14. When British Intelligence Decided to Play Domestic Politics and Mess With the Labour Party
On October 25th, 1924, The Daily Mail published a letter from Grigory Zinoviev, Chairman of the Comintern – an organization headed by the USSR to advance global communism – to Britain’s Communist Party. In it, Zinoviev directed British communists to engage in treasonous activities in order to secure the Labour party’s victory in the next election. Headed by Ramsay MacDonald, Labour was deemed friendlier – or at least less hostile – towards the Soviet Union than the conservative Tories. Zinoviev’s directives to the Communist Party of Britain included the subversion of British soldiers and sailors, and preparations for a military insurrection in blue collar areas.
The conservatives had a field day with the revelations, and used them to ruin their Labour opponents. In the final days before the election, the conservative press hammered MacDonald and Labour as tools of communism. On election day, October 29th, 1924, the Labour government was ousted from office, and the Tories romped to victory. The Conservative Party gained 154 new seats in the House of Commons, for a decisive majority of 412 MPs out of 650. It was then discovered – although too late to do MacDonald and the Labour Party any good – that the Zinoviev letter was a forgery.
Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party formed a UK government for the first time in early 1924. However, it was a minority government in a House of Commons split between Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberals. To say that the British establishment was unhappy with a Prime Minister from a socialist-leaning party would be an understatement. So it set out to undermine him and his government at every turn. On October 10th, 1924, MI5 – Britain’s version of the FBI – received a copy of the Zinoviev letter, dated September 15th. It was determined to be a fake, and after it was shown to the Prime Minister, MI5’s chief Vernon Kell agreed that it should remain secret.
However, at the most damaging moment for Ramsay MacDonald, Kell or one of his subordinates leaked the letter in order to incriminate the Prime Minister and damage his electoral prospects. A review by Britain’s Foreign Office concluded that the letter was likely forged by Russian Tsarist exiles. They were angry that the Labour government had signed a treaty with the USSR, and agreed to extend it a loan. They saw to it that the forged letter reached MI5. Between MI5 and MI6 – Britain’s version of the CIA – conservative British intelligence officials ensured that the letter reached the press just in time to shiv and ruin the Labour Party.
12. The Quickest Way to End the US Civil War Was to Hit Dixie Where it Hurt
Union troops led by General William Tecumseh Sherman entered Atlanta on September 2nd, 1864, after a hard fought summer campaign and siege. The conquest of that key Confederate city, known as “the Gateway to the South”, saved President Abraham Lincoln from what seemed like inevitable defeat in that fall’s election. It ensured the continuation of a federal administration committed to fight the Civil War until final victory. Everybody expected that Sherman would garrison the city, then head north to Virginia to help Ulysses S. Grant, who was stalemated against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The victor of Atlanta had other plans, though.
The Union had initially followed a conciliatory policy. It fought a relatively limited war on the assumption that most in the Confederacy had not supported secession, and that their states’ governments were illegal and unrepresentative of the popular will. So Union forces leaned over backwards to gently treat Southern civilians and their property – including those hostile towards the Union. By 1862, attitudes had changed. Pragmatists began to advocate for “hard war” and “directed severity” against secessionists, and Sherman emerged as a key proponent of that hardline. In 1864, he revolutionized modern warfare and transformed “hard war” notions into total war that targeted not only enemy armies, but were also intended to incapacitate the civilians who supported those armies.
As autumn arrived in 1864, the Civil War had dragged on for more than three bloody years, with a horrendous and steadily mounting toll in blood and treasure. Both the Union Army’s commander, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, and his friend General William T. Sherman, realized that the conflict could only end if the Confederacy lost its ability to wage war. So Sherman planned an operation comparable in broad outline to modern scorched earth campaigns. He and his army would strike out from Atlanta and march along a broad front across the heart of Georgia.
The men in blue would live off the land, and destroy all in their path that was useful to the Confederate war effort. 62,000 Union soldiers marched out of Atlanta, which they left a smoldering ruin. They then divided into two columns, abandoned their supply lines and plunged into the Peach State. As Sherman put it, he wanted to “make Georgia howl“, and howl it did. Union forces advanced along a sixty mile front, wrecked military targets along the way, destroyed industry and infrastructure, lived off the land, and – against Sherman’s orders – looted civilian property. It conclusively demonstrated that the Confederacy was a hollow shell, and could not protect its heartland or citizens.
10. This General’s Strategy Birthed Modern Total War
General William T. Sherman was not a cruel man, but he certainly believed in cruel war. As he put it: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over“. He did not coin the phrase “total war” – its first use can be traced to the 1930s. However, he birthed the concept of modern total war. He wrote in a letter dated December 24th, 1864, that the Union found itself in a situation where it was: “not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies“. His destructive march through Georgia was followed by an even more destructive march through South and North Carolina.
Sherman’s marches left a legacy that lasted long after the Civil War. Not only in the memories of aggrieved Southerners, but in modern military science. The morality of the destruction wrought by Sherman has long been debated, but few contest its effectiveness. In subsequent major conflicts such as WWI and WWII, combatants took it for granted that that they faced not only enemy armies, but also the civilian infrastructure and population that supported them. US Air Force General Curtis LeMay updated the concept in 1949, when he defined total war in the nuclear age as an overwhelming atomic strike that could go so far as “killing a nation“.
9. The Plutocrats Whose Luxury Resort Caused a Catastrophe
Industrialist Henry Clay Frick and a group of rich Pittsburgh magnates got together in 1880, and bought the South Fork Dam, which formed an artificial Lake Conemaugh in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Originally built by the Commonwealth to service a canal system, the earthen dam was abandoned when railroads superseded canals, and was sold to private interests. Frick and his fellows formed the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, a secretive and private resort for the wealthy based around the dam’s lake and shoreline. The club opened in 1881, and its well-heeled members mingled in its clubhouse and their cottages around the lake as they enjoyed the pleasures of nature.
The plutocrats, indifferent to consequences downstream, modified the dam, and lowered it to accommodate a road. To ensure that the lake never ran out of fish, a screen was placed in the spillway – a structure that allows controlled release of water from a dam. The screen not only stopped fish from leaving the dam, it also trapped debris that clogged the spillway. That was especially bad because when the dam was built, it had relief pipes and valves to lower water levels in an emergency. They were sold as scrap metal, and never replaced. Between that and the clogged spillway, there was no way to release water in case of an emergency. Such an emergency occurred on May 31st, 1889, and it killed thousands in what came to be known as the Johnstown Flood, after the chief town struck by the disaster.
8. Although Their Decision Killed Thousands, These Rich Folk Walked Away Scot Free – Injustice Was Served this Day
Western Pennsylvania experienced the heaviest rainfall ever recorded there in late May, 1889, when up to ten inches fell in twenty four hours. As water levels in Lake Conemaugh rose ominously on May 31st, the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club’s manager led laborers in a frantic attempt to unclog the dam’s spillway. They were unsuccessful, and efforts to dig a new spillway were equally fruitless. Around 2:50 that afternoon, the dam, which contained nearly four billion gallons of water, began to collapse. A wall of water thirty to forty feet high and as wide as the Mississippi River rushed downstream at speeds of up to forty miles per hour. It destroyed all in its path. The torrent sucked people from their homes, swept trains, and slammed massive piles of debris into bridges and buildings.
Bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati, 400 miles away, in a catastrophe that killed 2209 people, including 400 children. More than 1600 homes were demolished, and the damage exceeded $4.4 billion in current dollars. It was America’s deadliest non-hurricane flood. As the shock wore off, it was replaced by anger as people’s gazes turned towards those responsible. However, the private resort’s rich owners were never held accountable. They claimed that their modifications of the dam did not hurt anybody and made no difference, because they had only lowered it by one foot. Their lawyers argued that the flood was “an act of God”. Evidence emerged in 2013 that they had actually lowered the dam by three feet, which drastically increased the risk of a breach. That came too late for the victims: they lost every case brought against the resort’s owners, and the plutocrats got away off scot-free.
7. The Romans Mistreated This Queen, So She Decided to Royally Betray Them
Ancient Briton heroine and resistance figure Boudicca (circa 25 – 61 AD) was a warrior queen of the Iceni tribe. She is best known for her leadership of a massive revolt against the Roman Empire’s occupation forces. Boudicca was born into tribal royalty around 25 AD, and as a young woman was married to the king of the Iceni tribe. When her husband died in 60 AD, he left his wealth to his daughters and to the Roman Emperor Nero. In exchange, it was assumed that Nero would return the favor and bestow imperial protection upon his family.
Instead, the Romans decided to sabotage the deceased and his family, seized all the king’s assets, and annexed his kingdom. When Boudicca protested, she was flogged, and her two teenaged daughters were assaulted by Roman soldiers in her presence. Understandably incensed, Boudicca launched a revolt in East Anglia, which quickly spread. Disgruntled Britons rallied to her by the tens of thousands, and she led them in a whirlwind campaign of vengeance. During the uprising, she put London and numerous other Roman towns and settlements to the torch. Her forces killed as many as 70,000 Romans and Briton collaborators.
The incensed Iceni and other Britons unhappy with life under the Romans swept out of East Anglia, with Boudicca at their head on a war chariot. When the Romans sent a legionary detachment to subdue the rebels, it was annihilated. Boudicca and her followers then went on a rampage, in which they burned modern Colchester, Saint Albans, and London. They also massacred tens of thousands of Romans and Romanized British collaborators. They exacted massive vengeance upon the Romans for their abuses. The Britons tortured and executed their captors in a variety of gruesome ways: among other things, they impaled, flayed, burned alive, and crucified them.
Eventually, the Romans rallied, gathered their legions into a powerful force, and marched off to meet Boudicca. When the armies eventually met, the legionaries were greatly outnumbered. Nonetheless, the Romans were a disciplined force of professionals, faced with a poorly trained and badly organized enemy. Boudicca led her forces in person and charged at the Romans in her war chariot, but discipline and professionalism prevailed, and the Romans won. Defeated, Boudicca committed suicide to deny the Romans the satisfaction of parading her in chains in a triumphal parade.
Most of us have heard the phrase “keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer“. King Ferdinand I of Naples (1424 – 1494), who ruled from 1458 until his death, took that, and ran with it to irrational extremes. By all accounts, Ferdinand was a capable ruler who brought peace and prosperity to his realm. Through diplomacy and strategic marriages, he created a dense network of friendships and alliances with other sovereigns. It made him so influential, that he was nicknamed “The Judge of Italy”. He was also a generous patron of the arts, and was an important figure in the Italian Renaissance. That was the good side of Ferdinand.
The bad side was rooted in the fact that Italian politics back then were not for the squeamish. The Italian Peninsula was a jumble of various small states and independent cities, that teetered on the brink of anarchy as rival aristocratic families fiercely competed for power and prestige. Betrayals, poisonings, assassinations, murders, and wars were commonplace. Ferdinand had a brutal side that allowed him to thrive in such an environment. As seen below, after he killed his enemies, Ferdinand kept their remains on exhibit in what came to be known as the “Museum of Mummies”.
4. This King Never Tired of Coming Up With Ways to Ruin His Enemies
King Ferdinand I of Naples was not a turn-the-other-cheek type, but a man who really liked to ruin his enemies. As one historian put it: “his pleasures were of two kinds: he liked to have his opponents near him, either alive in well-guarded prisons, or dead and embalmed, dressed in the costume which they wore in their lifetime“. In 1465, he defeated a rebellion by his barons. In the guise of forgiveness, he invited several former foes and their families to a celebration, then arrested them when they showed up. Some were locked up for decades, and others were killed.
One of his captives fell to his death after Ferdinand pushed him out of a window. One would assume that afterwards, nobody who had ever angered Ferdinand would accept an invitation from him. If so, one would be wrong. On another occasion, some who had offended Ferdinand attended a wedding celebration at the king’s residence, the Castel Nuovo. At the height of the merriment, they were suddenly arrested, and whisked to the dungeons for torture, a death sentence at a quick trial, and execution. As seen below, Ferdinand liked to put his dead enemies on display.
3. King Ferdinand I Kept His Enemies’ Remains in a Museum
Ferdinand I of Naples did not want to simply kill his enemies. He wanted to turn them and their fates into public examples and cautionary lessons to deter others from even thinking about betrayal. After he had them murdered, Ferdinand had the bodies of his enemies mummified. He then put them on display in an exhibit hall in the Castel Nuovo, which he referred to as his “Black Museum”, and which came to be commonly known as the “Museum of Mummies”.
As a contemporary historian described the exhibit: “these dried cadavers were displayed, pickled with herbs, a frightful sight, in the dress they wore when alive and with the same ornaments, so that by this terrible example of tyranny, those who did not wish to be similarly served might be properly afraid“. Ferdinand liked to conduct personal tours of his macabre museum, which often served as an effective deterrent to those contemplating treason. To mix things up and keep them interesting, the king’s mummified enemies were sometimes propped up in mock banquets.
2. The Warrior Queen Who Told a Great Conqueror to Stick it Where the Sun Doesn’t Shine
Queen Tomyris (flourished 500s BC) was ruler of the Massagetae, a nomadic confederation that stretched across the Central Asian Steppe from China’s borders to east of the Caspian Sea. A formidable warrior queen, she defeated King Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty that ruled the first Persian Empire. Tomyris brought the illustrious career of the King of Kings, as Cyrus came to be known, and his brilliant career of uninterrupted conquests to a screeching halt in 530 BC.
The Massagetae were nomads who led a hardy pastoral life on the Eurasian Steppe. To make ends meet, they tended their herds, and from time to time, raided the settled lands that bordered the Steppe. Their predation eventually grew too bothersome for Cyrus, who had recently founded the Persian Empire. His realm now encompassed many of the territories victimized by Massagetae raids. So he led an army into the Steppe to bring the nomads to heel. He little knew that his expedition would end in disaster, and that the nomads would ruin him big time.
1. This Queen Certainly Kept Her Promise to Ruin Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great won an initial victory against nomads commanded by the son of Queen Tomyris, after a ruse in which he “forgot” a huge stock of wine in an abandoned camp. The Massagetae captured the wine, and unused to it, royally drunk. Cyrus then turned around and fell upon the inebriated nomads. Among the many killed was Tomyris’ son. She sent Cyrus a message, in which she called him out and challenged him to a second battle. The overconfident Cyrus accepted. She personally led her army this time, and as described by Herodoutus: “Tomyris mustered all her forces and engaged Cyrus in battle. I consider this to have been the fiercest battle between non-Greeks that there has ever been….
They fought at close quarters for a long time, and neither side would give way, until eventually the Massagetae gained the upper hand. Most of the Persian army was wiped out there, and Cyrus himself died too“. The Persian army was virtually wiped out. After the battle, Tomyris, who really wanted to humiliate Cyrus, even after his death, had him beheaded and crucified. She then threw his severed head into a vessel filled with human blood. According to Herodotus, she addressed Cyrus the Great’s head as it bobbed in the blood: “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading