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