Throughout history, many a myth has gained such widespread acceptance in public perception that it is treated as an established fact. Take the cute image of Saint Bernards rescuing people in the Swiss Alps while toting brandy barrels strapped to their necks. It is pure myth, with no foundation in historic. Or the everlasting mortal beef between ninjas and samurai: another myth. Following are forty things about those and other historic “facts” that are actually plain mythology.
40. The Dogs That Rescued People in the Alps With Barrels of Brandy Strapped to Their Necks
The huge Saint Bernard dogs, immortalized in Stephen King’s horror novel Cujo, are named after the Great Saint Bernard Hospice, a monastery atop the Great Saint Bernard Pass between Switzerland and Italy. The monks bred Saint Bernards in the Swiss Alps, and used them as rescue dogs.
In popular culture, Saint Bernards are often depicted with a small keg strapped to their necks, containing warming brandy for stranded mountaineers. While the image is captivating and memorable, what it depicts is, unfortunately, just a myth. The giant Swiss dogs were employed in rescue operations, but the monks who bred and used them never sent them out with brandy barrels tied to their necks.
The first time a Saint Bernard rescued somebody with a barrel of spirits strapped to its neck did not occur in Switzerland. Instead, it took place in England in 1820, in the art studio of then-seventeen-year-old Edwin Henry Landseer (1802 – 1873). His painting is entitled Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler.
It was the work of a teenage prodigy who was reportedly ambidextrous and could paint with both hands simultaneously. While one of Landseer’s hands painted a dog’s head, the other would be busy painting its tail, and both would meet in the middle. The creator of the myth of the rescue dogs lugging brandy kegs had never been to the Alps. However, he had seen and was impressed by a Saint Bernard – which had not yet gained that name – that had toured England on an exhibit.
The Great Saint Bernard Pass has been used to cross the Alps for thousands of years. The Romans built a temple for Jupiter there, and in 1049, Saint Bernard of Menthon, patron saint of the Alps, built a hospice atop the temple’s ruins as a shelter for travelers. Monks maintained the hospice, took care of guests, and guided people through the pass. They also formed search and rescue teams for lost or injured travelers.
In the sixteenth or seventeenth century, the monks began training large farm dogs, descendants of mastiff-type Molossian hounds introduced to the region by the Romans, as rescue dogs. Those dogs were strong, had weather-resistant coats, and possessed a strong sense of smell. That made them well-suited to guide and rescue travelers. The dogs were accompanied by monks, who sometimes had flasks of brandy and shared them with travelers. That might have started the association between Saint Bernard Pass rescues and brandy, which eventually grew into the myth of dogs carrying kegs of brandy.
Over a period of hundreds of years, from the sixteenth or seventeenth century to the early nineteenth, the monks of the Great Saint Bernard Hospice bred an excellent search and rescue dog. However, severe winters from 1816 to 1818 saw an unusually high number of avalanches, that killed many of the breeding dogs while they were performing rescue operations.
To try and save the breed, the survivors were crossed with Newfoundland dogs, imported in the 1850s. The long fur resulting from crossbreeding with the Newfoundlands – a prominent feature of modern Saint Bernards – made the dogs less suitable for rescue work. The extra fur ended up gathering snow, freezing, and weighing the dogs down.
36. The Original Rescue Dogs Looked Quite Different From Modern Saint Bernards
As seen in the above painting of Barry der Menschenretter, the most famous Saint Bernard, the original dogs looked significantly different from the Saint Bernards of today. The originals who did most of the work in the breed’s heyday as rescue dogs were about half as big modern ones – similar in size to a German Shepherd – had longer snouts, and shorter fur.
Modern Saint Bernards attained their ginormous size because kennel clubs and dog shows concentrated on appearance instead of the dogs’ working ability. As Saint Bernards became bigger and their fur grew longer, they became less suitable for Alpine rescue work. The extra weight caused them to plunge deeper into the snow, while the longer fur froze and weighed the dogs down even more.
The most famous Saint Bernard of all was Barry der Menschenretter (1800 – 1814). Weighing about 95 pounds, he was significantly smaller than modern Saint Bernards, who weigh between 180 to 300 pounds. He gained the name Menschenretter, which means “People Rescuer”, because he is credited with saving between 40 to 100 people. His most famous rescue was of a little boy, whom he found in an ice cavern. He warmed the kid sufficiently by licking him, then maneuvered him on his back, and carried him back to the hospice.
After serving twelve years with the monks, Barry was taken to Bern, Switzerland, where he retired. After his death, his body was donated to the Natural History Museum of Bern, and was preserved by taxidermy as an exhibit. A 1923 restoration altered his pose, and modified the shape of his skull to resemble the Saint Bernards of that time.
Sadly, the days of heroic Saint Bernard Alpine rescues are long gone. They have been replaced with breeds better suited to avalanche search-and-rescue work, such as German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers. Among other things, those dogs have an advantage over the giant Saint Bernards in that their smaller size allows them to fit more easily in rescue helicopters. The last recorded instance of a Saint Bernard doing search-and-rescue work occurred in 1955.
Out of a sense of tradition, the big dogs were kept at the Great Saint Bernard Pass Hospice until 2004. That year, the monks sold their entire kennel of 34 Saint Bernards to local animal associations. However, they still return to the hospice every summer during tourist season. Nowadays, because the myth of the Saint-Bernard-and-brandy-barrel has become so widespread, the monks actually do outfit the dogs with cute little brandy kegs around their necks.
33. Brandy is Actually Bad For You If You’re Freezing
It is commonly assumed today – and certainly was assumed in centuries past – that brandy or other strong spirits can warm you. So the notion that a freezing traveler caught up in an Alpine blizzard could be revived and warmed up with brandy makes intuitive sense. However, a lot of stuff that makes intuitive common sense does not actually work anywhere near as well as common sense says it should. The notion that alcohol warms us is just a myth.
The warming sensation from downing strong spirits like whiskey or brandy is illusory. What alcohol does is bring our blood closer to the skin, making us think that we are warming up. What it does not do is warm up our vital organs, whose failure from excessive cold could seriously harm or kill us. Bringing somebody’s blood closer to the skin in the cold actually speeds up the lowering of our core body temperature, and places our vital organs at greater risk. So it is a good thing that Saint Bernards toting brandy barrels is a myth: otherwise many rescue attempts would have backfired.
32. The Myth of Soviet Reliance on Lend-Lease During WWII
An oft-repeated WWII myth has it that the USSR could not have survived or won without massive American Lend-Lease. Lend-Lease clearly helped, and Soviet successes in the second half of the war would not have been as dramatic without the hundreds of thousands of American jeeps and trucks that improved logistics and allowed for deep advances. And American airplanes were greatly appreciated – the Soviets’ second highest scoring fighter ace of the war downed most of his kills while flying an American P-39 Airacobra.
However, the bulk of Lend-Lease did not arrive until 1944-1945, by which point the Soviets were already nearing victory. Indeed, meaningful amounts of Lend-Lease did not begin arriving until late 1943. By then, the Soviets had already halted the German advance and gone on the counteroffensive, rolling back the enemy’s gains and beginning the relentless march westward that ended in Berlin and Central Europe.
31. The Soviets Were Well on Their Way to Defeating Germany Before the Bulk of Lend-Lease Arrived
Belying the myth that the USSR could not have won without Lend-Lease is the fact that by the time the bulk of Lend-Lease arrived, the Soviets were well on the way to winning the war. In addition to halting the Germans at the Battle of Moscow in 1941, the Soviets had won major victories at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943, liberated the Ukraine and reached Poland in the winter of 1943-1944, and shattered Army Group Center in Operation Bagration in 1944.
The key is when Lend-Lease equipment was delivered. American commitments and promises of Lend-Lease were made early, beginning in 1941. But a variety of factors caused significant time to elapse before the US could make good on those commitments, starting with the time needed for American factories to transition from peacetime production of civilian goods to a war footing. Moreover, America had her own rapidly expanding military – 16 million men were put in uniform during the war – to arm and equip, which was often a higher priority than Lend-Lease.
30. When We Held Back Lend-Lease Out of Fear That It Would End Up in German Hands
Lend-Lease deliveries, especially during the war’s first year, were sometimes delayed by a perception that the USSR might collapse at any moment. So there was a fear that our Lend-Lease equipment might simply end up as German war booty. Because of such fears, on more than one occasion during the Soviets’ darkest hours in 1941-1942, ships that were already loaded with Lend-Lease destined for the USSR were offloaded.
The equipment was then redistributed to the US military, or if the ships were already underway, they were diverted to Britain and the equipment was given to the British instead. Even when the goods were ready and fears of Soviet collapse had receded, it took years to establish reliable routes.
29. It Took Time to Establish Reliable Lend-Lease Routes
Lend-Lease deliveries were initially routed across the Arctic Ocean to Murmansk. However, that was a hazardous passage, and many convoys were savaged by German planes and submarines operating from Norway. The quantities delivered were more symbolic than meaningful, and were of use only in the peripheral Arctic fronts facing Finland. Another more meaningful route was through Iran, which the Allied occupied precisely for that purpose. However, the Iranian road and rail infrastructure necessary for the delivery of significant aid was not completed until the second half of 1943. Aid through this route went mainly to the Soviets’ southern fronts, which were more important than the northern ones supplied through Murmansk, but were not the main front.
The main supply route, through which Lend-Lease finally gushed like a torrent, was through Vladivostok. From there, it made its way via the Trans-Siberian railway to the central fronts and the Soviets’ main war effort. However, that was the most difficult route, and it took the longest time to establish. Getting it ready and in action required not only significant work on the Soviet end, but also the creation of an entire road and rail network from scratch, across Alaska and Western Canada, to handle the massive mountains of aid.
Mention the word “ninja”, and one usually evokes images of masked warriors, all in black, scaling building walls and assassinating people all over feudal Japan. In popular culture today, people think of ninjas as covert killers, using exotic blades, throwing stars, and smoke bombs to carry out assassinations, all while locked in a feud with the more honorable samurai.
That is pure fantasy and myth. In reality, those kinds of super cool ninjas never existed. The ones who did exist looked and acted nothing like the popular perceptions of how ninjas looked like and acted. Far from having any feud with the samurai, many ninjas were actually themselves samurai.
According to the best available historical evidence, ninjas did not go around in black outfits as part of a group uniform getup. The had no greater predilection for black clothes than the average Japanese people of the period, among whom black clothes were extremely common.
What we consider ninjas were simply scouts, spies, and mercenaries, hired by various armies in feudal Japan. To carry out their tasks, they blended into the local population. They did not use throwing stars – that is plain myth. However, they did throw poisoned darts known as bo shurikens. They did not have a blood feud with samurai. Indeed, there was nothing to prevent a samurai from being a ninja, and quite a few ninjas were actually samurai.
The M4 Sherman was America’s main tank of WWII, and the most widely used tank of the Western Allies. Shermans were mechanically reliable, easy to maintain, durable, easy and cheap to produce, and thus available in great numbers: about 50,000 were built during the war. They had a large turret and roomy interior, a good gun traverse rate and excellent stabilization system, and routinely managed to get off the first shot in tank-vs-tank confrontations.
On the downside, early Shermans were notorious for brewing up when hit because of inadequate fire prevention measures in ammunition storage – a problem that was remedied in later models. However, the problem with the early Sherman models led to a myth that persisted long after the war and into the present, that the Sherman was a terrible tank, more lethal to its own crews to the Germans. In reality, Shermans were some of the war’s safest tanks.
Contra the myth that Shermans were death traps, they were actually relatively safe by WWII tank standards. Crews on average suffered only one fatality for every Sherman destroyed: the tank might be lost, but most crewmen lived to fight another day, helped by a plethora of large escape hatches.
A US First Army study of losses suffered by its 456 available Shermans from June to November of 1944 revealed 129 killed and 280 wounded. That amounted to a Sherman crew loss ratio during half a year of intense combat of only 0.3% killed, and 0.6% wounded.
24. Shermans Outclassed German Panzers When First Introduced
The anti-M4 myth claims that Shermans were routinely outclassed by German panzers. However, when Shermans entered service in 1942, they outclassed the German tanks then in service: they were better armed and more heavily armored. The main German battle tank of the time was the Panzer III, and its standard antitank gun was 37mm, whose shells the Sherman shrugged off. When Panzer IIIs were upgunned to 50mm, they still had to get very close to inflict damage. In the meantime, the Sherman’s 75mm gun could kill anything the Germans fielded until the arrival of the Tiger.
Shermans got an unfair rap for being poor tanks, mainly because they did not perform well when fighting the heavier Tigers and Panthers that were introduced later in the war. However, Tigers and Panthers represented only a small fraction of German tanks, and fighting other tanks represented only a small fraction of the Shermans’ workload – a fraction that the Shermans had never been intended to perform.
When the M4 Sherman was designed, American combined arms doctrine held that tanks were not intended to fight other tanks: that was the job of tank destroyers armed with high velocity guns. Shermans with bigger guns, such as the Firefly Sherman equipped with a 17 pounder, matched or exceeded the Tigers’ and Panthers’ firepower. However, most Shermans kept their standard 75mm general purpose gun with its effective high explosive shell.
Much of the myth about the Shermans’ inadequacy rests on mistaken comparisons between them and the best German Panzers. However, the Shermans’ primary mission was not to duke it with German tanks like it was a video game. Instead, they were intended to support infantry to achieve breakthroughs, then race through the breach and wreak havoc in the enemy’s rear. The Sherman, mechanically reliable and armed with a 75mm that fired a highly effective high explosive round, was excellent in the role for which it was designed.
The M4 Shermans demonstrated their worth during the breakout from Normandy in 1944 and its aftermath. The rapid sweep through France and Belgium that only came to a halt at Germany’s border for lack of fuel, was the kind of performance that only an armored force equipped with mechanically reliable and easily maintained Shermans could have pulled off. Other countries’ armored forces would have halted because their tanks broke down long before they reached the line where the Shermans halted because they ran out of fuel.
One-on-one, Shermans were outclassed by Tigers and Panthers. However, they almost never had to face them one-on-one. American tanks prevailed against German armor because they were part of a combined arms system that operated more smoothly than that of any other combatant. Panzers had to worry about more than American tanks – and nearly 50,000 Shermans were manufactured vs only 1300 Tigers and 6000 Panthers. They also had to worry about American infantry who were usually nearby, tank destroyers that were seldom far away, and artillery. That is aside from tactical bombers that frequently circled the battlefield in taxi ranks, only a radio call away from any American tank platoon commander who found himself in trouble.
21. The Myth That the Aztecs Thought Cortes’ Conquistadors Were Gods
A common myth claims that the Spanish victory over the Aztecs was helped by the natives’ belief that Hernan Cortes and his men were gods. That is false. The Aztecs were extremely religious, and had many weird notions, but they were not so idiotically naÃ¯ve so as to believe that the Conquistadors were gods.
The Aztec emperor Montezuma II was fully aware that the Spaniards were humans who came from far away. Indeed, Montezuma was sufficiently informed so as to know that Hernan Cortes was not acting with the consent of his king, Charles V (Charles I of Spain). The Aztec ruler even tried to go over Cortes’ head, by attempting to negotiate directly with king Charles. He failed, but it is clear that Montezuma knew that he was dealing with people, not gods.
20. The Myth of the Cynical Treaty That Backfired on the Soviet Union
A common myth has it that the 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Treaty, AKA the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed a week before Germany invaded Poland, was calamitous for the USSR. It is true that Stalin proved disastrously wrong in trusting Hitler to honor the agreement, and in stubbornly ignoring warnings of impending German attack in 1941. However, the fault there lay with Stalin, not with the Pact.
The Pact itself actually served Soviet interests, and while they did not make the best use of it, the USSR was better off for having signed it. From a Western and Polish perspective, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was calamitous. But from a Soviet perspective, it made good sense.
As the Soviets considered whether to side with the Western Powers during the mounting crises leading up to WWII, they had cause for concern. Britain and France had demonstrated their unreliability during the Munich Crisis, exhibiting greater distaste for dealing with Stalin than with Hitler. The Soviets made solid offers to defend Czechoslovakia, but the Poles refused them permission to march through Poland to reach Czechoslovakia, while Britain and France negotiated halfheartedly and ended up appeasing Hitler.
It is a myth that, as things presented themselves at the time, the Soviets acted against their best interests by agreeing to a treaty with Hitler. After Munich, the USSR had something to offer both sides. The Germans negotiated seriously and made attractive offers, while Britain and France did not. And the Poles, looking at the only force that could physically come to their defense if they were attacked by Germany, were astonishingly shortsighted. The Pact bought the Soviets nearly two years in which to prepare for war. Poor as the Soviet military’s performance was in 1941, it was even less prepared for war in 1939.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact also gave the USSR half of Poland, and pushed the border hundreds of miles westwards, giving the USSR additional buffer. Space and distance proved decisive to Soviet survival in 1941: the Germans came within ten miles of the Kremlin before they were turned back. Without the Pact, the Germans would have launched their invasion from a start line hundreds of miles further to the east. The same effort that ran out of steam within sight of the Kremlin, would likely have pushed far beyond had it started hundreds of miles closer to Moscow.
As the Soviets saw it, they owed the Western Powers and Poland nothing. Indeed, they had outstanding border claims against Poland. The Germans offered to satisfy those claims, while the British and French offered little. If they had sided with Britain and France against Germany, the Soviets were expected to do the bulk of the fighting and dying. From a Soviet perspective, it seemed like chutzpah for Germany’s foes to offer so little in exchange for the high price the USSR would pay for siding with them. So they opted instead for benevolent neutrality with Germany.
It is probable that sometime within the past few years, you have come across this meme or a variant thereof on social media. Frequently posted by somebody prefacing a statement with “I am not racist, butâ¦“, the meme asserts that Irish Americans were enslaved just like African Americans. However, they are doing much better than blacks today, and their descendants never complain about their ancestors’ enslavement.
The main reason why Irish people do not complain about their ancestors’ enslavement is that their ancestors were never enslaved. Additionally, Irish Americans have fared better than African Americans because the Irish in America never faced anything approaching the generations of institutionalized racism to which blacks were subjected. The whole thing is a myth.
16. Some Irish Were Indentured Servants, But That is Not The Same as Slaves
Irish immigrants arriving in America often had it rough. However, they were never enslaved. In Colonial America, many poor whites – Irish and others – were indentured servants, either willingly via contract, or reluctantly because of a court sentence. Benjamin Franklin, for example, had been an indentured servant. While indentured servants were exploited, their indenture was for a limited term, typically seven years. Afterwards – provided they were white – they could do as they pleased, equal under the law to their former contract holders and everybody else.
Indentured servitude was not the same thing as slavery. American chattel slavery was a unique institution that was based on race, had no end date, and was hereditary. Unlike indentured servitude contract holders, slave masters owned their black slaves outright, same as they owned their barn animals, for their entire lives. Slave status attached to the slaves’ children from birth to death, as well. African Americans were enslaved. Irish Americans were not. The myth that Irish Americans were also slaves is just that: a myth.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the racist myth of Irish American slavery grew from racist roots. Irish historian Liam Hogan traced the myth back to a 1990s book by Holocaust denier Michael A. Hoffman, that became a huge hit with white supremacists. The Irish slavery myth was further amplified in a 2000 book written by a non-historian, who claimed with zero supporting evidence that Irish slaves were branded like cattle, and Irish slave women were sold to stud farms. Nothing of the sort ever happened.
Incidentally, the photo used in the most prevalent Irish slavery meme is neither of Irish people nor of slaves. It is a 1908 photo taken in Barbados of people known locally as the “Redlegs of Barbados” – folk of mixed African and European ancestry. None of the mixed race people pictured were slaves – slavery had been abolished decades earlier. Nor did of the pictured people have an Irish surname.
14. The Myth of the Italian-American Mafia’s Avoidance of Dealing Drugs
One of the most persistent myths about the Italian-American mafia claims that the mob traditionally avoided drugs like the plague. The myth is belied by the career of the modern American mafia’s founder, Charles “Lucky” Luciano (1897 – 1962). Luciano was a visionary crime mafia boss who founded today’s Genovese crime family – one of New York City’s five mafia families.
He is also credited with establishing The Commission – a committee running the Italian-American mafia and arbitrating its internal disputes to avert bloody struggles disruptive to business. Lucky Luciano is considered the founding father of the Italian-American mafia, and the key architect who created modern American organized crime as we know it. He was also America’s biggest drug dealer.
13. Before the Latin American Drug Cartels, There Was the Italian American Mafia
Lucky Luciano, who emigrated to America at age nine, was a criminal since childhood. By age ten, he was involved in shoplifting, mugging, and extortion. At age nineteen, Luciano was sentenced to six months for selling heroin. In 1920, he joined Joe Masseria’s crime family, and became his chief lieutenant, running his bootlegging, prostitution, and narcotics operations.
Challenging the myth that the mob stayed away from drugs is the fact that Lucky Luciano was America’s biggest narcotics trafficker and distributor. Contra the notion popularized by movies and works of fiction that the mob traditionally avoided narcotics, dealing drugs was one of the mafia’s biggest moneymakers since the earliest days of the American mafia.
It is often asserted that the Mafia had a long standing prohibition against drug trafficking – either because of morality, or because of the public stigma attached to drugs. That is pure bunk. The notion that the mafia stayed away from drugs is just a myth, popularized by fiction and Hollywood hits such as The Godfather.
In reality, the mafia was heavily involved in the drug trade from the start. Long before the days of Pablo Escobar, pioneering mafioso Lucky Luciano became America’s – and one of the world’s – biggest narcotics kingpins. For decades, the mafia was the biggest importer of hard drugs into the US, particularly heroin. It was not until cocaine supplanted heroin as the hard drug of choice, and the rise of the Colombian cartels in the 1970s, that the mob lost its top billing as America’s biggest drug trafficker.
William Tell reportedly strode through Altdorf, Switzerland, with his son, one fine day in 1307. There, an agent of the ruling Habsburgs, Albrecht Gessler, demanded that all passersby remove their hats as a show of respect. Tell kept his hat on, and was dragged before Gessler. He ordered an apple placed above his child’s head, and decreed that he would let father and son live if he shot the apple with a single bolt from 120 paces.
Tell shot off the apple and Gessler freed him. However, he asked why, despite the challenge specifying a single bolt, he had placed a second bolt in his jacket. Tell replied: “If my first bolt had missed, I would have shot the second at you and I would not have missed“. The incensed agent ordered Tell locked up in a dungeon. However, the hero freed himself, killed Gessler, and triggered a rebellion that overthrew the Habsburgs and led to Swiss independence. Awesome story. Unfortunately, it is a complete myth.
William Tell is Switzerland’s national hero, and it is difficult to find a town in that country that does not have a statue or monument commemorating him and celebrating the myth of his exploit. Most non-Swiss know of him either as the guy who shot an apple off a kid’s head, or from the upbeat William Tell Overture finale from Loony Tunes cartoons or the Lone Ranger.
Tell’s most famous statue is in Altdorf, where his heroics reportedly took place. It is the first stop in a pilgrimage of Swiss fathers and sons, and is visited by thousands of non-Swiss tourists every year. Next is a chapel on the site of Tell’s home, the lakeside pier where he was placed on a boat headed to a dungeon, and a ledge where Tell freed himself during a storm, sprang from the boat to safety, and drowned the baddie Gessler and his goons.
It would be awesome if the myth of William Tell was real. However, all the statues, monuments, and sites on the William Tell pilgrimage circuit commemorate heroic deeds of derring-do that never occurred, and a man who never was. Today, historians and scholars agree that neither Tell nor the Habsburg agent, Albrecht Gessler, had ever existed.
The whole story was actually cribbed from a tenth century Viking legend about a man named Toko, who was forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head, and reserved a second arrow for the baddie who had made him do it. The Swiss were so attached to the Tell tale, however, that when an eighteenth century historian wrote a book detailing the legend’s Viking origins, they burned his book in public. They would have burned him, too, if he had not apologized.
There is a widespread perception that the Soviets won WWII on the Eastern Front with human wave attacks that smothered the Germans with bodies, until they ran out of bullets. It was a narrative popularized after the war by the Germans. Especially by German generals trying to explain getting beaten by “Asiatic untermenschen“, whose easy defeat they had anticipated when they invaded the USSR in 1941.
That perception is based not on fact, but on myth. In reality, while human wave attacks were carried out by both Axis and Soviet forces on the Eastern Front, they were rare. They only happened in extraordinary circumstances, such as the Italian-led breakout from encirclement at the Battle of Nikolayevka in 1943, which was supported by a German-Romanian human wave attack.
The wehrmacht did inflict disproportionately high losses on the Red Army. However, the main source of this disparity is captured Soviet soldiers during German offensive operations. In 1941, for example, the Soviets, who were on the defensive and reeling from a surprise massive attack, lost five million men, most of them prisoners, to the Germans’ one million casualties. It was a 5:1 loss ratio in the Germans’ favor.
Casualty statistics bely the human wave myth. When the Soviets shifted to the offensive – when you would expect them to make the most use of “human wave” attacks – their casualty ratio against the Germans actually improved dramatically. During 1942-1945, when the Soviets were on the offensive, the loss ratio dropped to less than two to one. Other than the catastrophic 1941, when the Soviets were caught off guard, they suffered approximately 8 million casualties, while inflicting 5 million upon the Germans – a 1.6:1 ratio.
Although there are some documented cases of massed attacks by Soviet forces during WWII, they were few. Far from being terrifying human waves that overwhelmed German divisions with bodies until they ran out of bullets’, they consisted of encircled Soviet troops desperately attempting to break out. Either that, or local militia with no military training and thus not knowing any better, trying to slow down the Germans. The notion that massed attacks were standard Red Army practice is just a myth.
The actual Soviet offensive operations that shattered German defenses were modern combined arms attacks, executed with integrated infantry, artillery, and armor. They did attempt to concentrate troops for the maximum superiority of numbers possible at the key point. However, nothing about that was unique to the Soviets. Concentration of forces to achieve maximum local superiority at the decisive point is what all armies try to do when attacking.
5. Overwhelming Soviet Numerical Superiority Was Also a Myth
The myth of the Soviet military’s reliance on human wave attacks in WWII goes hand in hand with the myth that the Soviets enjoyed an overwhelming manpower superiority, which enabled them to afford such wasteful tactics. However, when the Germans attacked in 1941, they enjoyed an initial numerical superiority of 3.8 million men against 2.6 – 2.9 million Soviets. Eventually, the Soviets managed to gain a numerical superiority, but for most of the war, it remained at less than a 2:1 advantage.
That only began to change when the Soviets regained the vast territories initially overrun by the Germans. The manpower in the Nazi-occupied territories had been unavailable to the Red Army, but liberation changed that. Between access to fresh manpower reserves, and the Western Allies’ invasion of Europe, which forced the Germans to divert troops from the Eastern front, the Soviets finally began to enjoy an overwhelming numerical advantage.
It is often bandied about that the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD. While that year is usually viewed as that empire’s traditional end date, the notion that it came to an end in 476 is a myth. The empire’s end was actually a gradual process, not an abrupt one. Contemporaries hardly noticed that anything special had happened in 476. What did actually happen that year was that a military strongman, Odoacer, beat another military strongman, Orestes, to become the power behind the throne – Western Roman emperors having long since been reduced to puppets by then.
Odoacer then forced Orestes’ son, the sixteen-year-old Emperor Romulus Augustulus, to abdicate. Augustulus’ imperial regalia was sent to the other Roman emperor, in Constantinople, who confirmed Odoacer as ruler of Italy in the now-sole Roman Emperor’s name. On the ground, little changed in Italy or the rest of the Western Roman Empire. Most people who lived in 477 would not have noticed anything particularly different from 476.
3. The Myth That Alexander the Great Conquered History’s Greatest Empire
Alexander the Great was one of history’s greatest conquerors, widely credited with conquering history’s greatest empire until then. The man was undoubtedly great, but his empire’s size was not the greatest to date. When Alexander died in 323 BC, history’s largest empire until then was still the Persian Empire. The map above is of Alexander’s empire at its greatest extent. The map below is of the Achaemenid Persian Empire under Darius the Great (490 BC).
Alexander’s and Darius’ empires mostly overlap. However, the territory that Darius did not rule in Greece and Thrace is more than made up for with territories he ruled in Arabia, Central Asia, Libya and the Caucasus, that Alexander never conquered. All in all, the difference amounts to about 300,000 square kilometers in favor of the Persian Empire at its peak: 5.5 million square kilometers, vs 5.2 million for Alexander’s realm. It took another two and a half centuries after Alexander’s death before the Achaemenid Empire’s size record was finally bested, by China under the Han Dynasty.
People visiting the Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia might come across a bit of Civil War history that few had ever heard of. Situated between the 14th hole and the 15th tee in one of the courses is a plaque attached to a flagpole overlooking the Potomac River. Above a Trump family crest and President Trump’s full name is an inscription that reads:
“Many great American soldiers, both of the North and South, died at this spot. The casualties were so great that the water would turn red and thus became known as âThe River of Blood.’ It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River“. The plaque designates that portion of the Potomac as “The River of Blood”. As seen below, there is a good reason why few had ever heard of that engagement: it is a myth.
There is a solid consensus among Civil War scholars and historians that there is no battle or “River of Blood” designation associated with the Trump National Golf Club. When challenged about the accuracy of the plaque, however, Trump was adamant. As he put it, the area was: “a prime site for river crossings. So if people are crossing the river, and you happen to be in a civil war, I would say that people were shot – a lot of them“.
Unfortunately, scholars remain unconvinced, and refuse to accept the point-at-a-landmark-and-speculate method as valid historic corroboration. When informed that historians disagreed with his River of Blood myth, Trump retorted: “how would they know that? Were they there?”
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading