arm is broken during a fight with a gang of local boys as "that-ere hors-de-combat creek-bridge evening."


  1. ^ "Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977, Part III : Methods and means of warfare – Combatant and prisoner-of-war status #Section I – Methods and means of warfare, Article 41 – Safeguard of an enemy hors de combat, Paragraph 2". International Humanitarian Law. International Committee of the Red Cross. Retrieved November 23, 2009.
  2. ^ "The Project Gutenberg eBook of the Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas, Père".