Some years ago, an old German soldier, Henry Metelmann, told me the story of how he had killed his fatally wounded comrade on the Russian front.

Soldiers often become deeply attached to their mates in war, and Willi was Henry’s best mate. But in the freezing conditions of retreat across the Russian steppes, Willi was mortally wounded by a strafing aircraft and lay in the snow in appalling agony. Henry cradled his friend in his arms, and quickly and expertly put a bullet through his heart. He then gave him as respectful a burial as he could, before being summoned to move on.

Metelmann then went back to Germany and visited Willi’s parents, where he told them a deliberate lie. He said that Willi had died instantly and bravely under Russian fire.

All his life, Henry mourned his comrade, but he felt he had spared him an agonising death alone in the snow. He was also glad that he had given the parents a fictitious account of their son’s death, which they found comforting. He never told anyone about the event until 50 years later.

This is an example of what is sometimes called a “mercy killing”, which is known to occur on battlefields, although it is against the military law of most armies and also against the Geneva Convention.

Currently a former SAS sergeant is to be investigated for murder after admitting he shot dead Iraqi fighters on the Syrian border when they were, he believed, mortally injured. One had been disembowelled and was pleading for deliverance.

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