Hors de combat

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Hors de combat, literally meaning "outside the fight", is a French term used in diplomacy and international law to refer to persons who are incapable of performing their ability to wage war. Examples include fighter pilots or aircrews 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 trial and punishment, which includes capital punishment.

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]

  • Baroness Orczy wrote in her famous 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.

  • 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 well-known 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.