Mercy isn't a part of any army's strategy. Combat training is about eliminating any doubts or sympathy that might make a recruit hesitate at the wrong second. When his own life -- and the life of everyone in the unit -- is at stake, there's no time to stop and ask, "But won't this Nazi's wife miss him?" That kind of thing gets you killed.
And yet, inspiring stories of mercy on the battlefield do turn up all through history. In the most inhumane settings, sometimes a little humanity shines through.
5A British Sniper Spares George Washington
British soldier Patrick Ferguson was an expert marksman who invented his own rifle and created his own sniping unit. This becomes much more impressive when you consider that this was the 1700s, when guns were so primitive that you had a better chance of hitting the enemy if you just threw it at them. Then it becomes more impressive still when you realized he almost took out George Washington with one.
Ferguson was reckoned to be the best shot in all of the British forces during the Revolutionary War. He also abided by several rules, the first of which was to never shoot a soldier who was unaware of his presence. So, yeah, sniping has changed a bit since then.
"Boo! Haha, but really, sorry."
In September 1777, Ferguson was involved in the Battle of Brandywine. He was busy, you know, killing people, when he saw two officers ride up a path on horses. Not being one to potentially let this opportunity pass him by, Ferguson quickly ordered his men to crawl up and ambush them.
"But wait!" you say, "What about his first and most important rule?" Well, Ferguson remembered that and changed his mind, thinking that shooting the officers in an ambush would be "disgusting." So instead, Ferguson did the only sensible thing a sniper would ever do: He stood up and made his position known to them.
"OK, now I just feel like a jerk."
Noticing him, one of the officers quickly galloped off, giving Ferguson the clearest shot yet. To quote Ferguson, "I could have lodged half a dozen balls in or about him, before he was out of my reach." But his own aversion to shooting a man in the back prevented him.
Later in the same battle, Ferguson was in the field hospital for an injured elbow when he learned that the officer he could have shot was General George Washington. Yeah, so if you really want the guy who saved the Revolution, look no further than the British sharpshooter whose conscience wouldn't let him take out the father of America.
But he was only known as "That what's-his-name who invented the Ferguson rifle."
4The Germans Respected the Defeated Brits Too Much to Kill Them
It was 1940, and British and German ships were engaged in their favorite pastime of sinking each other. Considering how the odds were stacked against it in this particular battle, you already have to feel sorry for the small British warship the HMS Glowworm. You just wouldn't expect the Nazis to agree.
"They are too adorable to kill."
It started when Lt. Commander Gerard Roope and the crew of the Glowworm were surprised to find themselves toe to toe with the Nazi heavy cruiser the Admiral Hipper. Despite the fact that the Hipper was approximately three times larger than the Glowworm and far more heavily armed, Roope decided that the Hipper would look pretty good over his mantle, and engaged it.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-757-0038N-11A / Lange, Eitel / CC-BY-SA
"Don't worry, lads! The worst they can do is kill us all easily."
He fired all his torpedoes, which had precisely no effect on the massive ship in front of him (mostly because they missed). Taking on heavy fire, Roope would be damned if he'd go down without a fight, and said, "Prepare to ram!" Around that time, a sailor aboard the Hipper took this photo:
Presumably while shouting, "Holy shit, no way!"
That's the Glowworm, on fire, trailing a pillar of smoke, coming around to try to head butt the German ship to death. Oh, and the Glowworm's action stations siren was stuck in the "on" position the whole time, so it was whooping like a wounded animal as it made a sharp right turn straight into the Hipper's side. The crash seriously damaged the Hipper's hull, but sank the Glowworm, killing Roope and all but 31 crewmen in the ensuing chaos.
This left floating survivors at the mercy of three Nazi ships -- vessels they'd just been shooting and/or ramming. So you'd think the heartless bastards probably machine-gunned them or something, right? Wrong.
They were afraid to anger Roope's ghost.
The Hipper stuck around to rescue survivors, and if this sounds like common courtesy, keep in mind the Nazis were risking their own lives to do it. As far as anyone knew, the Glowworm had transmitted their position before going down and reinforcements might show up any second. In fact, that's exactly what she had done, and the battleship Renown was on the way.
The rescued survivors were greatly surprised by the treatment they received on board, which was the same as wounded Germans were getting. Even more shocking, the Hipper's captain came to see them and offered his compliments, telling them that he and his fellow officers couldn't believe the fight they'd just had. To him, the Glowworm's captain had balls that were hard as Krupp steel.
"Of every British man I've heard of, he was the least girlish."
Afterward, the German captain wrote a letter to the Royal Navy in which he retold the story of what happened, again complimented Roope's cojones, and recommended that Roope be awarded the Victoria Cross, which is more or less the equivalent of our Congressional Medal of Honor. In an odd twist of fate, the German captain's honorable act ended up getting Roope a posthumous Victoria Cross, which was the first time it had ever been awarded on the basis of a recommendation from the enemy.