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Commentary of 1952 

With Article 15 the Convention quits the terrain of general principles, and enters the new domain of practical realization. Having proclaimed the inviolability of the wounded and sick, having defined who they are and given them a legal status, the Convention now proceeds to lay down the actual steps to be taken for their benefit from the moment they fall on the battlefield.
In this connection Articles 15, 16 and 17 may be said to form a single unit, covering as they do the search for casualties and for the dead, their removal, and the recording and forwarding of information about them. The 1929 Convention had already attempted, for the sake of clarity, to draw a distinction between these different stages by dealing first with the operations taking place at the front, and then with those in the rear where it is possible to have recourse to installations of a more permanent character. The 1949 Convention maintained this distinction, and at the same time dealt more fully with the whole subject, adding a considerable number of useful details.
Article 15 applies exclusively to operations which take place at the front -- namely, the search for the wounded and dead and arrangements for their protection and evacuation and the possible exchange of the wounded.


The wounded and dead lying out on a field of battle or between the [p.151] lines must all be searched for, collected and protected, and the wounded must receive attention. That is a bounden duty, which must be fulfilled as soon as circumstances permit.

A. ' Extent of the obligation. ' -- The 1929 Convention made the obligation applicable only "after each engagement", and imposed it only on "the occupant of the field of battle", whereas henceforward both belligerents are required to comply, or to attempt to comply, with it ' at all times. ' The paragraph actually begins with the words: "At all times, and particularly after an engagement...". This wording is adapted to the conditions of modern war, in which hostilities are more continuous in character than they were in the past. The effect is to increase the obligations of the belligerents in respect of the wounded. Indirectly the task of the medical personnel may be rendered more arduous, and also more dangerous.
But there are times when military operations will make the obligation to search for the fallen impracticable. There will be cases which exceed the limits of what the medical personnel can be expected to do, however great their courage and devotion. It was not possible, therefore, to make the obligation absolute. It was accordingly provided that "Parties to the conflict shall, without delay, take all possible measures..." The obligation to act without delay is strict; but the action to be taken is limited to what is possible, and it is left to the military command to judge what is possible, and to decide to what extent it can commit its medical personnel.

B. ' Search. ' -- The search for the fallen combatants and their collection may present different aspects according to circumstances. The commonest and the most important case will be that of enemy troops retiring in the face of an attack. The occupant of the battlefield must then, without delay, make a thorough search of the captured ground so as to pick up all the victims.
The dead must also be looked for and brought back behind the lines with as much care as the wounded. It is not always certain that death has taken place. It is, moreover, essential that the dead bodies should be identified and given a decent burial. When a man has been hit with such violence that there is nothing left of him but scattered remains, these must be carefully collected.
In all these different operations it is the undoubted duty of the combatants [p.152] themselves to give the medical personnel all possible assistance.
When picking up the wounded and dead, care should be taken to collect all their belongings (which may be scattered about); for such objects may inter alia be of assistance in establishing their identity (1).

C. ' Protection. ' -- It will not always be possible to evacuate the wounded at once, and it will be necessary to protect them in the meantime against pillage and ill-treatment, and also to prevent despoiling of the dead.
The purpose of this paragraph was not to assert the principle of the respect and protection of the wounded. That had already been done by Article 12 . But provision had to be made for the effective application of the principle. Pillage of the dead had also to be prohibited (2). In other words, the wounded and the dead must be guarded and, if necessary, defended against all parties, whether military or civilian, who may seek to lay hands on them. Combatants, like medical personnel, are called upon to prevent this, going, if necessary, to the length of using their arms for the purpose (3).
The presence of hordes of pillagers, who used to be called the "hyena of the battlefield" may not seem likely today; but the possessions of the wounded and dead are still liable to excite the greed of soldiers or unscrupulous civilians. Such hateful spoliation must be prevented.

D. ' First aid. ' -- The general obligation to care for the wounded irrespective of their nationality arises out of Article 12 of the Convention. The reason for repeating this idea in the present paragraph of the 1949 [p.153] Convention was to emphasize the necessity of immediately giving first aid to the wounded on the battlefield.
Recent developments of medical science have clearly shown that first aid, if given by qualified personnel and with the least possible delay, may exercise a preponderating influence on the cure of the patient. New techniques of a quick and simple character have been perfected, which not only induce a physical condition on the part of the wounded enabling them to support evacuation, but above all increase their chances of survival and even of complete recovery to an extent which even at the beginning of the Second World War would never have been thought possible (4). The work of medical personnel in and near the front line thus assumes added importance. It will no longer be merely a case of moving the wounded to the rear in the condition in which they are picked up. They will have first to receive medical attention -- blood transfusions, injections, etc. Medical Services will consequently have to give medical orderlies working in the front, who hitherto have often been no more than stretcher-bearers, a more advanced professional training of a
semi-medical character.


This paragraph provides that, whenever circumstances allow, an armistice or a suspension of fire is to be arranged, or local arrangements made, to permit the removal, exchange and transport of the wounded left on the battlefield.
This provision, except for the idea of the exchange of the wounded which will be considered below, is not new. It was introduced in 1929 as a result of the painful experiences of the First World War, when the wounded, left lying between the lines, were condemned to a slow and painful death. Though the provision was from the first made optional, and retained that character in 1949, it was not adopted without hesitation. The commentator on the 1929 Convention wrote: "The majority no doubt put forward the objection of military requirements and the practical [p.154] impossibility of meeting humanitarian wishes in this connection. But it was thought necessary nevertheless to insert an explicit assertion of the principle at least, while at the same time limiting its force by a reservation (5)."
Experience during the Second World War showed, however, that the provision was not impracticable, as some had feared it would be. It was accordingly inserted again in 1949 with two additions -- the first with regard to local arrangements, the second with regard to the exchange of wounded on the spot.

A. ' Local arrangements. ' -- The 1929 text provided only for local armistices or suspensions of fire. But such measures may not always be possible without previous negotiation and authorization by the staff of higher formations, involving a loss of time such as to deprive them of their ' raison d'être ' or practicability. Accordingly the Diplomatic Conference of 1949 sought to increase the practicability of such action by making provision for local arrangements which will in future allow the commanders of small units to approach the enemy, when circumstances are favourable, in the most direct way with proposals for a short truce for the collection of wounded.
The provision is not, and cannot be, imperative. Its implementation will depend upon circumstances, of which only the combatants and their immediate superiors can form an appreciation. It is none the less an urgent recommendation of great importance, from the humanitarian point of view, for the welfare and even for the lives of the wounded, as well as for their families. General Staffs are therefore urged to keep this possibility always in mind, and to bring it to the attention of their troops at all levels in the chain of command.

B. ' Exchange of wounded. ' -- Whereas the 1929 text only contemplated suspensions of fire as a means of permitting the removal of the wounded, the 1949 text provides for the possibility of their being exchanged. The idea is not new. The 1864 Convention (Article 6, paragraph 2 ) had boldly provided that "Commanders-in-Chief shall have the option of handing over immediately to the enemy outposts, enemy combatants wounded during an engagement...". The 1906 Convention, in [p.155] its turn, reproduced the clause in its Article 2, paragraph 2 , but only as an illustration of an exceptional concession which belligerents were always free to stipulate as between themselves (6). The 1929 Convention omitted the clause, the commentator even emphasizing that "the immediate exchange of wounded on the battlefield appears Utopian in the conditions of modern war (7)."
The fact, however, that such exchanges could, and did, take place, though rarely it is true, in the 1939-1945 War shows clearly the progress which the 1949 text represented from the humanitarian point of view, within the limits always of practical realities.
It may be noted that the word "exchange" is not to be taken here in a narrow sense. It does not imply that the wounded on both sides are to be exchanged in equal numbers. It merely means that the wounded who have been collected may be exchanged, without regard to their numbers on either side. This rule may even lead, in certain cases, to the unilateral cession of wounded by one belligerent to the other.


A. ' General. ' -- This paragraph provides for the further conclusion of truces to allow of the removal or exchange of wounded and sick from a besieged or encircled area, and to allow medical personnel and equipment to be sent to that area.
This provision, representing a particular case of the more general provision set forth in the preceding paragraph, appeared in the Geneva Convention for the first time in 1949. The idea was not a new one, however. At the Conference of Experts in 1937, the Bulgarian Red Cross had urged its inclusion in the Convention; and a number of International Red Cross Conferences had passed Resolutions to the same effect (8). The International Committee of the Red Cross for its part, strengthened by the approval of the Conferences of Experts which preceded the Diplomatic Conference of 1949, thought it advisable to include the provision in the draft submitted by it to the Diplomatic Conference, pointing out at [p.156] the same time that during the Second World War certain localities or zones held out for months or even years, and that in several cases the Committee's delegates had been able to enter such areas, bringing relief and rendering useful service. The Diplomatic Conference approved the proposal as it stood except for the addition of a reference to the
exchange of the wounded, an idea which it had already incorporated in the preceding paragraph.
Paragraph 3 cannot be separated from paragraph 2, to which it is linked by the opening word "Likewise". The use of that word clearly implies that the conditions indicated in paragraph 2 (i. e. "whenever circumstances permit") also apply in paragraph 3. Moreover paragraph 3 does not repeat the whole list of possible arrangements which is given in paragraph 2 ("an armistice or a suspension of fire... or local arrangements"). It only mentions "local arrangements"; but it is clear that the other possible arrangements are implicitly included, and are omitted only for greater conciseness.

B. ' Besieged or encircled area. ' -- The words "besieged or encircled area" are to be understood to mean, not only an open piece of country of more or less extended area occupied by an encircled army, but also a town or fortress offering resistance on all sides to an opponent besieging it.
Can that definition be extended to cover vast territories forming whole parts of a country and containing numerous towns? The answer is "Yes", except in so far as the encircled belligerent has sufficient hospitals and other necessary equipment within the encircled area to ensure the recovery and safety of the wounded.

C. ' Evacuation and exchange. ' -- The commander of an invested place will no doubt be willing in most cases to agree to a truce which will allow him to evacuate his wounded and sick; for he may not always be in a position to provide them with proper treatment, and they will in any case be a burden on his hands -- a burden which may on occasion be heavy. But that will not always be the attitude of the besieging party, who may be tempted to add to the material difficulties of the besieged party, so as to induce him to capitulate. It is therefore to the besieger that the present urgent recommendation is primarily addressed. As sieges generally last some time, and there will usually be some propitious moment [p.157] in the course of them, it will not be easy to maintain that "circumstances" do not admit of action under this paragraph.
What exactly will evacuation of the wounded mean? That will depend on the terms of the arrangement concluded. It may merely mean handing over the wounded to the besieger, in which case the commander of the besieged place will have had to agree to his own nationals, whom he hands over, becoming prisoners of war, while the enemy wounded become free.
But evacuation may also mean returning nationals to a place where they will again meet their own troops, from whom they were cut off by the siege. They will in such a case pass through the enemy lines, which the enemy will have agreed to open to let them through. An evacuation of this kind may be combined with the handing over of such of the besieger's wounded as the besieged have in their hands.
This is, no doubt, the contingency which the Convention envisages when it speaks of "exchange". It is inconceivable that the besieging party should send back wounded they have captured to the besieged place, since the whole purpose of the truce will have been to free the besieged place from the presence of wounded who can no longer be given proper medical care there.

D. ' Passage of medical and religious personnel and equipment. ' -- The commander of a besieged place may request permission to evacuate his wounded and sick, or ask the besieger to allow free passage of medical personnel and equipment to look after them. But it is conceivable that he will make both requests. The Convention does not treat them as alternatives. As for religious personnel, the most elementary sentiments of humanity and respect for the individual demand that they should always be allowed free access when their presence is required, in order that they may bring the consolations of religion to all, whether wounded or fit.
The nationality of the medical and religious personnel in question is not specified. That is a happy omission. The besieging Power must either permit the passage between the lines of enemy personnel of the same nationality as the wounded requiring attention, or, if such personnel are not available or other circumstances make it more desirable, send members of his own personnel into the besieged place, in conformity with the general principles of the Convention. The status of the besieger's [p.158] personnel, where these are sent, and the conditions of their stay, may be specified in the arrangement concluded.
It may be noted, in connection with this provision, that in authorizing the passage of medical personnel and equipment through the enemy lines the clause is merely extending the principle, laid down in Article 12, paragraph 5 , that a belligerent must leave medical personnel and equipment with the wounded he is forced to abandon.
It may, lastly, be noted that the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 makes provision (in Article 17 ) for very similar measures in favour of civilian wounded or sick in encircled areas.

* (1) [(1) p.152] See below, pages 162 and 172;

(2) [(2) p.152] Although this Article speaks only of measures
to prevent the "despoiling" (French, ' dépouillement ' of
the dead, it incontestably involves a prohibition of
"pillage", (French, ' pillage ') of the dead. The 1906
Convention made mention (Article 28) of individual acts of
pillage as an example of offences which Governments ought
to stop. The reason why this passage did not reappear in
either 1929 or 1949 was that the 1906 wording, instancing
this particular offence as an example, was replaced by a
more general provision for the punishment of "any act
contrary to the provisions of the... Convention" (Article
29 of the 1929 Convention and the similar Article 49 of
the 1949 Convention). Most military or ordinary criminal
codes already penalize pillage on the battlefield, and
countries which have not yet any provisions to that effect
are obliged under Article 49 of the 1949 Convention to
enact the necessary legislation;

(3) [(3) p.152] Article 22, sub-paragraph (1), of the
Convention authorizes medical personnel to carry arms and
to make use of them in their own defence or in that of the
wounded and sick in their charge. See below, page 203;

(4) [(1) p.153] It is estimated that 7.5% of the wounded in
the first World War succumbed to their injuries. That
percentage was brought down to 2.3%, by certain armies at
any rate, in the Second World War, and to 2% in subsequent
wars. In the Crimean War (1854-1856) 60% of the wounded

(5) [(1) p.154] Paul DES GOUTTES, ' Commentaire de la
Convention de Genève du 27 juillet 1929, ' Geneva, 1930,
page 28;

(6) [(1) p.155] See above, page 148;

(7) [(2) p.155] Paul DES GOUTTES, ' Commentaire de la
Convention de Genève du 27 juillet 1929 ', Geneva, 1930,
page 24;

(8) [(3) p.155] See in particular Resolution IX of the Hague
Conference of 1928 and Resolution XXIV of the Brussels
Conference of 1930;