Random Thoughts and Trivia from History in no particular order.
- Tamerlane's Curse
In 1941, Soviet archaeologists dug up the tomb of Tamerlane, a brutal war lord responsible for the deaths of 17 million people. Inside his tomb, it says “Whosoever Disturbs My Tomb Will Unleash an Invader More Terrible than I". Stalin ordered the tomb opened and the archaeologists entered the tomb on June 20, 1941. Two days later Hitler launched operation Barbarossa and invaded Russia.
- The US Transcontinental
It's hard to imagine the change brought by the completion of the transcontinental railroad to the US West in 1869. One story I heard recently was about the revolutionary gun designer John Moses Browning. Even at an early age he was making new guns, but assumed the weapons back East were much better. It wasn't until the railroad brought guns from the East that he realized his guns were so much better. (A side note on John: his family was mormon and his father had three wives. His brothers were instrumental in the success of his designs and business).
The railroad quickly brought goods to the West in undreamed quantities. Previously all goods had to be shipped in wagons which was extremely expensive. After the railroad was completed an entire logistics supply system vanished overnight. Teamsters driving the wagons were unemployed. The industry providing the lodging and provisions for those teamsters were no longer needed.
News also could travel quickly from coast to coast.
- In the US Army in Vietnam it is estimated that from 1969 to 1972 nearly 900 fragging incidents in which soldiers tried to kill their officers resulting in 99 deaths.
- World War 2 Pacific Theater
The Japanese military doctrine emphasized a Decisive Battle (Kantai Kessen, "naval fleet decisive battle") where Japan would fight a single large naval battle and defeat once and for all the American navy. A result of this philosophy was that the Japanese submarines were ordered to only sink warships and not to attack supply ships. The US started with the same tactics for their subs, but later realized that attacking supply convoys could do just as much damage, since men and supplies could not make it to the Japanese possessions. Near the end of the war, the Japanese had so few merchant ships that supplies could not be sent to it's far flung outposts.
Fuel was in such short supply that the battleships burned unrefined crude oil direct from the oil fields. This fouled the boiler pipelines and was dangerous. Dissolved gases in crude would boil off and be an explosion risk. Japan created synthetic fuels made from pine roots, soybeans, and rice. But it was never enough. Using food for fuel increased the hunger. The quality of their pilots deteriorated since there was not fuel enough to train them. Instead they watched movies and listened to instructors on how to fly.
At the beginning of the war the Japanese made the fatal miscalculation that by bombing Pearl Harbor the US would come to the negotiating table, end its boycott of oil and steel, and let Japan keep its new territories. The rational choice for the US would be to negotiate, but in the American psyche, those lives at Pearl Harbor must be avenged and aggressors taught that the US would not tolerate attacks. The US would eventually lose 111,606 lives in the Pacific theater. The Japanese lost over 2 million military and civilians in the war - an astronomical price to pay for assuming your opponent was "rational".
During the battle of Guadalcanal, Japan could not land to resupply ships on the island, so they packed food into large drums and rolled them from offshore ships, hoping that the currents would take them to the island shore.
Japan had the best pilots at the beginning or the war, but training for aviators in Japan was often brutal. Beatings were given to younger members that could break bones and damage them for life.
Many Zero pilots did not use parachutes since they were flying over enemy territory and to be captured would be a disgrace.
- Norse settlement in the New World in 1021
In 1021 Norse settlers build a village in the New World in Newfoundland at L’Anse aux Meadows and stay for a few years before returning to Greenland. It is thought they abandon the New World due to conflicts with the native inhabitants.
The date of 1021 can be known specifically because of a cosmic ray event that increased the amount of Carbon 14 occurred in 993. By examining the trees that were cut with a metal axe and finding the ring with increased Carbon 14, the date can be fixed when the tree was felled by counting outwards from that special ring.
One of histories great what-if moments happens right here in 1021. If the Norse and skrælings, what the Norse call the indigenous peoples, had been able to get along, the Norse could have shared how to create iron tools and writing to the east coast of the Americas, and taken back corn and other amazing crops.
- "Cucumber" Mines
In WWII, the British mined the harbor of Tripoli with mines nicknamed "cucumbers" dropped from the Swordfish biplane. These mines were set to detonate when a ship passed by, but not necessarily the first time. The mines could be set to explode the second, third,or fifteenth time a ship was near. This prevented the Germans and Italians from ever being able to declare that the harbor was safe.
- Rodinia, Pangaea, and Pangaea Proxima
About one billion years ago, the separate floating continents merged together into a single super-continent named Rodinia (Russian for "motherland"). After 300 million years it split into separate continents again. Then about 250 million years ago the continents smashed into each other again and formed the super-continent Pangaea. In 250 million years it's predicted that all the continents will once again merge into one landmass called Pangaea Proxima, completing yet another supercontinent cycle.
- German Trenches in WWI
The Germans in WWI had two advantages in their trenching. First, they didn't select the furthest territory they had captured to be where to set up a defense. They would look at the terrain, and sometimes fall back to a ridge or natural defense position. This reduced their casualties. Some of the Allies would try to defend every last foot of territory taken, even if it was not a defensible position.
Secondly, the Germans invested heavily in building out their trenches with deep rooms and comfort for the soldiers.
In World War II, 22% of all US submariners were killed; this was the highest fatality rate of any of the services.
In anticipation of the causalities in the invasion of the Japanese home islands in WWII, the American government manufactured 500,000 purple hearts.
- The Life Span of Rome
According to legend Rome was founded by Romulas on April 21 753 BC and 12 Eagles (or maybe vultures) circled overhead foreshadowing 12 centuries of rule. Let's see if our avian prognosticators were accurate or just winging it.
1,200 years minus a start date of 753 yields a sell-by date of 447 AD. Now let's add a year since the concept of zero was not in the minds of the calendar makers in the Middle Ages (don't get me started on the "Dark Ages" thing) to give us 448 AD. Take your pick of the ending of Rome in the West, but I like 410 AD, which shows the birds were off by 38 years, but it would have been hard to have 38/100th of a bird flying overhead. So our fowls were eggsellent forecasters.
- The Great American Interchange
North and South America were not connected together until just 3 million years ago when tectonic plate activity conspired to raise Panama from the ocean floor and join the two continents. Animals native only to North America, like dogs, horses, bears, and raccoons were now free to travel south. Armadillos, porcupines, and opossums headed north drastically. This exchange drastically effected the ecology of both continents. 38 genera of mammals went north and 47 traveled south.
The Pacific and Atlantic were now separated altering the ocean currents significantly and the Earth's climate.
- It's interesting how we see our country's past strategies in wars are thought to be the best and no other course
of action was possible.
For example, in the TV show "Fall of Japan: In Color" the narrator intones, "MacArthur's task is difficult - the only way to defeat Japan is to pry their grip from their island fortresses one by one.". But this is not the case. Nimtz had a plan for defeating the Japanese without the island hopping. The US could have skipped most of the islands and gone straight for the Japanese homeland with bombing raids. Or strangled the main island with a submarine fleet that would sink all shipping and cut off all their "island fortresses" of reinforcements and supplies.
The Japanese might have surrendered after the battle of the Coral Sea, if their Emperor was respected, but the US demanded total, unconditional surrender. The War in the Pacific could have ended many different ways, some better, but we are not trained to think of the better alternatives, but that what our country did was the only reasonable action to take.
- Puma Punku
The Tiwanaku people of Central America built a temple complex at Puma Punku around 200 BC which includes stonework of amazing precision with one block being measured as 36 feet by 16 feet by 6 feet.
- The First Pony Express
Herodotus wrote about the Persian mail system operating 2,500 years ago. Couriers rode horses for a day and switched for a fresh horse at way stations that were a day's ride apart. Their motto was "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
Aristotle taught that all metals were combinations of sulfur and mercury. The exact proportions of the two ingredients determined the type of metal. This explains the interest of the alchemist in turning base metals into gold. Today we think it silly to even try to convert copper to gold (outside a nuclear furnace), but back then, if all you had to do was to change the proportions just slightly, it could be very appealing.
- Ancient Greek Triremes
The main weapon of Ancient Athens was the Trireme, an incredibly expensive warship. Instead of the state funding most of the fleet, it was left to wealthy Athenians to foot the bill for building and maintaining a Trireme. Building a trireme was not explicitly required for the very rich. If a wealthy man humbly indicated that he wasn't rich enough to afford to build one, any other citizen could trade property with that person and build a Trireme.
- Hippocratic Oath
"First, Do No Harm" although not directly in the Hippocratic Oath, appears in Hippocrates' Epidemics Bk. I, Sect. XI. as : "Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future; practice these acts. As to diseases, make a habit of two things - to help, or at least to do no harm." I was thinking about this in regard to Luke chapter 8(?) about the woman who had spent all she had on physicians. According to Mark the doctors only made her worse. Luke neglects the phrase "and they only made her worse", perhaps to give his fellow physicians the benefit of the doubt. Hippocrates worked around 470-370BC and laid some foundations for Greek medicine. Since Palestine had been ruled by the Greeks for 250 years before the Gospels, its reasonable to assume Luke was familiar with Greek medical practice.
- Croesus and the Oracle at Delphi
Croesus the King of Lydia sent messengers to the Oracle at Delphi if he should attack Cyrus the Persian. Apollo answered with "if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire" (Herodotus Book 1.53). Croesus did indeed attack the Persians, lost big time, and indeed destroyed an empire - his own.
- Egyptians Abroad
My friend Frank Altobelli was commenting that the Egyptians in the Classical Age never started any colonies unlike many of ancient cultures. The feeling was that the Egyptians had to be buried in Egypt for a proper afterlife.
- Roman Slavery
In ancient Rome if a slave murdered his master all the slaves in the household were put to death. This gave great incentive to the slaves to disclose any plots. In AD 61, Pedanius Secundus was murdered by one of his 400 slaves. Many people objected to the very young innocent children and old slaves being killed. The matter was debated in the Senate which was so concerned about slaves murdering their masters that they decided all 400 should be put to death as an example.
Cato bought uneducated slaves, gave them an education, and sold them for a profit.
- Death of Gauis Gracchus
To encourage his followers to kill his bitter enemy Gauis Gracchus, Opimius declares that whoever brings him the head of Gauis Gracchus will be rewarded in gold based on how much his head weighs. After fleeing his pursuers and seeing his hopeless situation, Gauis commands his slave to kill him. Septimuleius takes Gauis's head, removes the brain and fills it with lead. When brought to Opimius, it weighs 17 2/3 pounds. Opimius pays him. - The Storm Before the Storm by Mike Duncan p 77.
When told the Russians claimed they had a bomber that could fly all the way to the United States, drop an atomic bomb, and still have enough fuel to return to Russia, President Truman asked:
"Where the hell do they expect to land when they get there?"
- Fall of the Roman Republic
One of the harbingers of the fall of the republic was the loss of respect for mos maiorum, the way of the elders. Rome had many legal and legislative procedures that were not technically law, but had survived centuries as custom. Tiberius Gracchus, to push his reforms through the Assembly, started to ignore those customs. Once people saw that the customs could be ignored without consequence, a new breed of politicians arose that would destroy the Republic and usher in the Empire.
One custom was that a tribune could not be removed from office once elected. Tiberius induced the Assembly to remove his fellow tribune Octavius from his office since he was blocking the Lex Agraria law that would give the poor land.
Unfortunately for Tiberius, one of the mos maiorum to be ignored was that while a tribune was in office, he was sacrosanct - no one could do him physical harm. Tiberius was beaten to death with a bench leg - since weapons were not allowed in the Pomerium, the sacred city limits - at least they had respect for that custom.
Mike Duncan in "The Storm Before the Storm" quotes the Greek historian Velleius Paterculus about the dangers of change: "Precedents do not stop where they begin, but, however narrow the path upon which they enter, they create for themselves a highway whereon they may wander with the utmost latitude ... no one thinks a course is base for himself which has proven profitable to others."
- Hannibal Lures Rome into Battle
During the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), Rome refused to openly fight Hannibal knowing that he would beat them. So the Romans wisely used hit and run tactics on the Carthaginians. Hannibal conceived a clever plan to bring the Romans to the battlefield. He got a list of all the senators in Rome and systematically went to each one's estates and destroyed it. Soon, the Romans (Read: senators) had had enough and sent a real army after Hannibal. The result was Cannae, one of Rome's greatest defeats.
- A few facts about the Gettysburg Address
Contrary to popular belief, Lincoln did not write the most famous presidential speech on the train going to Gettysburg or compose it on the back of an envelope, although those details would lend a air of inspiration to the speech.
Edward Everett gave the main two hour dedication speech for the new national cemetery, but the world took little note nor remembered long what Everett said. Lincoln spoke afterwords as a postscript, a mere two minutes.
Lincoln was in the early stages of smallpox when he gave the speech.
- William Tecumseh Sherman
Sherman explained why the South would lose even before the war began. In late December, 1860, while he was superintendent at a Louisiana military school, he said:
“You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization!
"You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it…
"Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth-right at your doors.
"You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.
- Battle of Berlin
Taking Berlin in WWII cost the Soviets 305,000 casualties. Many thought that Patton should have been allowed to race to Berlin insuring an Allied occupation of the city, but due to treaty obligations, the city would be turned over to the Soviets after the war anyway. Allowing the Soviets to take Berlin, spared many American lives.
- Irish Monks
In the 7th century Irish monks thankfully put spaces in between words making reading much easier, but they also unleashed the concept of lower-case letters which has been a plague upon mankind. Fortunately the monks did not conceive of lower-case numbers.
- Battle of Midway
War games played by the Japanese navy to help prepare for Midway ended with defeat for the empire of the Rising Sun, but a war games umpire overruled the actions of those playing the Americans.
- Pearl Harbor
Ironically, the American aircraft in Hawaii were clustered close together to make the planes easier to guard against suspected attacks from Japanese locals, which never materialized. The closeness of the planes made the air attack against the planes so successful.
- Norden Bomb sight
Developing the atomic bomb cost 3 billion dollars. Developing and deploying the Norden bomb sight in World War II cost over 1.1 billion.
- Reverse Celsius Scale
Anders Celsius created the Celsius or Centigrade temperature scale, but originally had zero at the boiling point of water and -100 as the freezing point of water. Swedish zoologist and Homo Sapian, Carolus Linnaeus reversed it so zero is freezing and 100 is boiling. We can all be thankful. (Too bad someone didn't reverse the "negative" charge on the electron and call it "positive". It would have made everyone's life easier.)
The American Indians would soak corn in water and ashes, or lime, to soften the kernels before eating, a process called nixtamalization . Europeans loved corn for its ease of growing even in marginal soil, but they had grindstones to crush the corn, so they didn't need to soak corn in alkaline water. Unfortunately, Europeans eating a diet of mostly corn developed a niacin deficiency causing diseases like pellagra. They didn't know that the Indian's processing released vital nutrients like niacin.
- Why did the U.S. fight the Pacific War in WWII?
The Japanese invaded China in the 1930s. The United States disapproved and cut off supplies of oil and steel to pressure the Japanese to withdraw. Without oil and steel the Japanese economy would grind to a halt. Unwilling to pull out of China, the Japanese gambled and started the war. Basically the US went to war to protect China from Japanese occupation, which later fell to the Communists and suffered 50 millions dead from their own rulers.
- Why did the U.S. fight WWII in Europe?
Britain and France entered WWII to save Poland from a foreign dictatorship. Ironically, after all the devastation of the war, Poland was still ruled by a foreign dictator.
- Why did Japan invade French Indochina in WWII?
The Japanese were fighting to control China. Forty-one percent of all the war materials flowing to China to resist the Japanese were coming from one harbor - Haiphong in Vietnam. It would make perfect sense to invade Vietnam and stop the supplies from reaching the Chinese. Also, the French were "occupied" elsewhere and could not mount much resistance.
- Mission Tactics versus Order Tactics
In WWII, the Germans used "Mission Tactics" to control their troops. "You go secure that bridge.", while the US used "Order Tactics", "Go down this valley, , cross that stream, control that hill, move down and then surround the bridge." The "Mission Tactics" served the highly trained, motivated German troops well.
- Too few men
Near the end of WWII, Germany had amazing weapons like the ME-262 fighter jet and the type XXI submarine which were technological marvels. Germany could produce them in some quantity, in part due to enslaved workers. The Third Reich's problem was they simply ran out of pilots, submariners, mechanics, and support crews. They had all this equipment without enough men to use them.
- The Humble Potato
Although the potato would have been an excellent addition to the diet for the people in medieval Germany, they did not eat them because they grew underground (nearer the devil), had poisonous leaves, and had leaves in the shape of pentagons. It took the 30 Years War to make the tuber popular. With armies continually ravishing the landscape and burning cereal crops, the spuds became popular since they could not be burned by marauding cavalry.
- Hitler in WWII
I've been listening to Childer's lectures on World War II. A few things struck me.
- Hitler never intended to fight France or Great Britain. He wanted to go East. After WWI a new country was carved from Germany's east side called Poland. Hitler wanted to get the territory back. He also hated Communism and wanted to destroy Russia. He did not expect Great Britain and France to object when he took Poland. He was quite surprised after Czechoslovakia that the Allies did anything.
- The Germans had a lot of breadth in their armaments, but not much depth. They depended on the Blitzkrieg for fast easy wins. They never planned for a long drawn out war.
- The resistance in Russia surprised the Germans. After smashing through Russian territory, they expected the Russians to surrender like the French. After a few months of the Russian campaign, Hitler ordered the economy off a war time footing since the war was just about over. He remembered the unpopular sentiment of the German people suffering during WWI towards the government and did not want to repeat that.
- The Germans were always trying to make sense of the Russian counterattacks in the early days of the invasion and divine the overall strategy of the Russians. What the Germans didn't know was that no overall game plan existed. The individual Russian units were acting on their own, so no sense could be made of various attacks.
- A German soldier was writing about the resistance in Russian being so much stiffer than in France. In France, he wrote, it was like an exercise with live ammunition. The Russians fought tenaciously because they knew their fate if captured by the Germans.
- Sugar Boycott
To reduce slave labor in the West Indies, the Anti-Saccharine Society of Great Britain urged citizens not to consume West Indian sugar since it was produced by the blood and sweat of slaves. It was considered in bad taste by the supporters to have sugar with Tea. Similar to our boycott of 'Blood Diamonds' today.
- Civil War Causalities
According to historian Gretchen Reilly, the South suffered 50,000 deaths from actual fighting and three times that from from sickness and disease. The North lost 110,000 in battle and twice that from disease.
- French and German Tanks in WWII
In WWII the French had more tanks, with better armor and bigger guns than the Germans. The German tanks, at the insistence of Heinz Guderian, communicated with FM radios giving them an enormous advantage. Communication and tactics can easily trump other factors.
- Deception in the Falklands War (1982)
To protect their airfields from further British attacks, the Argentinians piled dirt on their runways during the day to make it look like previous bombing raids were successful. It worked, the British pilots thought the airfields were not operational and did not continue bombing.
- Mark Twain's father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a “conductor” in the Underground Railroad and helped Frederick Douglass escape to freedom.
- The Colt 5 Shot
In 1844 Texas Ranger Captain John Coffee Hays and fourteen Rangers encountered a much larger band of Comanche warriors under the command of Yellow Wolf at Walker's Creek in Texas, 40 miles north of San Antonio . Using the new Colt No. 5 Paterson 5-shot revolver the Texans dominated the battle and changed the course of history in the American Plains. Before this battle, the Comanches always had the upper hand in weapons; a warrior could fire six deadly accurate arrows in the time it took a Texan to reload his Kentucky rifle. After this battle, the technology favored the Texans.
Oddly, Samuel Colt could not interest the US Army in his new repeating revolver. The Army didn't think it had any use for such a weapon. Colt went bankrupt, but not before selling some revolvers to the Texas Navy. The Texas Rangers obtained some of them and used the gun to devastating effect.
Colt in 1846 collaborated with Samuel Walker, a veteran of the Walker's Creek Battle, to design the Walker Colt. With the Mexican-American War ongoing, General Zachary Taylor ordered 1,000 repeating revolvers (maybe there is something to a gun that can shoot six times without reloading).
- The Technology of the Inca Empire
The Inca empire had no currency, wheeled devices, draft animals, written language, or metal tools, yet forged a network of amazing roads throughout their empire.
- German U-boats
In WWII German U-boats killed 30,000 Allied sailors, but suffered 28,000 losses themselves. The U-boat branch had the highest fatalities of any of the German services.
- WWII could have been stopped on May 11, 1940
Aerial reconnaissance reported that a huge traffic jam of German tanks was stretching out of the Ardennes forest. The reports were ignored by the French high command, certain that the real German attack was elsewhere. If the reports had not been ignored, and all the Allied bombers were summoned to bomb the hopelessly mired German tanks, WWII might have ended right there.
- Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War
I just finished Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, a biography of Stonewall Jackson. Three things struck me about the Civil War:
The meaning of who "won" a battle is not what it seems. At Chancellorsville, widely regarded as Robert E. Lee's finest battle, Lee fought off an army twice his size. At the end of the battle the Confederacy was in possession of the field, and the Union retreated, thereby giving a "win" to Lee. But looking at the cost of the battle, the Confederacy suffered 1,665 killed and the Union had 1,606 deaths, about the same. The South though could not afford such losses. With less than half the population of the North, the South would have to inflict more than twice the casualties to really "win" a battle. Like many of the South's wins, the battle was really a Pyrrhic victory.
The combatants had really poor intelligence of the strength and location of the enemy. Time and again, the Generals had no clue about where the enemy was and what direction they were going.
Lastly, the battles were often not won by grand strategies of the commanders, but by random events. A set of battle field orders found wrapped around cigars by the enemy, or a lost reinforcement army that stumbled into a battle at the perfect time to turn the tide, or a courier who gets shot and never delivers a message, all determine the outcome of the battle, perhaps more than the grand plan.