The rise of Francisco “Pancho” Villa (1878 – 1923) to prominence was as dramatic as it was unexpected. He was born into a family of sharecroppers in the Mexican state of Durango and was raised in poverty. Villa received some elementary schooling in early childhood but had not progressed beyond basic literacy when his father died and he was forced to quit school and help his mother. He worked a variety of menial jobs, interspersed with stints of banditry with local gangs. At age sixteen, he reportedly killed his first man, a hacienda owner whom he accused of raping his sister.
Villa then stole his victim’s horse and fled to the hills, which became his base for years to come as he turned to full-time banditry. Captured in 1902, he was spared the death penalty and inducted into the Mexican army instead. He deserted after killing an officer and stealing his horse, and returned to banditry. When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, Villa was persuaded that he could fight for the people by directing his banditry against hacienda owners. He was good at the revolution’s style of warfare, and was instrumental in defeating the government’s forces in northern Mexico.
The Mexican rebels’ alliance split after victory, because the new government failed to enact promised land reforms. Pancho Villa was made a brigadier general, and he supported the new government against his former comrades. Then he struck a superior general during a quarrel and was sentenced to death. In an unexpected twist in a life full of unexpected twists, Villa was saved from the firing squad at the last moment by the arrival of a telegram from Mexico’s president, ordering his imprisonment instead.
Villa escaped and fled to the US. He secured American support, and returned to Mexico in 1913 to fight against a new government that had seized power in a coup. Villa again achieved considerable success, and local military commanders appointed him governor of the state of Chihuahua. As governor, he confiscated grand haciendas, and broke them up into smaller plots which he redistributed to the widows and families of fallen revolutionaries. It was during this period that Villa gained international fame, and was depicted in the press as a romantic bandit-warrior who took from the rich and gave to the poor.
Pancho Villa’s side won, but the victorious allies fell out again. He fared poorly in this third round, and suffered repeated setbacks. By 1915, he was reduced to a small band hiding in the hills of Chihuahua, and America shifted its support from Villa to his opponents. Feeling betrayed, he began attacking American interests in northern Mexico, and in 1916, crossed the US-Mexico border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. America responded with a military expedition to Mexico, to hunt down Villa. He eluded the Americans, and his popularity rose among Mexicans resentful of the intrusion.
Villa continued a low-scale guerrilla campaign until 1920 when he made peace and recognized the Mexican government in exchange for an amnesty and a 25,000-acre hacienda. In 1923, he announced plans to run for president. Soon thereafter, his car was ambushed and shot up, and he was fatally wounded. The violent death of a violent man is not exactly unexpected, but Villa’s final words were pretty unexpected. He figured that his interesting life should end with an interesting final statement. However, he could think of nothing memorable as he lay dying. So Pancho Villa’s last words were: “Don’t let it end like this! Tell them I said something!”
22. An Unexpected Attack That Should Have Totally Been Expected
The Soviets suffered horrific losses during the opening months of the German invasion in 1941. The seeds were planted years earlier, during Stalin’s Military Purge. It began in 1937 and threw the Soviet military into turmoil by removing its most experienced commanders: 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 corps commanders, all 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars. The Purge also decimated the country’s best middle-rank officers. Until 1937, the Soviet military had been innovative, and the intellectual ferment within the Red Army, such as the Theory of Deep Operations, was as creative as anything the Germans were doing at the time.
The Soviets had their equivalents of Guderians and Mannsteins, brimming with ideas and confident that they would revolutionize warfare. They suffered the most, because the Purge fell heaviest on the most creative and free-thinking officers, since they stood out and were thus prime suspects of harboring the deviationist tendencies that Stalin wanted to be stamped out. Thus, when Hitler attacked, the Soviet military was poorly officered and led. Worse, Stalin ignored warnings of impending invasion. Those who raised the alarm were punished, as Stalin insisted it was a plot engineered by the British to instigate a war between the USSR and Germany.
21. A Meddlesome Dictator Takes a Bad Situation and Makes it Worse
Soviet commanders were prohibited from taking precautionary measures, lest they provoke the Germans. Hours after the invasion began, Stalin disbelieved Soviet commanders reporting that they were being overrun. He insisted that they were experiencing border incidents, not war. Stalin also fancied himself a talented generalissimo, and meddled too much. Among his poor decisions were orders to counterattack issued to units unable to do so, and orders to stay put and fight to the last man when retreat was the better option. The result was a series of massive encirclements, in which the Germans would capture up to 700,000 Soviets per encirclement.
By the end of 1941, the Germans had captured 3.4 million Soviet POWs, most of whom died in captivity. In the war’s first six months, the Soviets suffered over 6 million military casualties, plus millions of civilians – more than any country has ever suffered in a similar period. It took superhuman efforts and sacrifice for them to recover, claw their way back up, and win in the end. Stalin deserves much credit for keeping the USSR in the fight long after any other country would have thrown in the towel. However, Stalin deserves even more credit for the unexpected scale of the catastrophe at the war’s beginning.
In 1815, the Battle of Waterloo ended decades of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and established the broad outlines of European geopolitics for nearly a century. Nowadays, we are used to the notion of honoring those killed in war. That can be seen in the solemnity surrounding Unknown Soldier memorials around the world, and the reverence for war cemeteries. However, it was not always so. In 1815, those killed in action were usually stripped of valuables. In an unexpected twist – at least unexpected today – the “valuables” of those killed at Waterloo included their very corpses.
Waterloo’s dead had their teeth pulled out, to get fashioned into dentures. Waterloo was such a bonanza for Britain’s denture industry, that sets made of human teeth were known as “Waterloo dentures” for years afterward. Their bones – like the bones of those killed in other Napoleonic battles such as Austerlitz and Leipzig – were shipped to Britain and ground into fertilizer. As a correspondent wrote in The Observer in 1822: “the good farmers of Yorkshire are, in a great measure, indebted to the bones of their children for their daily bread“.
19. The Most Momentous Five Minutes in the History of Warfare?
At 10:25 AM on the morning of June 4, 1942, Japan was mistress of the Pacific, had the world’s strongest naval aviation force, and was dictating the terms of war. By 10:30 AM, Japan had effectively lost World War II. That dramatically unexpected turnaround makes those five minutes some of the most momentous five minutes in the history of war. They reversed the momentum in the Pacific War, where Japan had gone on a rampage after her attack on Pearl Harbor left the American fleet there smoking and sinking mess.
Japan wanted a battle of annihilation, like Tsushima, followed by a negotiated favorable peace. Pearl Harbor was a success, but no Tsushima. So the Japanese figured an invasion of Midway Island might lure what was left of the US Navy into showing up for a climactic showdown. Assuming that the US Navy had only one or two aircraft carriers in the Pacific, the Japanese launched their operation with four fleet carriers. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, American cryptanalysts had cracked Japan’s secret codes and knew of the upcoming attack.
As the Japanese steamed to Midway, they were unaware that the US Navy had more carriers in the Pacific than expected. One had been transferred from the Atlantic, and another, damaged in an earlier battle and expected to take months to fix, was rushed back into service after 48 hours of repairs. Thus, the Japanese would meet three American carriers and an alert enemy waiting in ambush, rather than one or two carriers caught off guard. The Japanese launched a carrier strike against Midway on the morning of June 4th. They inflicted damage, but a second strike was necessary. So the Japanese aircraft were recovered and readied.
While preparing for that strike, the Japanese learned of the unexpected presence of American carriers. Midway wasn’t going anywhere, and destroying aircraft carriers was more important. So orders were given to switch bombs from ones intended for ground targets, to anti-ship bombs and torpedoes. In the meantime, American carriers had launched their own aircraft against the Japanese fleet. First to arrive were Devastator torpedo bombers – slow planes that had to fly low, steady, and straight, to launch their torpedoes. 41 Devastators attacked the Japanese carriers without fighter escort. 35 were shot down, without scoring a hit. The Japanese carriers resumed refueling and rearming to strike the American carriers.
While the American torpedo bombers were getting slaughtered, a flight of American Dauntless dive bombers trying to locate the Japanese was lost. They had neared the point beyond which they wouldn’t have enough fuel to return to their carriers, but their leader, Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, decided to keep going. He was rewarded by spotting a lone Japanese destroyer below. Guessing that it was heading to rejoin its fleet, he used its wake as an arrow, and that led him to the Japanese fleet.
It was a Japanese fleet caught at the worst possible time for an attack from dive bombers. The carriers were rearming and refueling, so their decks and hangars were full of bombs and torpedoes and gas. There was also no fighter cover. The Japanese fighters had gone down to intercept and destroy the torpedo bombers that had attacked at low level and had not yet regained altitude when American dive bombers showed up high above and dove down. Within five minutes, three of the four Japanese aircraft carriers were burning. The fourth was sunk later that day.
16. The Seesaw Korean War Was Filled With Unexpected Twists and Turns
The Korean War (1950 – 1953) was very much a seesaw affair in its first half. The conflict began when the North Koreans launched a surprise attack that routed their opponents. Within weeks, they overran most of the Korean Peninsula, and all that was left under the control of South Korean and American forces was a small corner around the port city of Pusan. Then American general Douglas MacArthur outflanked the North Koreans with a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon, which led to the invasion’s collapse.
MacArthur then chased the routed enemy up the Korean Peninsula. Despite warnings that communist China would intervene if his forces reached the Chinese border, MacArthur insisted that they would not dare do so. As a result, his forces pushed up to the Sino-Korean border. Unfortunately for MacArthur, the Chinese dared. In an unexpected attack, they caught him off guard, routed his forces, and chased him down the Korean Peninsula even faster than he had raced up it a few weeks earlier.
15. When You’re Desperate for Ammunition, But Receive Candy Instead
China’s unexpected intervention in the Korean War – at least unexpected by MacArthur – placed American troops in the Chosin Reservoir in dire straits. They numbered only 15,000, while the Chinese attacked them with around 120,000 men. Supplies ran low, temperatures plummeted to minus 25 degrees, and what food they did have was almost impossible to warm up. To top it off, the Americans ran low on mortar shells – which were particularly effective in the mountainous terrain.
So the imperiled Americans called for an immediate airdrop of mortar shells, using an established code name: Tootsie Rolls. Quartermasters in the rear jumped into action, and the Air Force swiftly organized an airlift and airdropped their cargo within US positions in the Chosin Reservoir. The beleaguered troops eagerly rushed to recover the precious mortar shells. However, when they cracked open the crates, they were horrified to discover that instead of life-saving munitions, what they had received were actual Tootsie Rolls.
14. When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade – But What if it Gives You Candy Instead of Desperately Needed Ammunition?
Americans in the Chosin Reservoir made an unexpected – and unwelcome – discovery when they received airdropped crates after requesting mortar shells, using the code Tootsie Rolls. The looks on their faces must have been something as they opened crate after crate, only to discover that instead of the desperately needed ammunition, they had been sent the actual candy. Fortunately, the troops soon discovered that Tootsie Rolls were among the few food items that were actually edible when frozen. The sugar boost also gave the weary fighters a needed jolt.
Additionally, innovation being a key component of the American national character, the troops found other uses for the candy. Chewed up Tootsie Rolls became like putty in the mouth, but froze solid when exposed to the frigid conditions of the Chosin Reservoir. So using Tootsie Rolls as improvised epoxy, the troops patched-up bullet holes in their 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.
13. An Unexpected Onslaught to Preserve America’s Bid for Independence
The American Patriots’ bid for independence was faring poorly as 1776 drew to a close. They had been outgeneraled, outfought, and soundly beaten. Most notably in New York City, where only a near-miraculous escape had saved them from annihilation. Morale was low, so George Washington planned a surprise raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence. He was helped by the opposing commander’s mistake in not bothering to read a warning alerting him to what the Americans were up to.
Washington sought to cross the Delaware River from Pennsylvania, where he was encamped, for an unexpected onslaught against Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, New Jersey. On the night of December 25th – 26th, cold, hungry, and demoralized Americans got into boats on a freezing night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. Bad weather and icy river conditions prevented two detachments from crossing, so Washington made it to the far bank with only 2400 men – 3000 fewer than planned for.
12. George Washington, Founding Father and Funny Man?
The opening stages of the Patriots’ advance against the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, New Jersey, was captured in Washington Crossing the Delaware. Painted by German -American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1851, it is one of the most iconic images of the American Revolution and of American history. It depicts George Washington and a flotilla of Patriots in boats crossing the Delaware River on the night of December 25 – 26, 1776, for a surprise attack against enemy forces.
The depiction of Washington standing at a boat’s prow, staring determinedly ahead while flanked by other Patriot-laden boats, is captivating. The painting’s portrayal of Washington is true to the essence of what is known of the man, who habitually projected an aura of detached dignity and a wall of formality that separated him from subordinates. It was not true, however, to Washington’s actual conduct during the crossing: it was one of the rare occasions when he let down the formality, and cracked jokes.
11. Unexpected Humor From George Washington at the Start of a Critical Operation Lifted His Soldiers’ Morale
As sleet was driven into and swirled around them on a miserably cold winter night, George Washington’s freezing and famished men clambered into boats. When it was Washington’s turn to get into a boat, he looked his overweight artillery chief, Henry Knox, and said: “Shift your fat ass, Harry! But don’t swamp the damn boat!” It was not exactly comedy gold. However, any levity from the reserved American commander in public was unexpected, and more so on such a serious occasion.
At first, the Patriots within hearing distance of the exchange were stunned. For a few moments, they stood looking at each other in shocked disbelief at what their ears had registered. Then somebody began to chuckle, and before long, contagious laughter rippled throughout the attacking force, as Washington’s comment was spread and repeated. With their spirits lifted, the Patriot fighting men got into their boats and began crossing the frozen Delaware River, ready to fall upon their enemy in Trenton.
10. An Ignored Warning That Gave the Patriots a Desperately-Needed Victory and Morale Boost
Fortunately for George Washington and the men he led on the night of December 25 – 26, 1776, they faced no opposition as they marched nine miles from the Delaware River to Trenton. Early on the morning of the 26th, the Americans fell upon their foes in an unexpected onslaught that caught the town’s Hessian garrison off guard. In a swift victory, Washington’s men killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand foes, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded.
The Hessian commander, Johann Rall, was mortally wounded. In his pocket was discovered a note from a Loyalist farmer, who had spotted the approaching Americans and sent a warning. Fortunately, Rall had not read the warning, and the note was still unopened when it was recovered. Trenton was a small battle, but one with far-reaching consequences. It inspired the Patriots when they needed a morale boost, saved their army from disintegration by attracting new recruits, and stemmed the tide of desertions by convincing many veterans to stick around.
In the early days of the War of 1812, British General Isaac Brock marched on Fort Detroit with 1330 men. His force consisted of 330 Redcoats, 400 Canadian militia, and 600 Native Americans, supported by three lights guns, five heavy guns, two mortars, and two warships. Brock’s target was garrisoned by a force nearly twice his own. The Americans had 600 US Army regulars, and nearly 2000 militia, sheltered within the protective walls of a fortress bristling with over 36 cannons. In an unexpected twist, Brock bluffed the Americans into surrendering to his smaller force.
For Detroit was commanded by an American War of Independence veteran and hero, General William Hull. Brock learned from captured messages that American morale was low, that the garrison was short of supplies, and that his enemies feared Brock’s Native American allies. Emboldened by that information, he decided to attack at once. Playing upon American fear of Indians, Brock arranged for a misleading letter to fall into American hands, that greatly exaggerated the number of his native allies from an actual 600 to a fanciful 5000 braves.
General Isaac Brock tricked the Americans into believing that he had more professional soldiers than he actually did, by dressing up his Canadian militia in castoff British regimental uniforms. Outside Detroit, he had the same soldiers march in a loop over the same stretch within eyesight of the garrison, duck out of sight, then return to march anew as if they were fresh reinforcements. Brock also made his men light five times as many fires at night than was the norm, to further convey an illusion of greater strength.
The American General Hull’s already-low confidence collapsed at the prospect of facing a strong British army accompanied by 5000 Natives. Brock sent a message demanding surrender. He informed Hull that he did not want to massacre the defenders, but he would have little control over his Indian allies once fighting commenced. Hull decided it was futile to resist. Unwilling to sacrifice his men against hopeless odds, and fearing for the women in children inside the Fort, including his own daughter and grandchild, he raised a white flag.
7. The Unexpected Surrender of Fort Detroit Derailed America’s Strategy for the War of 1812
General Hull asked Brock for three days to negotiate the terms of surrender. Brock gave him only three hours before he would attack. Hull caved in, and surrendered his entire command of nearly 2500 men, three dozen cannons, 300 rifles, 2500 muskets, and the only American warship in the Upper Lakes. The British cost was two men wounded. The unexpected surrender of Fort Detroit was a military disaster for the US. It derailed American plans to invade and seize Canada early in the war before the British had time to rush in reinforcements.
It also reinvigorated the Canadians, who had been pessimistic about the prospects of defending Canada from forcible annexation by the US. Simultaneously, it fired up Native Americans in the Northwest Territory to war against American outposts and settlers. An American invasion of Canada was attempted later on, but by then the British and loyal Canadians were better prepared and more confident, and the invasion was beaten back. After General Hull was released from British captivity, he faced an American court-martial that tried, convicted, and sentenced him to be shot to death. However, his life was spared because of his heroism decades earlier, during America’s War of Independence.
6. The Balkans Backwater Terrorists Who Changed the World
Throughout history, few things could have been more unexpected than the world-changing impact of the Serbian Black Hand. They were a small group of fanatics in a Balkans backwater of a country that few at the time knew of, fired up by nationalist grievances that few outside their homeland had ever heard of, let alone cared about. Yet, that unheralded collection of obscure malcontents set in motion a chain of events that ended up changing the world beyond all recognition.
The Serbian Black Hand was an early twentieth-century irredentist secret society, that sought to bring all Serbs together into a single country. They employed terrorist methods in a bid to free Serbs outside Serbia’s borders from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule and to unify them into a Greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary was the Black Hand’s main target, and the group’s assassins would go on to murder the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. The result was unprecedented mayhem, as the world was plunged into its greatest war until then. By the time the dust had settled, one era had ended, and another – in which we live to this day – had begun.
5. Serbia Was a “Problem” Country Long Before the Breakup of Yugoslavia
The Serbian Black Hand’s founders first came together in 1903. That year, a group of junior officers, led by then-Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic, later known as Apis, launched a bloody coup that culminated in the murder of the Serbian king and queen. The murder of royals shocked the era’s genteel sensibilities and cemented Serbia’s status as a “problem” country. In 1908, following Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, an act Serbia resented, the 1903 conspirators met with senior Serb officials to found a secret pan-Serbian organization. Its goal was to liberate Serbs living under foreign rule via a campaign of propaganda, sabotage, terrorism, and other clandestine means.
The following year, a furious Austria-Hungary forced Serbia, under threat of war, to abandon those activities. The Serbs did not stay cowed for long, however. In 1911, the Black Hand was established to resume the abandoned anti-Austro-Hungarian clandestine campaign, oversee its activities, and establish and coordinate nationalist revolutionary cells in Bosnia. The organization trained guerrillas, saboteurs, propagandists, and assassins, and sent them into the Hapsburg empire to destabilize it with terrorism and stir up nationalism and resentment among its Serbian subjects.
4. An Early Twentieth Century State Sponsor of Terrorism
In the years leading up to World War I, Serbia was a full-blown state sponsor of terrorism. The Black Hand’s leadership was composed primarily of high-ranking Serbian officials and army officers, including the country’s crown prince. The Serbian government was well informed of the group’s terrorist activities. Apis, who had led the coup that murdered the royal family in 1903, had risen to colonel in charge of Austria’s military intelligence by 1914 and was the Black Hand’s primary mover and shaker.
In 1914, he hatched a plot to send assassins to kill Austria’s successor to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. No single act of terrorism was more momentous than that assassination. It began with a comedy of errors, in which various assassins tried but failed to kill the Archduke. One threw a bomb that didn’t kill its target, then swallowed cyanide that had expired, and tried to drown himself in a river that was only inches deep. The comedy ended with an unexpected twist of fate, and the tragedy began.
3. An Unexpected Twist of Fate Transformed an Assassination Plot From a Bungled Comedy of Errors to a Global Tragedy
The Serbian Black Hand’s attempt to assassinate Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand had devolved into a farce, as would-be assassins bungled in a variety of ways. At least those who had actually tried to assassinate their target bungled. Others grew discouraged and simply walked away. The comedy of errors ended when the royal’s convertible took a wrong turn that brought it within a few feet of Gavrilo Princip, an assassin who had given up and gone to grab a bite. Taking advantage of his unexpected luck, Princip stepped up to the open vehicle and fired two shots that killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife.
The aftermath saw a Rube Goldberg chain of events, that plunged the world into war. Austria declared war on Serbia, which dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That in turn dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally. France, Russia’s ally against Germany, then joined the fray, prompting Germany to invade France via Belgium. That gave Britain a more palatable justification to join as an outraged guarantor of Belgium’s violated sovereignty, in lieu of the realpolitik European balance of power considerations which would have compelled her to fight Germany anyhow.
2. The Man Who Started World War I Lived Until Its Final Year
Gavrilo Princip (1894 – 1918) was a Serb from Bosnia-Herzegovina, then a territory ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a teenager, he was radicalized by Serbian nationalists who called for a country that unified all southern Slavs (“Yugoslavia”). So he joined an organization dedicated to freeing Slavs from Austria-Hungary’s control. Violent activism got him expelled from school in 1912, so he walked 170 miles to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, to become a guerrilla and raid across the border into Austro-Hungarian territory.
He was soon recruited by the Serbian Black Hand. They equipped and trained Princep and other terrorists, then sent them to assassinate Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June, 1914. Princip fired the fatal shots, then swallowed a cyanide pill immediately after. However, it had expired, and he was captured. He was tried and convicted, but was only nineteen years old at the time – twenty-seven days short of the twenty-year-old minimum age under Austro-Hungarian law for the death penalty. So he received the maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment. Gavrilo Princip contracted tuberculosis in prison and died on April 28, 1918, three years and ten months after sparking World War I.
1. The End of History’s Most Impactful Terrorist Group
The Serbian Black Hand’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand kicked off a global war in which over 70 million men were mobilized, and 10 million were killed. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. A staid age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end. It was replaced by a new fervent and fast-paced era of democracies, juxtaposed with radical ideologies and totalitarianism. The Black Hand’s bullets in Sarajevo had irrevocably changed the world.
Serbia paid a high price. It stood off an initial Austrian onslaught, but in 1915 the Germans joined and helped the Austrians overrun Serbia. One-fifth of Serbia’s population perished during the war – the highest casualty percentage suffered by any country in World War I. Serbia’s prime minister finally had enough of the Black Hand, which had grown too powerful and too meddlesome. In 1917, its leaders, including Apis, were arrested and tried on trumped-up charges for conspiracy to murder the Prince Regent. They were convicted, sentenced to death, and executed, and the group was outlawed.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading