Ramesses II fought the Battle of Kadesh in 1274, the earliest battle in recorded history for which details such as tactics and formations are known. 6000 chariots took part, which also made it the biggest chariot clash in history. It occurred against a backdrop of a generations-long rivalry between Egypt and the Hittite Empire of Anatolia, as they jockeyed to control the lands of Canaan between them. Early in his reign (1279 – 1213 BC), Ramesses II decided to finish off the protracted war once and for all. Over a period of years, he patiently assembled a powerful army, and built up supply depots.
When all was ready, he marched north from Egypt into Canaan with four divisions. First was the Amon Division, led by Ramesses in person, followed by the divisions of Re, Ptah, and Sutekh. When he heard the news, the Hittite King Muwatalli II marched south from Anatolia into Canaan, with 3000 heavy chariots and 8000 infantry. In the late spring of 1274 BC, Ramesses emerged from the hills above the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River, near today’s Lebanon-Syria border, without having spotted the Hittites. They were far closer than he knew.
17. An Indecisive Battle Depicted as a Decisive Victory
The Hittites were hidden behind Kadesh when Ramesses II reached the city, but nomads falsely informed the pharaoh that his enemies were nowhere near. Emboldened, Ramesses hurried with the Amon Division to Kadesh, and left the rest of his army behind to catch up. As Ramesses advanced, the Hittites circled around the city, and made sure to keep Kadesh between themselves and the Egyptians as they did so. While Ramesses and the Division of Amon made camp, the Division of Re straggled up the road behind. That was when 2000 massed Hittite chariots charged directly across the Egyptian line of march. They wrecked the Division of Re, then surrounded Ramesses in his camp.
The pharaoh gathered his personal guards, and led a desperate charge that drove some Hittite leaders into the Orontes River. Fortunately for Ramesses, the Hittites behind him abandoned their chariots to loot the Egyptian camp. That was when the Division of Sutekh arrived in the nick of time, and slaughtered the looters. As the Hittite King Muwatalli sent in the rest of his chariots, the last Egyptian Division of Ptah arrived, and the battle lasted until sunset. After prolonged slaughter, the Hittites finally withdrew into Kadesh, and left the field – and victory – to Ramesses. Upon his return, the warrior pharaoh littered Egypt with monuments and murals that detailed the engagement, and in which he described himself as “Ramesses, the Great, Conqueror of the Hittites” – which is how we know so much about the battle.
Heroes and heroines in real life, unlike in comic books and movies, seldom wear capes and tight leotards. In the case of real life heroine Edith Cavell (1865 – 1915), she wore a nurse’s smock and cap. As a middle-aged woman, Cavell saved hundreds of lives early in the First World War. She was not armed with a gun when she did that. Instead, she was armed and armored by a faith and sense of basic decency that compelled her to help those in need.
Also, unlike the fate of heroes and heroines movies and comic books, her story did not end happily. Because it happened in real life, and in real life the hero comes to grief more often than not, Edith Cavell’s heroism got her executed by a firing squad. Born in 1865 in a small English village in East Anglia, Cavell was the eldest of four children of a vicar and his equally religious wife. She received an excellent by the standards of her day, and upon graduation, she worked as a governess, including for a family in Brussels from 1890-1895.
Edith Cavell left Belgium and returned to England to care for her father when he became seriously ill. By the time he recovered, Cavell realized that she had discovered what she wanted to do for the rest of her life: become a nurse. So in 1896, she began to train as a nurse, and graduated two years later. Her early Christian upbringing instilled in her a sense of duty towards those less fortunate than herself, and that led her to apply for work in hospitals that served the poorer parts of London.
She was invited back to Brussels in 1907 to become the matron, or chief nurse, of Belgium’s first modern school for nurses. By 1910, the energetic Cavell had launched Belgium’s first nursing journal, and was training nurses for three hospitals, thirteen kindergartens, and twenty four schools. When Germany invaded Belgium in 1914 and kicked off WWI in the west, Cavell was in England, on a visit to her mother. She felt that it was her duty to return to Brussels immediately.
In the eleven months that followed, Cavell helped over 200 British, French, and Belgian soldiers and civilians. She sheltered them in her hospital, furnished them with false identity papers, and arranged to smuggle them across the border to safety. As she put it: “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved“. Her efforts to help others were honorable, but they were also illegal under the laws of war. The Germans suspected Cavell, but could find no evidence against her, until she was betrayed by a collaborator. She was arrested on August 3rd, 1915, and imprisoned for ten weeks – the last two in solitary confinement.
When the Germans deposed Edith Cavell, she confessed. She admitted that she had sheltered about 60 British and 15 French soldiers, plus over 100 Belgian and French civilians of military age, then helped smuggle them across the border. Her admission that she had helped enemy soldiers escape to countries at war with Germany sealed her fate. She was tried before a military tribunal, convicted, and sentenced to death. Legally, the Germans had every right to execute Cavell – a civilian who helped Germany’s enemies in the midst of a declared war. Her protection as a Red Cross nurse was forfeited when she used it as cover to help Germany’s foes.
In the long and tortuous course of the US Civil War, the fall of 1862 might have been the lowest point for the federal government and the Union’s cause. The year had started promisingly enough with a campaign that sought to capture Richmond, but a series of mistakes turned that into a fiasco. Then the Confederates under Robert E. Lee dealt the federals a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Second Bull Run in August, and early in September, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland.
Things looked bleak, with Britain and France about to recognize the Confederates’ independence, when the Union caught an unexpected break. On September 13th, as the Army of the Potomac hurried to catch up with Lee’s forces, Union Army Corporal Barton Mitchell arrived at a campsite that had been recently vacated by the enemy. As he rummaged around, he found an envelope with three cigars wrapped in some papers. The papers turned out to be Special Orders No. 191, in which Lee had spelled out his army’s movements.
Robert E. Lee‘s Special Orders No. 191 were rocketed up the Army of the Potomac’s chain of command, until they reached its chief, General George B. McClellan. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Confederate army was spread out, and that fate had gifted him an unexpected golden opportunity to defeat his enemy’s scattered units one by one, before they could unite. Unfortunately, McClellan was not the best man to seize golden opportunities, and Lee managed to concentrate his army in the nick of time.
10. War is Good for TV Ratings, So a TV Network Tried to Finance One
A healthy society and government cannot do without a free media and a decent dose of investigative reportage. However, investigative journalism is not that easy, and requires diligence, persistence, long hours and hard work. Not everybody is a big fan of hard work, so it should come as no surprise that on occasion, unscrupulous investigative reporters have resorted to unethical means and cut corners as they chased a story. Or, instead of bother to chase a story at all, they decided to simply create one from scratch.
The latter is what happened in 1966, when CBS producers heard of plans to invade multiple Caribbean islands. They were pushed by a man named Rolando “El Tigre” Masferrer, one of the most extreme – and vile – Cubans forced out by Fidel Castro. Head of a paramilitary group of exiles known as Los Tigres, he came up with an ambitious scheme to invade the Dominican Republic and Haiti, as preludes to an invasion of Cuba. CBS figured that it might have a ratings hit on its hands, and agreed to finance the invasions in exchange for the exclusive right to broadcast them.
9. An Unscrupulous CBS Got Scammed Hard by an Even More Unscrupulous Would-Be Warlord
Rolando Masferrer thought up Project Nassau: a multiple step plan to invade Cuba. American enthusiasm for a Cuba invasion had evaporated after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, so Masferrer needed another base of operations. He plotted to invade and seize the Dominican Republic as a first step. He would then use the Dominican Republic as a base from which to invade and seize next door Haiti. He would then use Haiti, in turn, as a base from which he would invade Castro’s Cuba. Masferrer approached CBS, and offered it exclusive broadcast rights over the multiple invasions in exchange for financial support. The network agreed, and paid over $200,000 to fund his schemes.
CBS cameras followed Project Nassau for eight months. They filmed smugglers as they brought guns into Florida. They covered training exercises, one of which ended with the explosion of a rifle that took out an exile’s eye. They conducted a weird interview with Masferrer, who for some reason wore pantyhose over his head. CBS eventually pulled out when it realized that it was the victim of a scam, and that the “training” was staged. The plotters were arrested and convicted of arms smuggling and violations of the Neutrality Act, and CBS was investigated and censured by Congress. The exile who lost his eye sued CBS for workers’ compensation, on grounds that he was employed by the network at the time. CBS reached a settlement with him out of court.
Terriers, spaniels, French hounds, greyhounds, Briards and Newfoundlands were just some of the breeds that Washington kept at one time or another. He housed a pack of foxhounds in a well-maintained kennel, with a spring that ran through it to supply them with fresh water. He personally inspected the kennel twice a day, when he dropped by to check on his beloved hounds. As seen below, Washington’s love of dogs even led him to call an unexpected truce amidst the American Revolutionary War, in order to return an enemy’s lost dog.
7. A Lost Battle, With a Four-Legged Consolation Prize
Although George Washington was a great leader, he was only a so-so general who lost more battles than he won. Fortunately for him, the ones that he won included the conflict’s most important engagement: the Siege of Yorktown, that concluded with the surrender of a British army and effectively brought the American War of Independence to an end. The ones that he lost included the Battle of Germantown, near Philadelphia on October 4th, 1777, in which a British army led by Sir William Howe defeated Washington and his forces.
As they retreated after their loss, the American soldiers discovered that their ranks included an unexpected addition: an unknown but clearly well-kept terrier. When they inspected the dog’s collar, the soldiers discovered that it belonged to Sir William Howe. The British commander’s dog had wandered into the battlefield, and amidst the din, chaos, and confusion, it attached itself to the Americans. The Patriots wanted to keep it in order to taunt Howe and the British, but their commander was too classy to keep another man’s dog.
George Washington resisted his men’s calls to keep Sir William Howe’s prized terrier. Instead, he sent a messenger under a white flag of truce, across the lines to the British commander. The messenger delivered the dog to Sir William, along with a note that read in relevant part: “General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return to him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe“.
The British commander was impressed by the unexpected gesture from his enemy, expressed his gratitude to Washington, and described the incident as “the honorable act of a fine gentleman“. The episode did not end the war, which continued unabated for years. Nor did it end Howe’s participation in the conflict. However, although he continued to fight and win battles against the Americans, Sir William Howe did so with less enthusiasm than he had exhibited before Washington interrupted the war to return his dog.
5. When Japan Refused to Accept a Declaration of War
The Empire of Japan kicked off WWII in the Pacific on December 7th, 1941, when it attacked the US at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, and British and Dutch possessions in Asia and the Pacific. That triggered declarations of war against Japan not only from the attacked countries, but also from a slew of allied countries that were already at war with Germany. To demonstrate their solidarity with America and Britain, they rushed to add Japan to their list of formal enemies.
Many war declarations against Japan came from governments in exile, that represented countries conquered by Germany. However, the declaration of one exiled government elicited an odd reaction: when Poland declared war against Japan, the Japanese refused to accept the declaration. As Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo put it: “We do not accept Poland’s challenge. The Poles, fighting for their freedom, only declared war on us under pressure from the United Kingdom”. Despite Poland’s war declaration, Japanese-Polish ties continued, and Japan went so far as to help the Poles against Japan’s own Axis ally, Germany.
4. The Romantic Roots of an Unlikely Friendship Between Distant Countries
The Poles and Japanese are not exactly two peas in a pod, but Poland and Japan shared a common enemy: Russia. Russia had participated in repeated partitions of Poland that erased it as an independent country in the eighteenth century. For generations afterward, Russia suppressed repeated rebellions by Polish nationalists who sought to revive and free Poland. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Japan emerged as a power in the Far East, whose ambitions in the region clashed with Russia’s. The two countries eventually fought the Russo-Japanese War, that ended with an upset Japanese victory over the far bigger Russian Empire. Mutual antipathy towards Russia thus drew the Poles and Japanese together.
In the late nineteenth century, a Japanese officer named Fukushima Yasumasa made an epic horseback ride across two continents, from Berlin to Vladivostok. He passed through Poland, grew fond of the Poles, and was moved by the tragedy of the partitions that had extinguished their country. When he returned to Japan, Fukushima’s reports struck a chord, and inspired The Memory of Poland, a sentimental poem about a country that had lost its freedom. When it was set to music, The Memory of Poland became a smash hit that took Japan by storm and aroused sympathy for Poles. When Poland regained her independence after WWI, Japan supported her admission to the League of Nations. In the interwar years, the two countries cooperated, especially in espionage against Russia’s successor state, the Soviet Union.
3. The Japanese Continued to Help the Poles Even After Poland Declared War Against Them
The cooperation between the Poles and Japanese continued even after WWII began with Germany’s 1939 invasion and conquest of Poland. Despite close German-Japanese ties, the fact that they were both signatories of the anticommunist Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936 and the Tripartite Pact of 1940, Poland’s embassy continued to function in Tokyo. That strange situation lasted until German pressure forced its closure in October, 1941. A Polish espionage network functioned out of the Japanese embassy in Berlin, and Polish agents were supplied with Japanese passports – including diplomatic passports – that allowed them to move freely throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.
In an odder twist, even after Poland declared war against Japan, the Japanese continued to cooperate with the Poles. Polish agents continued to move throughout German-occupied Europe with passports that had been provided by the Japanese government. Japanese and Polish intelligence services continued to exchange information about Germany and the Soviet Union throughout the war. It took sixteen years for the strange Polish-Japanese War to come to a formal end, when the People’s Republic of Poland finally signed an agreement with Japan to restore formal relations.
2. The First Recorded Battle With Relatively Reliable Details in the History of War
As seen above, Pharaoh Ramesses II established his reputation – with the help of a considerable amount of spin – as Ancient Egypt’s greatest warrior. Two centuries before his day, there was another great warrior pharaoh: Thutmose III. His best-known engagement was the Battle of Megiddo, in 1457 BC. It is the earliest recorded battle in the history of war for which relatively reliable details exist. It took place between an Egyptian army led by Thutmose, and a coalition of rebellious Canaanite states that sought to free themselves of vassalage to Egypt. The rebellion was centered in the city of Megiddo, an important hub at the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley, astride the main trade route between Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Thutmose advanced from Egypt at the head of a strong army to Yaham. From there, he had the choice of three routes: a southern one via Taanakh, a northern route via Yokneam, and a central one via Aruna that would take him straight to Megiddo. The southern and northern routes were longer, but safer. The central route was quicker but risky, because it required passage through narrow ravines in which an army would have to advance single file. It would be easy for an enemy to let an army file through the narrow passage, then attack the exit and entrance to bottle it up front and rear.
Pharaoh Thutmose III realized that the central route to Megiddo through Aruna was so obviously dangerous that no reasonable commander would risk his army in its ravines. He also reasoned that the rebels would leave it unguarded because they would not expect the Egyptians to court disaster with such an obviously risky advance. Thutmose was the kind of warrior who did not fear calculated risks if the prize was big enough. So he made a gamble, and took the central route. As he had hoped, the path was unguarded, and the Egyptians arrived at Megiddo sooner than expected.
Thutmose’s sudden arrival caught the Canaanites flat-footed. In the Battle of Megiddo that followed, Thutmose won a decisive victory that secured Egyptian hegemony over the region for centuries. 3375 years later, in the First World War, , British General Allenby, an avid student of ancient history, faced the same choice as Thutmose. Allenby led a British army that advanced from the south against Ottomans and Germans entrenched in the Jezreel Valley. He stole a march upon them and burst unexpected in front of Megiddo with an advance through the central route via Aruna.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading