How common was it for Red Cross medical personnel to take part in military action on the battlefields (in both World Wars)?

How was this received by the combatants (friendly and enemy)?

The question is motivated by this Wikipedia page:

9 сентября 1915 года ... во время боя Римма Иванова под огнём оказывала помощь раненым. Когда во время боя погибли оба офицера роты, она подняла роту в атаку и бросилась на вражеские окопы. Позиция была взята, но сама героиня получила смертельное ранение разрывной пулей в бедро.

Вскоре в германских газетах был опубликован «решительный протест» председателя Кайзеровского Красного Креста генерала Пфюля. Ссылаясь на Конвенцию о нейтралитете медицинского персонала, он решительно заявлял, что «сёстрам милосердия не подобает на поле боя совершать подвиги». Этот нелепый протест даже рассматривали в штаб-квартире Международного Комитета Красного Креста в Женеве…

My translation:

1915-09-09 during a battle Rimma Ivanova (sister or mercy/nurse) was helping the wounded under enemy fire. When both company officers were killed, she lead the company in its assault on the enemy trenches. She was mortally wounded and was decorated posthumously. Soon German newspapers published a protest of the Kaiser Red Cross chief who, referring to the Geneva Conventions, claimed that "battle heroism is inappropriate for medical personnel". This ridiculous protest was even considered in Geneva.

I had thought:

  1. medical personnel wear the red cross sign and do not carry weapons,
  2. targeting the red cross is a war crime.
  3. wearing the red cross and taking active part in a military action is a war crime.

Am I wrong?

  • 1
    im pretty sure your assumptions are right, and reading that article it appears the germans filed a war crime complaint, and this russian writer states how ridiculous that is. one country's war hero is another country's war criminal.
    – Himarm
    Mar 11, 2015 at 23:19
  • 1
    A person attacking under the color of a Red Cross uniform or white flag loses all protection of the conventions of war and may be instantly killed or executed if surrendered. Mar 12, 2015 at 19:43
  • 1
    Your translation does not say that Rimma Ivanova was working for the Red Cross. Perhaps she was just a Russian military nurse.
    – Spencer
    Nov 30, 2019 at 14:03
  • @Spencer: What matter is whether she was, in fact, wearing the sign of Red Cross in battle (see the accepted answer), not her technical status. And she does were the sign on the b/w photo on the Wiki page.
    – sds
    Nov 30, 2019 at 23:10
  • The sentence about the "ridiculous" protest does not appear in the Wikipedia article. Is that your own statement?
    – Spencer
    Dec 1, 2019 at 19:39

2 Answers 2


The relevant regulation (mainly the first) in WW1 would appear to be:

Article 9 of the 1906 Geneva Convention provides:

The personnel charged exclusively with the removal, transportation, and treatment of the sick and wounded, as well as with the administration of sanitary formations and establishments … shall be respected and protected under all circumstances. If they fall into the hands of the enemy they shall not be considered as prisoners of war.

Article 10 of the 1906 Geneva Convention provides:

The personnel of volunteer aid societies, duly recognized and authorized by their own governments, who are employed in the sanitary formations and establishments of armies, are assimilated to the personnel contemplated in the preceding article, upon condition that the said personnel shall be subject to military laws and regulations. Each state shall make known to the other, either in time of peace or at the opening, or during the progress of hostilities, and in any case before actual employment, the names of the societies which it has authorized to render assistance, under its responsibility, in the official sanitary service of its armies.

Now the question is: "Is someone wearing medical insignia, such as a red-cross arm band, which is tantamount to claiming protection under these regulations, while taking part in combat in breach of these regulations?" If the answer is yes, then they are in breach of the laws of war and so a war criminal.


Ruse de guerre:

In 1946, a German soldier, Heinz Hagendorf, was found guilty by a U.S. military tribunal at the Dachau Trials and sentenced to six months imprisonment for having "wrongfully used the Red Cross emblem in a combat zone by firing a weapon at American soldiers from an enemy ambulance displaying such emblem."

Simulation of protected status by using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions:

It is a serious breach of the laws of war when soldiers use these signs [red cross, red crescent and red shield of David] to protect or hide military activities.

These appear to confirm that the actions of the nurse in question were a violation of the rules of war.

Her mitigating circumstance is the lack of premeditation (i.e., she went to battle without prior intent to lead the final assault).

  • 1
    Ruses of war are allowed under Geneva; faking noncombatant status is perfidy, which isn 't.
    – cpast
    Mar 17, 2015 at 13:49
  • @cpast: yes, this is precisely what I am saying.
    – sds
    Mar 17, 2015 at 14:42

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