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There are plenty of synonyms in English for thieves. I'm looking for a word or expression that describes people who rob dead bodies on the battlefield.

In the novel Les Misérables, by Hugo, Mr. Thenardier robs dead bodies in the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo.

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    Ghoul comes to mind. Did Hugo have a word for it? Jul 17 at 20:09
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    @YosefBaskin Hugo called them rôdeurs and maraudeurs but charognards is what we would use today.
    – jlliagre
    Jul 17 at 20:49
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    There are some 19th Century images that call them "human vultures" or "battlefield vultures" but I wouldn't be confident to say that either was a widespread term. Jul 17 at 20:52
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    @KillingTime I recall the use of scavengers used regarding people looting the Lauda Air 004 crash site and both scavenger and vulture used informally in games for cash per kill skills. Jul 18 at 12:13
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    Have you looked up what the word is in an English version of Les Misarables? I'd do it myself, but I am not familiar enough with the book to know where to look.
    – eirikdaude
    Jul 18 at 18:40

5 Answers 5

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The 1949 Geneva Convention Article 18 contains this paragraph:

After each engagement, Parties to the conflict shall, without delay, take all possible measures to search for and collect the shipwrecked, wounded and sick, to protect them against pillage and ill-treatment, to ensure their adequate care, and to search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled.

So we could have "despoiler". Merriam-Webster defines despoil as follows:

: to strip of belongings, possessions, or value : PILLAGE

There is also "marauder" for people who roam a battlefield robbing the dead and wounded. It is referenced in the ICRC War Crime definitions.

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    Marauder may have this specific meaning, but it’s worth noting that it’s not the primary meaning, and unless the context makes it clear that battlefield robbery is what’s being discussed, it’s unlikely the word would be understood to refer to that. I very much doubt, for example, that any Harry Potter readers have ever thought for a second that The Marauders’ Map had anything to do with battlefield robbers. Jul 18 at 11:41
  • @JanusBahsJacquet The word works, interpretation of a word should be impacted greatly by a piece of pop culture
    – Edward
    Jul 18 at 23:16
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    @Edward The Harry Potter reference was just an example. Marauder isn’t generally someone who loots battlefields; that’s a narrowing down of the general meaning apparently found in certain specialist texts, one which even the OED doesn’t record. So if you’re going to use it for this specific meaning, you should make sure it’s clear from context, otherwise people will not understand that you’re not just talking about any robber or looter. And yes, interpretation of a word can certainly be greatly impacted by a piece of pop culture. Jul 18 at 23:26
  • @JanusBahsJacquet And I never got the impression the Marauders in Fortnite were trying to kill me specifically because they wanted to steal from me. But the name is fitting enough.
    – Mentalist
    Jul 19 at 7:16
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Obviously, there are "grave robbers," people who steal possessions (and/or the bodies themselves) from people's graves, but that's not quite the same thing.

A catch-all legal term for such theft is "estate looting," one who performs such looting being an "estate looter." This would apply because if the stolen items had been left on the bodies, they'd belong to that person's estate, go to that person's heirs or next of kin. But that's a catch-all term, not one specifically related to the battlefield.

"body looter"

In the vein of "looter," another term I've heard in the context of the Battle of Gallipoli is "body looter." While I couldn't find those examples, I did find others where it's used in battle contexts:

"Tiredness gnawed at him; he cared little for the body looter, but as he turned back towards the streets a window shattered amidst a woman's screams..." -Master of War by David Gilman

"He looks for his watch and then he remembers the body looter who was taking it off his wrist when he was lying in the field." -The Window at St.Catherine's by John Dobbertin Jr.

"I’d been in the Golden Horn before: with Cal, on jaunts to recover a young fallen before the body-looters got at him. As O’Connor and I walked past the dilapidated buildings, I felt Cal’s absence all the more keenly—and it wasn’t a body-looter..." -"The Inaccessability of Heaven" by Aliette de Bodard

"He saw his enemy standing over him with his wrist-watch in his hand... "So you are a body looter as well," he said; "you rob the fallen." -The Lion and the Adder: A Story of the South African Rebellion by Leigh Thompson

(In the second example and the fourth example above, each does refer to taking from the dead, the given subject "he" being a different male than the male that "his" refers to, each account being a male soldier speaking of another male soldier who is deaceased and a belonging of that other male soldier who is deceased, which, by coincidence, in both cases is a watch. That said, I'm not sure there's much distinction betweeen stealing from a soldier who isn't yet dead or who is too gravely wounded to be conscious or to prevent the the theft but ends up surviving, so I would imagine the term may be able to apply in those cases, too, though I don't have any examples to support that. On the other hand, maybe not as "body" in such contexts is rather suggestive of being deceased.)

While a Google search shows "body looter" is used mostly in war and battlefield situations, there is a spattering of examples where it's used in other contexts, but given how the preponderance of its usage appears in battlefield situations, it very well could be that it's battlefield term or a term born on the battlefield but has been appropriated for use in those other contexts. I can't say for sure because I can't find any etymology or really any research at all on the term "body looter," just a plethora of examples of its usage.

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    If the context of a battlefield is already established, the word "looter" by itself is enough. Jul 18 at 19:29
  • Except it wouldn't be enough since "looter" by itself has many other denotations. While every "body looter" may be a "looter," every "looter" isn't a "body looter," just like how every "bank robber" is a "robber," every "robber" isn't a "bank robber," so you have to say "bank robber" if the meaning you wish to convey is "one who robs banks," saying "robber" by itself not being enough. Jul 23 at 20:50
  • If we'd already previously established that we are in a bank, and I just said "a robber came in the front door", you could reasonably infer that it was a bank robber and not some other kind of robber. Likewise, if I said "there were looters picking through the battlefield", it's reasonable to assume that they are looting bodies. Point being you can use the more general term if the context provides you that information already. I will say that while the term "body looter" is clear and unambiguous, I've almost never seen it in general usage, even where it would apply. Jul 23 at 21:00
  • @DarrelHoffman - Could I? Poor try at a mishmash of a reductio ad absurdum and a strawman aside, in the context of a battlefield alone, there's so much a "looter" could loot from aside from bodies that "looter" by itself wouldn't be enough, which is evidenced by and exactly why so many authors, like in the many published examples I cited that are in the context of a battlefield, haven't found "looter" by itself to be enough and so have used "body looter," not just "looter." The examples support merely being in the context of a battlefield isn't enough to reduce it to just "looter." Jul 25 at 20:36
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Scavenger is the term for someone who loots dead bodies (corpses), especially on a battlefield. The phrase human scavenger is used also. It is an allusion to the extended sense of scavenger: an animal (like a vulture) that feeds on dead organisms (carrion). It is also related to the various figurative uses of scavenger: someone who collects things discarded by others, someone who does ‘dirty work’, a dishonourable person etc.

The term scavenger is even used in an English version of Les Misérables, for the villanous character Thénardier who loots corpses:

We encounter Thenardier, a human scavenger, robbing corpses in the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo, and amassing enough loot to set himself up as an innkeeper.
Les Misérables: TV tie-in edition by Victor Hugo

I've also found the term used in a book about the American Civil War:

The report of Provost Marshal Marsena Patrick noted angrily that one organized effort at stealing involved “a number of nondescript scavengers” who made money by selling rags to a paper mill. They came in teams, day and night, to loot dead soldiers.
The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead By Meg Groeling

Scavenger is the term used in gaming jargon also, as corpse looting is a common practice in video games. Here is the description of a scavenger from one of the most popular role-playing video games, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim:

Scavengers are hostile enemies that appear in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. They roam Skyrim looting the bodies of dead people and animals alike. Scavengers usually are found searching the bodies of soldiers that fought in the Civil War, such as Imperials and Stormcloaks.
elderscrolls.fandom.com

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    I've definitely read the term "battlefield scavenger" before. Not wholly unambiguous (the same term would be used for ravens or vulture descending to feast), but if it's in the context of humans it's clear. Jul 20 at 5:48
  • @ShadowRanger indeed, but then I've seen somewhere 'crows' being used figuratively for people robbing the dead on battlefields Jul 20 at 16:18
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Based on @eirikdaude's advice to look in an English edition of Les Misérables, we go to Volume 2, Book 1, "CHAPTER XIX—THE BATTLE-FIELD AT NIGHT" and find that the term "marauders" is indeed used:

The marauders stole in one corner of the battlefield while others were being shot in another.

This lines up with @SpehroPefhany's answer (although I agree that it doesn't have that specific connotation in modern English).

Thénardier is also described as a "nocturnal prowler" (although that's not specific to battlefield scavenging) and as a "ghoul" (which could be a useful metaphorical description, although again non-specific).

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You could use the word pillage or pillager:

the act of looting or plundering especially in war

Another definition states:

to rob of goods or valuables by open force, as in war, hostile raids, brigandage, etc.

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    This is more about robbing people's houses and businesses when raiding their town in war. Less about raiding the bodies on the battlefield. The other difference being that one is about soldiers robbing (possibly but not necessarily dead) citizens, and the other is about citizens robbing fallen (dead or at least gravely wounded) soldiers. Jul 18 at 19:34
  • @DarrelHoffman have a look at Spehro's answer where protecting bodies against 'pillage' is explicitly mentioned. Most dictionary definitions don't reference houses or towns, just 'spoils of war'
    – mcalex
    Jul 20 at 0:40

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