20 Facts that History Class Didn't Cover
20 Facts that History Class Didn’t Cover

20 Facts that History Class Didn’t Cover

Khalid Elhassan - April 3, 2019

20 Facts that History Class Didn’t Cover
Victim of the Wire of Death. Pintrest

8. An Electric Fence Across the Belgian-Dutch Border Killed Thousands

When Germany occupied Belgium in WWI, it was faced with a porous Belgian-Dutch border through which smugglers, spies, and saboteurs, slipped back and forth to the neutral Netherlands, and prisoners of war escaped to freedom . By the end of 1914, over a million Belgians had fled the country. Guarding that border required many German soldiers, who were desperately needed elsewhere. So the occupiers decided to economize on manpower by using an electric fence.

Early in 1915, construction commenced on a 5 to 10 foot high electric fence, with 2000 to 6000 volt wires running through it, and covering over 125 miles of border. Those caught within 100 to 550 yards of the fence who could not explain their presence were summarily shot. By war’s end, about 3000 people had been killed along what came to be known as “The Wire of Death”, and newspapers in the Netherlands carried almost daily reports of unfortunates who had been “lightninged to death”. However, the fence did not eliminate illegal crossings, although it reduced them. Many crossed the border using creative methods such as tunneling beneath the fence, pole vaulting it, using high ladders, or tying porcelain plates to their shoes as insulation.

20 Facts that History Class Didn’t Cover
Victorian cops. The Victorian Web

7. 19th Century Londoners Attacked Cops For Fun

For decades after London’s cops, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) were formed in 1829, the legitimacy of police and the need for their services was questioned by many Victorians. As a result, MPS officers had a fraught relationship with the public they were sworn to serve. Indeed, throughout much of the nineteenth century, MPS bobbies were held in low esteem by much of the public: they were not only derided and disrespected, but were also frequently actively trolled, baited, and attacked for fun.

Many Londoners enjoyed leading policemen on merry chases, while others simply attacked them out of the blue. More creative were some gangs of working class youths, who often collaborated to set up ambushes for MPS officers, baiting the cops into chasing them down alleys and footpaths strung with trip wires. The wires’ release would spring Loony Toons-type booby traps, causing bricks to smash into the cops, or tipping buckets full of refuse to fall upon their heads.

20 Facts that History Class Didn’t Cover
Victims of the Setif Massacre. World Bulletin

6. A WWII Victory Parade Ended With the Massacre of Tens of Thousands

During WWII, 200,000 Algerians were conscripted into the French military by their colonial overlords. When Germany surrendered, thousands of Algerian men, women, and children, held a victory parade in the town of Setif, to lay a wreath at a monument commemorating the Algerians killed. The parade angered French settlers and French police, because some marchers carried placards stating “We Want Equality“, and “End the Occupation“, while others called for the release of Algerian political prisoners. The French opened fire on the marchers, triggering widespread rioting, followed by attacks on French settlers in the surrounding countryside in which about 100 were killed.

The French responded with a campaign of collective punishment. French warships bombarded native Algerian neighborhoods in Setif, dive bombers flattened over 40 nearby villages, and soldiers carried out a ratissage, or “raking over” of Algerian rural communities suspected of involvement in the unrest, in which thousands were shot. French settlers went on a rampage in which they lynched Algerians seized from local jails, shot natives out of hand, tortured them to death, or doused them in fuel and set them on fire. The exact number of victims is unknown, but most historians put the death toll within a range of 6000 to 20,000, while some contemporary sources put the figure as high as 45,000.

20 Facts that History Class Didn’t Cover
Eighteenth century actor Charles Bannister, as Polly Peachum. British Museum

5. ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ Was So Hilarious, A Theatergoer Laughed Herself to Death

In April of 1782, a Mrs. Fitzherbert went out with some friends to see The Beggar’s Opera in London, starring a popular actor named Charles Bannister. When Bannister appeared onstage in drag, portraying a character named Polly Peachum, the audience was thrown into fits of laughter. The audience eventually collected itself, wiped the tears from its eyes, and resumed watching the play. Not so, Mrs. Fitzherbert. As described by The Gentleman’s Magazine soon thereafter: “Not being able to banish the figure from her memory, she was thrown into hysterics, which continued without intermission until she expired on Friday morning

Another contemporary source described it in more detail: “Mrs. Fitzherbert, the widow of a Northamptonshire clergyman, had been with some friends to Drury Lane on the evening of 17 April 1782 to see the transvestite ‘Beggar’s Opera’ in which Charles Bannister played Polly. This lady was overcome by laughter to the extent that she had to leave before the end of the second act. She continued in hysterics until the morning of 19 April, when she died“.

20 Facts that History Class Didn’t Cover
Aftermath of the Black Tom Island Explosion. National Park Service

4. Kaiser Wilhelm’s Saboteurs Almost Blew Up the Statue of Liberty

Visitors used to be able to go up to the Statue of Liberty’s torch, but today, they can only go as high as the crown, thanks to WWI German agents. Their target was Black Tom Island, a major munitions depot back then, in New York Harbor, just off the New Jersey shore. When WWI started, the island’s warehouses could barely keep up with the combatant’s orders for munitions. Both sides could technically buy American munitions, but only the Entente, whose navies controlled the seas, could transport them. So Germans agents were sent to do something about that.

On the night of July 30th, 1916, Black Tom Island had about two million pounds of munitions in freight trains and barges. Shortly after midnight, guards noticed a series of small fires on the piers, and took to their heels, fearing an explosion. At 2:08 AM, a massive explosion hurtled debris for over a mile, shattered windows up to 25 miles away, and caused about half a billion dollars in damages. The actual death toll is unknown, as there were many housing barges nearby, and many victims are thought to have been incinerated. The blast and debris struck the Statue of Liberty, popping rivets in its upraised arm holding the torch, and that part of the statue has been closed to the public ever since.

20 Facts that History Class Didn’t Cover
The Black Stone of the Kaaba. Pintrest

3. Medieval Muslim Terrorists Sacked Mecca

The Qarmatians were bandits in 9th Arabia, who preyed on caravans, until they began following a mystic who preached that the End Times were nigh. They morphed into a heretical millenarian cult, and captured eastern Arabia and Bahrain, where they founded a utopian religious republic in 899. Believing that pilgrimage to Mecca, a pillar of Islam, was a superstition, the Qarmatians attacked pilgrim caravans, and in 906, massacred over 20,000 pilgrims. In 930, as part of their millenarian quest to speed up the End Days, they seized Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, and sacked both.

The Qarmatians killed over 30,000 pilgrims in Mecca, desecrated religious sites, and polluted the holy Well of Zamzam by filling it with corpses. They also seized the Black Stone, a meteorite rock affixed to the Kaaba and deemed holy by Muslims, took it back to their republic, and smashed it to pieces. They held the shards for a huge ransom, that was paid by the Abbasid Caliph, who then reassembled the bits and restored them to the Kaaba. Pilgrimage ceased for nearly a decade, and only resumed after the Qarmatians were paid protection money by the region’s states to stay away from the holy cities. The payments continued until the Abbasid defeated the Qarmatians in 976.

20 Facts that History Class Didn’t Cover
Curved blade favored by the Sicarii. Medium

2. History’s First Terrorists Hailed From… The Holy Lands

The Zealots were 1st century AD Jewish radicals who sought to free the Holy Lands from Roman occupation. However, a splinter group known as the Sicarii thought the Zealots were too soft, so they upped the stakes and became history’s earliest identifiable terrorists. The Sicarii, named after their knives, or sicae, blended into crowds at public gatherings, then suddenly charged their victim, stabbed them, and vanished back into the crowd in the ensuing confusion. They primarily targeted the pro-Roman Jewish aristocracy, and their victims included a High Priest of the Jewish Temple, after whose killing they went on a terrifying assassination spree.

The Sicarii sought to provoke the Romans, who needed little provocation before resorting to massacres and collective punishment. That kept discontent smoldering, lit new flames of resentment, and furnished a steady stream of new recruits from the families and friends of Roman victims. The Sicarii also engaged in sabotage to worsen the public’s living conditions and keep it disgruntled. Gifted with an occupier ready to resort to indiscriminate violence, Sicarii invited massive Roman retaliation, to force the hands of fence sitters. They could do nothing and still end up massacred or enslaved by angry Romans in no mood to distinguish “good” natives from bad, or join the resistance in a bid to gain freedom, or at least the dignity of an honorable death.

20 Facts that History Class Didn’t Cover
Japanese troops shelling the German settlement in Tsingtao, China. David Doughty

1. Japan And Germany Were Enemies in WWI

Japan was WWII’s second main Axis power, but two decades early, in WWI, Japan had fought with the western democracies against Germany. It was not out of any philosophical affinity for democracy. In 1914, the Japanese government realized that its interests were best served by joining the Entente powers, so it approached Britain, with whom it had an alliance treaty, and proposed joining the war in exchange for Germany’s Pacific possessions. The British wanted Japan to counter German naval power in East Asia, so they accepted. Japan duly declared war against Germany on August 23rd, 1914, and against Austria-Hungary two days later.

Ten days later, Japanese forces besieged the German settlement in Tsingtao, China, and captured it on November 7th. Simultaneously, the Japanese Navy seized Germany’s Pacific possessions of the Marianas, Carolines, and Marshall islands. Having fulfilled its part of the bargain by suppressing the Germans in the Far East, and chasing the German East Asiatic Squadron out of the Pacific, Japan spent the rest of the war making the best of it. By 1917, millions had died in Europe, but in Japan, the conflict meant not hardship, but a wartime boom, as Japanese industry and factories went full blast in producing goods for her insatiable allies.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Baltimore Sun, March 25th, 2005 – English Civil War Led to Battle on Severn

Cracked – 6 Amazing Facts That’ll Change the Way You Look at History

Encyclopedia Britannica – Mariamne, Wife of Herod

GM Watch – Bayer and the Holocaust

International Encyclopedia of the First World War – High Voltage Fence (the Netherlands and Belgium)

Irish Times, May 8th, 2015 – Post-war Massacre Sparked Algerian Independence

Jacobin, August 28th, 2012 – Lincoln and Marx

Japan Times, May 9th, 2017 – Japan’s Little Known But Significant Role in World War I

MacIntyre, Ben – Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman, Lover, Betrayer, Hero, Spy (2007)

National Park Service – Domestic Sabotage: The Explosion at Black Tom Island

New York Times, July 3rd, 2010 – America’s Revolution: The Prequel

Sandburg, Carl – Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926)

Spartacus Educational – Ellen Rometsch

ThoughtCo – The Jewish Sicarii: First Century Terrorists

Vintage News – Eiffel Tower’s Cables Were Cut So That Hitler Would Have to Climb the Steps to the Top

Wikipedia – Qarmatians

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