13. The British Fought the Napoleonic Wars With One of History’s Crappiest Swords
It might seem difficult to screw up the design of a sword – a weapon that has been around for thousands of years. Yet, that is what the designers of the 1796 British Infantry Officers Sword, commonly known as the “1796 Spadroon”, managed to do. They went to the drawing board, and returned with a weapon that was bad at cutting, thrusting, defense, and topped it off with poor manufacture. The first problem was the hilt, which was for a purely thrusting weapon such as a rapier. That made the sword ill-suited for the hand grip necessary for cutting and slashing.
If the user managed a cutting swing, the blade was too light and flexible, and frequently bounced off even from naked skin. The excessive flexibility also made the sword nearly useless for thrusting – both because the sword bent, and because it was not as pointy as it should have been for piercing. Then there was the hilt guard: instead of a solid saucer to protect the hand, the guard was a folding clamshell, secured by pins liable to break under impact. Poor hand protection was made worse by a thin and weak knuckle-bow (the projecting piece on the hilt) that bent easily, and was frequently smashed into or pinched the user’s hand. As a contemporary British general summed it up: “Nothing could be more useless or ridiculous than the old infantry regulation [sword]; it was good for neither cut nor thrust and was a perfect encumberance“.
Sigurd Eysteinsson, AKA Sigurd the Mighty (died 892) was a Viking Earl who ruled the Orkney and Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland. Allied with other Vikings chieftains, he launched an invasion of the Scottish mainland which conquered northern Scotland, overran Sutherland and Caithness, and asserted Viking control as far south as Moray. His exploits during that conquest earned him the epithet “the Mighty” from fellow Vikings.
While trying to conquer northern Scotland, Sigurd challenged a local chieftain, Mael Brigte the Bucktoothed, head of the Mormaerdom, or kingdom, of Moray, to a 40-man-per-side battle. However, Sigurd cheated, showed up with 80 men, and defeated and massacred the outnumbered Scots. Sigurd personally beheaded Mael Brigte, tied the defeated leader’s head to his saddle as a trophy, then rounded up his men and rode back home to celebrate the victory. On the way back, as the severed head tied to the saddle bounced around, the bucktooth which gave Mael Brigte his nickname cut Sigurd’s leg. The cut became inflamed, and Sigurd died of the infection before he got back home.
Alfred Redl (1864 – 1913) was an Austro-Hungarian Army officer who rose from humble origins to become counterintelligence chief from 1900 to 1912, in charge of tracking down and rooting out traitors and spies. However, Redl was gay, at a time when homosexuality was a serious taboo. Russian intelligence learned of Redl’s homosexuality, entrapped him in a compromising position, and caught it on camera. They then blackmailed him into treason, sweetening the extortion with the offer of money in exchange for secrets. Redl accepted, and in 1902 he passed on to the Russians Austria-Hungary’s war plans. When word reached the Austrians that the Russians had a copy of their war plans, Redl was tasked with finding the traitor.
So he unmasked minor Russian agents, who were fed him by his tsarist sypmasters, and framed innocent Austro-Hungarian officers with falsified evidence. That enhanced his reputation as a brilliant counterintelligence chief. Over the next decade, Redl sold the Russians Austro-Hungarian mobilization plans, army orders, ciphers, codes, maps, reports on road and rail conditions, and other secrets. His handlers’ sloppiness finally ended his career. In 1912, postal censors intercepted envelopes stuffed with cash and nothing else, but with registration receipts tracing back to addresses abroad that were known to be used by Russian and French intelligence. A sting operation was set up, the envelopes were delivered under surveillance, and Redl showed up to claim them. Arrested, he confessed to treason, then committed suicide.
King Farouk I (1920 – 1965) ruled Egypt from 1936 to 1952 – a reign marked by corruption, incompetence, and weirdness. Among other things, the king was a literal kleptomaniac who could not resist stealing things and picking people’s pockets. He actually took pick pocketing lessons, and his victims included Winston Churchill, whom Farouk invited to a dinner during WWII. At the meal, Churchill discovered that his pocket watch – a family heirloom that gifted by Queen Anne to his ancestor John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough – had gone missing. After an outcry and search, Farouk, who had been seated next to Churchill, sheepishly turned it in, claiming to have “found” it.
Early in WWII, Farouk had nightmares of getting chased by hungry lions, and somebody advised him “you will not rest until you have shot a lion“. So he went to the zoo and shot two lions in their cages. By 1952, corruption and maladministration had completely eroded his standing, and he was overthrown in a coup. Hastily fleeing Egypt, Farouk left most of his possessions behind. When the new government auctioned his belongings, it was discovered that Farouk had accumulated the world’s then largest collection of pornography. He eventually settled in Rome, where he literally ate himself to death, collapsing at a restaurant after a heavy meal in 1965.
John of Bohemia (1296 – 1346) , also known as John the Blind after losing his eyesight ten years before his death, was one of the most celebrated warriors of his era, having campaigned and fought across Europe from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. When king Philip VI of France asked for his help against England, John, despite his blindness, came to the French king’s aid, met him in Paris in August of 1346, and marched off with him in pursuit of the English king.
When the armies met at the Battle of Crecy, August 26th, 1346, John was in command of the French vanguard and a significant contingent of the French army. Despite his blindness, John ordered his retinue to tie their horses to his and ride into battle so he could deliver at least one stroke of his sword against the English, and thus satisfy his honor by taking an actual part in the battle. His knights did as commanded, and tied to their horses, the blind king rode into the fight. It did not go well, however. John the Blind, being blind, misjudged how far he had gone, and plunged too deep into the English ranks. He ended up getting cut off and enveloped by the enemy, and in the ensuing melee, the blind king and all of his retinue were slaughtered.
8. Lord Byron Was Britain’s Greatest Romantic Era Poet – and Greatest Romantic Era Perv
The 6th Baron Byron (1788 – 1824) was one of Britain’s greatest poets, famous for his brilliant use of the English language. He was also famous, or infamous, for his flamboyance, deviant practices, the notoriety of his romantic liaisons with members of both sexes, and allegations of incest. Byron’s most controversial relationship was with his own sister, Augusta Leigh. Byron had seen little of her during childhood, but made up for it in spades by forming an extremely close relationship with her in adulthood. It resulted in him fathering a child upon his sister in 1814.
Ever sentimental, Byron liked to keep mementos of his lovers. Back then, the norm for mementos was a lock of hair from one’s object of affection, perhaps tied with a ribbon. But being Byron, Britain’s most flamboyant poet, eccentric aristocrat, and all around pervert, a simple lock of hair would not do. Instead, Byron liked to snip clumps of pubic hair from his lovers’ crotches, and kept them, catalogued and labeled, in envelopes at his publishing house.
7. Tricking the Confederates Into Blowing Up a Warship
During the US Civil War, the USS Indianola was a Union ironclad river gunboat that ran past Confederate batteries in Vicksburg to reach the Red River and help block Confederate supplies from sailing down its waters. However, once she got there, she was set upon by Confederate rams on the night of February 24th, 1863, ran aground, and was captured. The Indianola in Confederate hands threatened Union operations in the region, so plans were made to recapture or destroy the ironclad. The result was one of the war’s most successful deception operations and hoaxes.
Union naval commander David Porter ordered the construction of a dummy ironclad out of an old coal barge, made to resemble a real warship. It had paddle boxes, fake gun emplacements with “cannons” that were actually wooden logs painted black, and barrels stacked to look like funnels, out of which poured smoke produced by smudge pots to mimic the smoke produced by a steam engine. The dummy warship was then floated past Vicksburg. When word reached the Confederates that a powerful “ironclad” was headed their way, the salvage crews working to repair and refloat the recently captured Indianola panicked. In order to prevent the Indianola’s recapture, the Confederates fired the ship’s magazine and blew her up.
In the 15th century, a German nun started biting the other sisters in her convent. For some reason, the behavior spread, and before long, the convent was full of crazed nuns running around and biting each other. As described by a contemporary doctor: “A nun in a German nunnery fell to biting all her companions. In the course of a short time all the nuns of this convent began biting each other. The news of this infatuation among the nuns soon spread and it now passed convent to convent throughout a great part of Germany principally Saxony and It afterwards visited the nunneries of Holland and at last the nuns had biting mania even as far as Rome”.
As news of the biting nuns spread, so did the bad habit to other convents throughout Germany. Soon, the hysteria went international, and convents from Holland in the North to Italy in the south were reporting outbreaks of biting nuns. The authorities were baffled and alarmed, and attempted various countermeasures as “the Nuns, at length, worried one another from Rome to Amsterdam“. When prayers and masses failed, the Church resorted to exorcisms and the casting out of devils and demons. That did not work. So they resorted to a more basic approach, and threatened to flog or dunk into water any nun who bit another. After a few salutary examples were made, the nuns came to their senses and the biting fever rapidly subsided.
5. The Great Empress Who Died While Taking a Great Dump
Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great (1729 – 1796), was Tsarina, or empress, of Russia from 1762 until her death. A German born princess, she ascended the throne after she had her husband, Tsar Peter III, assassinated. She continued the westernization work begun by Tsar Peter the Great, and by the end of her reign, Russia had fully joined the mainstream of European political and cultural life. However, Catherine’s regal reign was not to be matched by a regal demise.
Rumors circulated that the insatiable Tsarina had died after sustaining injuries from having sex with a horse. The truth was less scandalous, but embarrassing all the same. Catherine had been feeling constipated, and during a heroic effort to force relief on the toilet, she overstrained herself and suffered a fatal stroke. When her loud gruntings ceased, her maids waiting outside assumed that her majesty had finally found relief. They started getting nervous, however, as the minutes dragged on without Catherine emerging or summoning them. Eventually they delicately inquired if all was well. Hearing no answer, they took a peak, and found the Empress dead on the toilet.
4. The King Who Bankrupted Himself Building Fairy Castles
Ludwig II, AKA “Mad King Ludwig” (1845 – 1886), was all about artistic and architectural projects, and his chief hobby was building fantastic fairy tale castles. When Bavaria joined the German Empire in 1871, Ludwig withdrew from governance, and devoted himself wholly to the arts. He could not get enough of the theater and the opera, particularly the works of Richard Wagner, whose lifelong benefactor and patron he became. Ludwig’s greatest and costliest passion, however, was building castles in the Bavarian mountains.
He started with the Linderhoff Palace, built between 1869 to 1878. Simultaneously, he commenced construction of his most famous project, Neuschwanstein, a fairy tale castle precariously situated on a crag and decorated with scenes from Wagner’s operas. Built from 1869 to 1886, it was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. While that one was being built, Ludwig began an even greater project in 1878, the Herrenchiemsee Palace – a copy of Versailles. It was never completed, because Ludwig went bankrupt. Between abandonment of his official duties, profligate spending on expensive hobbies, and withdrawal into the life of a recluse, Ludwig’s ministers finally had enough. In 1886, he was declared insane, and sent to a remote palace. Three days later, he drowned himself in a lake, taking his psychiatrist with him.
Sarah Wilson (circa 1754 – circa 1865) was a maid to one of British queen Charlotte’s ladies in waiting, but was caught stealing some of the queen’s jewels and gowns. She was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang, but her sentence was commuted to penal transportation to Maryland. Upon arrival in 1771, Sarah was sold as an indentured servant, but escaped within a few days. She had managed to hang on to some of the queen’s belongings, and wearing her majesty’s dress, Sarah claimed to be Queen Charlotte’s sister, “Princess Susana Caroline Matilda of Mecklenberg-Sterlitz”. She explained her presence in America by inventing a royal family quarrel, and a scandal that required her to temporarily leave Britain until things calmed down.
Many locals bought it, and Sarah parlayed that into a life of luxury. For years, “Princess Susana” travelled up and down the Colonies, from New Hampshire to the Carolinas, hosted in style by government officials, wealthy Americans, social climbers, and others eager to befriend and win the favor of a royal. She grifted many out of considerable sums by promising royal appointments, or that she would put in a good word for them with her sister and brother in the law, Britain’s queen and king. She also took out numerous loans, and bought many luxury items on credit from merchants and shopkeepers eager for royal patronage and the custom of a princess. The scam finally ended when her master caught her and took her back to Baltimore.
During the Korean War, American troops in the Chosin Reservoir had it bad. They were outnumbered 8 to 1, supplies were running low, temperatures plummeted to minus 25 degrees, and food was almost impossible to warm up. They were also running low on mortar shells. In ordering mortar shell resupplies, they used a codename established for the munitions: Tootsie Rolls. Somebody took that literally, however, and airdropped the beleaguered troops crates of the candy, instead.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Tootsie Rolls were among the few food items that were actually edible when frozen, and the sugar boost gave the weary fighters a needed jolt. Additionally, the troops soon found innovative uses for the candy. Chewed up Tootsie Rolls became like putty in the mouth, but froze solid when exposed in the frigid conditions of the Chosin Reservoir. So using Tootsie Rolls as improvised epoxy, the troops patched up bullet holes in equipment, and repaired broken tools. Then, on a sugar high and with their equipment fixed, the American forces broke out of the Chosin Reservoir, and fought their way to safety.
1. The Snake Eradication Plan That Disastrously Backfired
British India’s rulers were worried when Delhi became infested with venomous cobras, so they offered a bounty for dead cobras, payable upon delivery of their skin to designated officials. Before long, natives were thronging to the drop off points, whose store rooms were soon bulging with cobra skins. However, the city’s cobra population remained unchanged, no matter how many cobra skins were delivered to the authorities. Officials eventually figured out why: many locals had turned to farming cobras. Since the bounty on the snake skin was greater than the cost of raising a cobra, the British had unintentionally created a new cash crop.
So the authorities cancelled the plan, and stopped paying out bounties for cobra skins. That made things worse. Without the bounties, cobra skins and captive cobras became worthless. So Delhi’s cobra farmers did the economically sensible thing, and released the snakes back into the wild – the “wild” in this case being the city of Delhi. The infestation grew by orders of magnitude, and Delhi wound up with many times more cobras than it had possessed before the authorities launched their ill advised plan.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading