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 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