Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Last Minute Decisions That Changed History

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History

Khalid Elhassan - September 2, 2019

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Battle of the Teutoburg Forrest. Wikimedia

12. The Last Minute “Shortcut” That Doomed an Army

Hermann (circa 18 BC – 19 AD) was a Romanized German of the Cherusci tribe, who rose to command an auxiliary cohort in the Roman army. He was admired and trusted by the Romans, who granted him citizenship and high social status, and enrolled him in the equestrian, or knightly, class. Hermann was posted to the Rhine, where he served under Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general related by marriage to the emperor Augustus, who tasked him with completing the conquest of Germania up to the Elbe river. Varus was heavy handed, however, which triggered a German revolt. That was when Hermann realized he was more loyal to his fellow Germans than to his Roman employers.

Roman Legions Annihilated

In 9 AD, Varus was leading three legions under his command to winter quarters, when Hermann convinced him to make a last minute detour and take a shortcut through the Teutoburg Forest. There, Varus was led into ambush by Hermann’s Cherusci tribe and their allies. The Roman legions were annihilated, and Varus committed suicide to escape the shame of capture. The catastrophe shocked Rome, and in its aftermath, Augustus took to roaming his palace, banging his head against the wall while wailing “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” Aside from wrecking the tranquility of Augustus in his twilight years, the disaster halted Roman plans for expansion into Germania. Germany and Central Europe were thus never Latinized like Gaul was. The resulting differences were reflected in centuries of antagonistic relations between the French and Germans, that played a key role in shaping Europe.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Patrick Lyster as Benjamin Hornigold in ‘Black Sails’. Pintrest

11. A Pirate’s Last Minute Change of Sides Helped End the Golden Age of Piracy

Benjamin Hornigold (1680 – 1719) was licensed with letters of Marque to legally prey upon French shipping during the War of the Spanish Succession. After the war, he switched from privateering to outright piracy. Eventually, he became one of the Caribbean’s most notorious pirates, and by 1717, he commanded the most powerful ship in the region: a 30 gun sloop, the Ranger, which allowed him to prey on shipping with impunity. His first mate was Edward Teach, later known as Blackbeard, and his proteges and acquaintances included other future notorious pirates such as Black Sam Bellamy and Stede Bonnet. Hornigold operated mainly near the Bahamas, and his base of operations was Nassau, which had become a notorious pirates’ nest. Hornigold and a bitter rival, Henry Jennings, transformed Nassau into a de facto Pirates’ Republic, governed by its own code of conduct and regulations.

The End of the Pirates’ Republic

In 1718, a new British governor offered a royal pardon to all who turned themselves in abandoned piracy. Hornigold came in at the last minute before the offer expired, and the governor commissioned him to hunt down those who had failed to accept the pardon. Accepting the commission, Hornigold turned upon his former friends and fell upon them with a will. He turned out to be an even better pirate hunter than he had been a pirate, and by December, 1718, Hornigold had captured 10 recalcitrant pirate captains, of whom 9 were executed. His actions effectively brought the Pirates’ Republic in Nassau to an end, and reestablished British control, and law and order, in the Bahamas. He was sailing about, hunting more pirates, when he drowned after his ship was caught in a storm and wrecked on an uncharted reef in late 1719.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Destruction of the Athenian army at Syracuse. Wikimedia

10. The General Whose Repeated Last Minute Switches Roiled Ancient Greece and Wrecked Athens

Alcibiades (450 – 404 BC) was Ancient Athens’ most dynamic, fascinating, and catastrophic leader. Born into a wealthy family, his father was killed when Alcibiades was a toddler. Raised without firm guidance, Alcibiades grew into a self-indulgent man, whose brilliance and charm were counterbalanced by narcissism, irresponsibility, extravagance, and debauchery. Early in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, Alcibiades gained a reputation for courage and military talent. By 420 BC he had become a general, and in 415 BC, he persuaded Athens to invade Sicily and conquer Syracuse. Soon before departure, however, statues of the god Hermes were desecrated, and suspicion fell upon Alcibiades, whose immoral clique had a reputation for drunken vandalism and impiety. The expedition sailed to Sicily, with a cloud hanging over its leader. When Alcibiades was eventually summoned to stand trial before the Athenian Assembly, he fled and defected to Sparta.

Athens’ Catastrophic Defeat

Following his last minute defection, Alcibiades advised the Spartans to adopt a strategy that annihilated the Sicilian expedition – the army he had organized, convinced Athens to send to Sicily, and whose men he had once led. It was the most catastrophic defeat suffered by Athens during the war, and of the tens of thousands of Athenians who took part, only a handful survived. The rest were either killed outright, or enslaved and worked to death in Sicilian quarries. Alcibiades also persuaded the Spartans to alter their strategy of marching into Athens’ Attica region each year, burning and looting, then withdrawing and repeating the process the following year. Instead, he had the Spartans establish a permanent base in Attica, from which they could pressure Athens year round. He also went to Ionia, where he stirred Athens’ allies and client states into revolting.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Bust of Alcibiades. Capitoline Museum

9. Alcibiades’ Further Last Minute Switches

Alcibiades wore out his welcome in Sparta, when he was caught in bed with Spartan king Agis II’s wife. He fled again, this time to Persia. There, Alcibiades convinced the Persians to intervene in the war in order to prolong it, and thus keep Athens and Sparta too busy fighting each other to challenge Persia’s interests in the region. In the meantime, Athens fell into chaos, that culminated in an oligarchic coup. However, Athens’ fleet, composed predominately of the lower classes, remained pro democracy. In the turmoil, Alcibiades saw an opportunity, ditched the Persians, and convinced the Athenian fleet to take him back.

From 411 to 408 BC, Alcibiades led the Athenian navy to a series of stunning victories that turned the war around, and suddenly it was Sparta that was reeling and on the verge of collapse. Alcibiades returned to a hero’s welcome in Athens, his earlier treasons forgiven and temporarily forgotten. However, the Athenians turned on Alcibiades a few months later, after a minor naval defeat during his absence from the fleet. He fled again, and having burned bridges with all sides, took refuge in Phrygia. There, a Spartan delegation persuaded Phrygia’s Persian governor to murder Alcibiades in 404 BC.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Queen Tomyris and the head of Cyrus the Great. Ancient Records

8. Cyrus The Great Accepts a Battle He Should Have Left Alone

In the 6th century BC, the Massagetae were nomads roaming the Central Asian Steppe between the Caspian Sea and China. Their raids into Persian lands galled Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, so he led an army to bring the Massagetae to heel. He won an initial victory against nomads commanded by the son of the Massagetae queen, Tomyris, following a ruse in which the Persians “forgot” a huge stock of wine in an abandoned camp. The Massagetae captured the wine, and unused to the drink, got smashed. Cyrus then turned around and fell upon the intoxicated nomads, killing many, including Tomyris’ son. Having taught the nomads a lesson, Cyrus and his men marched back towards home, until Tomyris sent a message, challenging them to a second battle. Cyrus was inclined to keep going, but changed his mind at the last minute and accepted the challenge.

First Hand Account

That turned out to be a huge mistake. As Herodoutus described the ensuing battle, fought circa 530 BC: “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 had Cyrus’ corpse beheaded and crucified. She then threw his severed head into a vessel filled with human blood. According to Herodotus, she is quoted as having 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!

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
King Alexander I of Greece. Alternate History Wikia

7. Acting as Peacemaker Between a Dog and Monkeys Cost a King Dearly

King Alexander of Greece was strolling through the Royal Gardens with his dog on September 30th, 1920, when monarch and pooch came across a Barbary macaque monkey. The dog took off and attacked the monkey, which fought back. In hindsight, the king should have kept out and left them to get on with it, but on the spur of the moment, he decided to play peacemaker. Alexander rushed in to separate the brawling animals. What Alexander did not know, however, was that the monkey had friends.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Barbary macaque monkeys. Julia Mathewson

Monkey Business

As the king struggled to restore the peace, another monkey came in howling, eager defend his buddy. Seeing what appeared to be Alexander and a dog ganging up on his pal, the newly arrived monkey joined the fray, and fell upon the king, biting him in the leg and upper body several times. Alexander’s entourage heard the commotion, rushed to his aid, and chased the monkeys away, but by then the damage had already been done. The monkey bites became inflamed, and the king developed a serious infection. Amputation of the leg was considered, but none of the doctors wanted to take responsibility, so it was left until it was too late. By the time amputation was taken up again as a serious option, the infection had spread into the king’s body. Three weeks after the monkey fight, king Alexander died of sepsis, at age 27.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Themistocles. Ancient World History

6. King Xerxes’ Last Minute Decision to Accept Advice From an Enemy Lost Him a War

King Xerxes of Persia set out to conquer Greece in 480 BC. After defeating a Spartan force at Thermopylae, the Persians captured a nearly deserted Athens, razed the city’s walls, and burned the place the ground. They then assembled their navy of about 600 to 800 warships on the beaches south of Athens, near the island of Salamis to the west. An allied Greek navy of about 375 warships, mostly Athenian, awaited them, guarding the eastern entrance of a strait separating Salamis from the Greek mainland.

The Greek navy was under the nominal command of the Spartan Eurybiades, but in practice, the true commander was the Athenian Themistocles. Athens’ Greek allies wavered, and called for a retreat from Salamis. Themistocles convinced them to stay by threatening that the Athenians would defect to the Persians if the allies refused to fight. However, as it was clear that the other Greeks’ commitment was shaky, Themistocles decided to force a battle as soon as possible.

A Fragile Greek Alliance

All Xerxes had to do to win was keep his fleet in place, until the fragile Greek alliance fell apart, or they launched an unwise attack against his more numerous ship. The one thing he did not need to do, and should not have done, but ended up doing at the last minute, was to attack the Greek fleet in Salamis. To get the Persian king to commit that monumental mistake, Themistocles sent Xerxes a secret message claiming friendship, and informing him that the Greeks were demoralized. To trap them, Themistocles advised, the Persians should send a naval detachment to block the western exit of the strait, then attack from the east. The bottled up Greeks would then either surrender, or put up a poor show. Either way, Xerxes would emerge victorious.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Battle of Salamis. Ancient Warfare

5. Xerxes Accepts Themistocles’ Recommendation

Xerxes accepted Themistocles’ advise, and the Greeks panicked the next day when they discovered that the Persians had bottled them up in the strait. Themistocles calmed them down, and devised a plan whereby the Greeks retreated far up into the narrows. The Persians wanted to fight with their ships on an east-west line facing Salamis, which would have allowed them to attack on a broad front, and use their numerical superiority to overlap and envelop their foes. Instead, Themistocles drew them into a battle whose lines ran north-south, along the narrow front of the strait’s width. That canceled the Persian numerical superiority at the point of contact, while drawing the maximum number of Persian ships into the restricted waters, before the Greeks counterattacked. Essentially, by getting the Persians to cram their huge navy into a tight space, Themistocles turned the Persians’ numerical superiority into a disadvantage.

The Demise

Persian ships found themselves packed in an ever tighter space, fouling each other and unable to properly maneuver. All the while, more and more Persian captains, seeking to impress Xerxes, who was watching the battle from a nearby hilltop, rushed in, adding their ships to the growing jam ahead. To add to the Persians’ woes, the waters off Salamis were tricky, and while the Greeks knew their secrets, the Persians did not. All those factors combined to bring about a decisive Greek victory, in which the Greeks lost about 40 ships, while the Persians lost about 300. Casualties were even more lopsided than the ship losses, as many Greeks who ended up in the water swam to the safety of nearby Salamis. Persians, by contrast, were either shot by arrows as they neared Salamis, or were slaughtered as soon as they reached shore.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Thomas Stanley, First Earl of Derby. British Museum

4. Thomas Stanley’s Waiting Until the Last Minute to Make Up His Mind Had Momentous Consequences

English magnate Thomas Stanley, First Earl of Derby (circa 1435 – 1504), had extensive landholdings in northwest England, which he ran like a semi-independent ruler. As a result, Stanley’s allegiance was sought by both the Yorkist and Lancastrian contenders during the Wars of Roses (1455 – 1487) – a conflict that Stanley effectively ended by waiting until the last minute to make a huge decision. This occurred during the reign of Yorkist king Richard III. Richard had been crowned in 1483 after the death of his older brother, king Edward IV, who had named Richard guardian and regent during the minority of Edward’s son and successor, 12 year old Edward V. However, Richard declared Edward IV’s sons illegitimate, imprisoned them in the Tower of London, where they disappeared and were likely murdered, and crowned himself king.

A Betrayal

Henry Tudor, the last viable male descendant of the competing Lancastrian line, challenged Richard for the throne, and after years of exile, landed in England in 1485. Richard gathered his forces, which included a big contingent commanded by Thomas Stanley, a major Yorkist loyalist and supporter, and marched out to meet his challenger. Stanley was conflicted, however: his family had been Lancastrians, but he had defected to the Yorkists. He was handsomely rewarded for that betrayal with lands and estates, and was appointed to powerful positions in the royal government. Stanley was thus indebted to the Yorkists, but there was a hiccup: he also happened to be married to Henry Tudor’s mother, so the challenger was his stepson. As a result, Stanley did everything possible to put off a decision until the last minute.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
Battle of Bosworth, by Philip James de Loutherbourg. Wikimedia

3. Waiting Until the Last Minute Worked Out Great For Stanley

Stuck between the rock of loyalty to Richard III, and the hard place of peace in his own home, Thomas Stanley decided to play both sides. While professing loyalty to Richard, he secretly contacted Richard’s challenger, Henry Tudor, to explore defection. Richard found out about the double dealing, however, and seized Stanley’s son as a hostage for the Earls good behavior and insurance against treachery. He then ordered him to join the Yorkist army with his contingent, which Stanley reluctantly did. The challengers met at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485, but Stanley remained undecided, and kept his men out of the fight, while waiting to see which side looked like a winner. A livid Richard III sent Stanley a message, threatening to execute his son unless he immediately attacked the Lancastrians, only for the Earl to coolly reply: “Sire, I have other sons“.

Richard ordered Stanley’s son executed, but the order was not immediately carried out, and soon, it was too late. At last, Stanley made up his mind that king Richard was losing the battle, and ordered an attack – against Richard and the Yorkist forces. That tipped the scales against Richard III, who launched a final desperate attack seeking to reach and cut down his challenger, only to get cut down himself. After Richard’s death, Stanley found his fallen crown in some shrubs, and personally placed it on the head of Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty. Stanley’s stepson and new king of England generously rewarded the treacherous earl for procrastinating until the last minute.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Wikimedia

2. The Wrong Turn That Changed History

The murder of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, by the Serbian terrorist group The Black Hand, was history’s most impactful single act of terrorism. It almost never came off, and only succeeded at the last minute, after a comedy of errors involving a series of failed attempts. The parade of follies included a terrorist who threw a bomb that failed to kill the target, and who then made a failed suicide attempt by swallowing expired cyanide. He then made another failed attempt at suicide by drowning himself in a river, that turned out to be only only inches deep. One of the terrorists, Gavrilo Princep, gave up, and went to grab a bite at a cafe. To his astonishment, the Archduke’s convertible, whose chauffer had taken a wrong turn, suddenly came to a stop just a few feet away.

A World Changing Move

As the driver attempted to reverse, Princep stepped up to the open vehicle and fired two shots, killing the Archuduke and his wife. A swift chain of events followed, culminating in calamity. Austria declared war on Serbia, which dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That in turn dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally. Germany’s entry brought in France, Russia’s ally. That prompted Germany to invade France via Belgium. German violation of Belgian territory brought in Britain, a guarantor of Belgian sovereignty. Over 70 million men were mobilized in the ensuing war, and 10 million were killed. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. An age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end, and a fervent and fast paced era of democracies, juxtaposed with radical ideologies and totalitarianism, took its place.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
RMS Titanic. New York Post

1. The Last Minute Personnel Switch That Sank the Titanic

Shortly before the Titanic sailed from Southampton to New York on April 10th, 1912, the liner made a last minute personnel change, and replaced its second officer, David Blair, with the more experienced Charles Lightoller. Unfortunately, Blair never got around to giving, and Lightoller never got around to asking for, the keys to a locker that contained the ship’s binoculars. So on its maiden voyage, the Titanic sailed with lookouts who lacked binoculars. In the days before disaster struck, nobody seems to have reasoned that lookouts might need binoculars. Or if anybody did, nobody decided that the ship’s safety might be worth breaking the lock to get the binoculars. It was a bad cost-benefit analysis, that resulted in tragedy.

A Tragic Mistake Revealed

Around 11:40PM on the night of April 14th, 1912, lookout Frederick Fleet spotted an iceberg in the Titanic‘s path, and alerted the bridge. The officer in charge ordered the engines stopped and the ship steered around the obstacle. However, given the distance to the iceberg when the alarm was sounded, the Titanic’s speed at the time, and the ship’s mass, disaster was inevitable. Basic physics made it impossible for the mammoth ship to maneuver away in time to avoid a collision, so the “unsinkable” Titanic struck the iceberg, and sank. Over 1500 passengers and crewmen lost their lives, making it one of history’s worst peacetime maritime disasters. In the ensuing investigation, lookout Frederick Fleet testified that he would have spotted the iceberg sooner, and the ship would thus have had more reaction time to steer away from a collision, if he’d only had binoculars.

Last Minute Decisions That Changed History
The Titanic’s port bow. National Geographic


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

History Net – Field Marshall Erwin Rommel‘s Defense of Normandy During World War II

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Battle of Teutoburg Forst

BBC, September 26th, 2013 – Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who May Have Saved the World

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

History dot Com – When Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in 1912, a Speech May Have Saved His Life

Ancient Origins – Tomyris, the Female Warrior and Ruler Who May Have Killed Cyrus the Great

Business Insider, June 6th, 2012 – Here‘s the Chilling Letter General Eisenhower Drafted in Case the Nazis Won on D-Day

Council on Foreign Relations – TWE Remembers: Secret Soviet Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Cuba (Cuban Missile Crisis, a Coda)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Al Mutanabbi

Forbes, August 27th, 2013 – How Martin Luther King Improvised ‘I Have a Dream’

Ancient Warfare – The Battle of Salamis

History Today – Latimer and Ridley Burned at the Stake

Hornfischer, James D. – The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the US Navy‘s Finest Hour (2005)

Jewish Encyclopedia – Eleazar

Lord, Walter – Incredible Victory (1967)

New York Times, August 7th, 1995 – Kokura, Japan, Bypassed by A-Bomb

Ranker – 13 Last Minute Decisions That Changed World History

Republic of Pirates – Benjamin Hornigold

Royal Central – The King Who Was Killed by a Monkey

Telegraph, The, August 29th, 2007 – Key That Could Have Saved the Titanic

Time Magazine, February 3rd, 2009 – The Day the Music Died

Ultimate Classic Rock – Les Harvey, Electrocuted During a Concert

History of War – Thomas, Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby c. 1433 – 1504

Unofficial Royalty – Assassination of Alexander II, Emperor of All Russia

Wikipedia – Flight to Varennes

Wikipedia – Humayun