Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About

Khalid Elhassan - August 24, 2019

For non-history buffs, history often comes across as dry, stiff, and too serious. Which is unfortunate, because when we scratch beneath the broad outlines of historic events, we often find interesting details, ranging from the odd to the outright slapstick, that brings history alive. Following are twenty-odd but often forgotten moments about famous historical events.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
George S. Patton. IMDb

20. A French Village Dragged George S. Patton Into a Ceremony to Honor a Latrine

In the summer of 1944, George S. Patton led the US Third Army in a great sweep that liberated a huge chunk of France. It was not Patton’s first time fighting in France: he had been there during WWI. In that earlier conflict, Patton had received a visit from a local village mayor, who tearfully asked why he had not been told a Doughboy had died nearby. As Patton described it: “Being unaware of this sad fact and not liking to admit it to a stranger, I stalled until I found out that no one was dead. However, he insisted that we visit the ‘grave’“. When they got there, they found a freshly covered pit with sticks forming a cross and holding a plaque that read “Abandoned Rear”.

It was all a huge misunderstanding, as the French had mistaken the crossed sticks for the religious symbol, and “Abandoned Rear” for the deceased soldier’s name. “Abandoned Rear” was actually the designation for a covered latrine, to warn others from digging in that spot. “I never told them the truth“, wrote Patton. Decades later, he passed through the same village, and was given a hearty procession by the locals. They took him to the long-buried latrine, which the villagers had dutifully maintained over the years with all the dignity due a fallen soldier.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Pollyanna the Reindeer, and HMS Trident. Royal Navy Submarine Museum

19. WWII’s Undersea Reindeer

In 1941, the British Royal Navy submarine HMS Trident docked in a Soviet port. At the time, the USSR was reeling from the recent Nazi onslaught, enduring horrific losses, and hanging on by the skin of its teeth. Appreciating any help, the Soviets went out of their way to be friendly. While the submarine’s captain was chatting with a Soviet admiral, he mentioned that his wife complained about plowing snow. The admiral responded: “you need a reindeer!” It was funny, until the admiral followed up by gifting the captain a reindeer calf. Life within the Trident‘s narrow confines was already cramped for its 56 crewmen, but turning down the gift would have been undiplomatic. Thus the reindeer, named Pollyanna, was brought aboard via a torpedo tube, and inducted into the Royal Navy.

Over the ensuing six weeks, Pollyanna was fed from a barrel of moss provided by the Soviets, and when that ran out, she subsisted on condensed milk and scraps from the galley. It was hoped that she would sleep in the torpedo room, but her tastes were more refined, and she insisted on sleeping under the captain’s bed. Whenever the submarine surfaced for air, Pollyanna barged her way through the narrow corridors to be the first to get some fresh air, before returning to officer country. Although Pollyanna ate a navigational chart, the Trident made it back to Britain. By then, she had grown too big to exit through a torpedo tube, so a winch was used to get her out via the hatch. Pollyanna was then discharged from the Royal Navy, and spent the rest of her life in the London Zoo.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
A wooding station on Lake Nyasa, in 1914. History Today

18. World War I’s First Naval Engagement Was Also Its Most Chill

In the early 20th century, Lake Nyasa lay on the border between German Tanganyika (today’s Tanzania) and British Malawi, and each empire maintained a small naval presence there. The British assigned the task to Commander Edmund Rhoades, in charge of the gunboat HMS Gwendolen. He shared the lake with a German Captain Berndt, in command of the SS Hermann von Wissman. In the decade preceding the war, Rhoades and Berndt became good friends, and boon-drinking companions. When Britain declared war against Germany in 1914, Rhoades was the first to receive the news, and decided to end the war in Lake Nyasa before it had even begun, without hurting his friend.

The German gunboat was docked for repairs, its captain still unaware that there was a war on, when Rhoades showed up in the Gwendolen, and disabled the Hermann von Wissman with a single volley. Captain Berndt leaped into a dinghy and had it rowed furiously to the Gwendolen, which he boarded while cursing out Rhoades and questioning his sobriety and sanity. Rhoades sat Berndt down, and over whiskey, explained the situation to his erstwhile boozing buddy. He then led away his livid prisoner of war, who by then was loudly cursing German officials and his chain of command for not keeping him up to speed on developments in Europe. Thus concluded WWI’s first naval engagement.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Napoleon in Egypt. Wikimedia

17. The French Expedition to Egypt Was Enveloped in a Haze of Hashish

French armies seldom had trouble finding wine or other alcoholic drinks while campaigning in Europe. However, when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he and his men found themselves in a Muslim country with precious little booze. After the British Royal Navy destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile later that year, the French in Egypt were cut off from resupply, including the resupply of wine. So the French sought an alternative intoxicant, and hit upon hashish. Soon, the invaders had developed an insatiable taste for the drug, and eventually, their forces were debilitated by an epidemic of hash addiction. The new habit began eroding discipline, and undermined the French military’s effectiveness to such an extent that Napoleon issued a total ban on hashish.

Napoleon and French commanders figured that their men had been more effective back when they used to be alcoholics, than they were now as junkies. So to help wean his soldiers off hash and return them to wine, Napoleon commissioned the production of date wines and spirits. It backfired: French troops drank the newly introduced booze, and discovered that it went great with hash, which they kept right on smoking. So instead of dealing with soldiers who were high, French commanders found themselves having to deal with soldiers who were high and drunk.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Last stand of the 44th Foot Regiment during the catastrophic retreat from Kabul. Wikimedia

16. British Intervention in Afghanistan Ends in Catastrophe

The British intervened in Afghanistan during the mid 19th century to depose one king and replace him with a friendlier puppet, backed up by British garrisons. However, the puppet ruler proved unpopular, and within a few years, an uprising forced the British to evacuate the Afghan capital. Setting out from Kabul on January 6th, 1842, amid falling snow, the British column of 16,500 soldiers and civilians was barely a mile beyond the city before it began to take sniper fire from the surrounding hills. By day’s end, emboldened parties of Afghan tribesmen were dashing in and out of the column to loot supplies and butcher whoever they could lay their hands on. That night, many froze to death as the column camped out amidst the snow, without tents.

The following day, the British resumed the march, but by then, many soldiers were too debilitated by the cold to fight. As they entered a narrow mountain pass, the column was fired upon by tribesmen concealed in the rocks above, losing 3000 casualties. Over the following days, Afghan chieftains shook down the British for money and hostages in exchange for empty promises to rein in the tribesmen. On January 11th, the British commander and his deputy were forced to surrender in exchange for yet another promise of safe passage. Soon thereafter, the British found their path barred, this time for good, by entrenched Afghans who had blocked and fortified a pass. A desperate charge was made to try and break through, but it was beaten back. On January 13th, British sentries in Jellalabad, on the lookout for the arrival of the Kabul garrison, saw a single rider approaching. It was Dr. Brydon, the sole survivor of the retreat from Kabul.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
A weary Marine in the closing days of the 1944 Battle of Saipan. Life Magazine

15. The Identity of One of WWII’s Most Iconic Marines Was Hidden (and Stolen) For Decades

In the closing days of the 1944 Battle of Saipan, photographer W. Eugene Smith snapped a photo of a US Marine rifleman that captured the weariness and wariness of combat as few photos have before or since. The image appeared in LIFE Magazine, and subsequently became famous as ‘The Saipan Stare’. Unfortunately, a controversy about the identity of the photo’s subject erupted decades later, when a Santa Fe bar owner claimed that it was of his father, Angelo Klonis. The son believed that his father had been an OSS operative, and that the photo was taken in Europe, not Saipan. The claims were initially taken at face value, but subsequent research debunked them. According to wartime records, Klonis was not an OSS operative, but a cook whose unit’s baptism of fire occurred in France, two days after the iconic photograph was taken in Saipan.

Evidence supports that the photographer correctly labeled the photo for what it was: that of a Marine in Saipan. The subject is wearing a Marine camouflage cover on his helmet. He is clad in Marine dungarees. His equipment is secured by Marine straps, not Army ones. Photos before and after on the photographer’s contact sheet depict personnel with unit patches of the 1st Battalion, 24h Marines. Finally, the photographer’s original caption for the image reads “T. E. Underwood, 24th Batt. St. Petersburg, FL“. There was a PFC Thomas Ellis Underwood from Saint Petersburg, Florida, who fought in Saipan, serving as a squad leader with Company B, 1/24 Marines. He fought in Iwo Jima the following year, earned a Bronze Star, and was killed in action at age 22.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Hipponax of Ephesus. Wikimedia

14. Ancient Greek Troll Got Trolled So Bad, He Killed Himself

Trolling that escalates into something worse has been around for ages. The Ancient Greeks, in particular, were big on trolling which sparked off flame wars. A good example is a 6th century BC flame war between Buaplus of Chios and Hipponax of Ephesus, that ended with the loser committing suicide. Bupalus was a famous sculptor whose marble statues, typically of draped female figures such as Artemis, The Graces, or Fortune, were in exceptionally high demand. Bupalus was also a world-class troll, who got into a tiff with an even bigger troll. Hipponax of Ephesus was a poet, but not a high-brow one. Instead, he specialized in stuff like “There are two days when a woman is a pleasure: the day one marries her and the day one carries out her dead body“, and diss poetry. Hipponax had a gargoyle face to match his personality.

The beef began when Hipponax sought to marry Bupalus’ daughter, only for her father to reject him, sparing the girl from life with somebody as ugly on the inside as he was on the outside. Bupalus then rubbed salt in the wound by caricaturing the unsightly Hipponax in some of his sculptures. Hipponax responded with verses that accused Bupalus of being a literal mother****er, and went into graphic details about the sex acts the sculptor supposedly engaged in with his mother. Unable to stand the ensuing public mockery, Bupalus hanged himself. His fate became a byword, as illustrated by a line from ancient Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes: “Someone ought to give them a Bupalus or two on the jaw—that might shut them up for a bit“.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Captain Bligh and loyal crewmen cast adrift from the Bounty. Royal Museums

13. Captain Bligh Was Actually a Decent Guy

Captain William Bligh (1754 – 1817) is often seen as the epitome of a tyrannical boss and cruel commanding officer. He reportedly overworked, mistreated, and insulted his men, and was a sadist who gratuitously punished any who triggered his insecurities by flogging them to within an inch of their lives. In reality, Bligh was a decent captain for his era. He frequently tongue-lashed his men, but so did most captains back then. However, Bligh’s men were flogged less frequently than sailors on other ships: he preferred to chastise his crew verbally, instead of physically. Also, Bligh was a relatively exceptional commander, in that he invested significant time and effort to keep his crew healthy. He organized their shifts to ensure that they got plenty of rest, oversaw a daily exercise regimen, and fed them as highly nutritious a diet as was possible under the circumstances.

His crew did not mutiny because of unbearable conditions. After a long journey, the men spent several weeks in the tropical island paradise of Tahiti, partying it up with local women. On the way back, the contrast between the dreary ship life and the paradise they had left behind was too much, so they mutinied. Bligh’s conduct after the mutiny was actually inspirational. The mutineers placed him and 17 loyal crewmen on a boat, gave them provisions for five days, then cast them adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from civilization, to die. Instead, Bligh kept his men alive and navigated the dinky boat nearly 4000 until they reached civilization, all the while battling thirst, hunger, illness, and the occasional hostile natives. It was one of history’s most extraordinary feats of seamanship.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Gavrilo Princip in prison, and at the moment of arrest following his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. All That Is Interesting

12. The Assassin Who Kicked Off World War I Escaped the Death Penalty

Gavrilo Princip (1894 – 1918) set in motion the chain of events leading to the outbreak of World War I by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Considering the gravity of his deed, it might be assumed that Princip was immediately killed by the Archduke’s security, or that he was executed soon thereafter. Instead, he was sentenced to 20 years’ in prison, and died behind bars of illness in the war’s final year. Princip was a Serb from Bosnia-Herzegovina, then ruled by Austria-Hungary. As a teenager, he was radicalized by Serbian nationalists, and joined an organization dedicated to freeing all Slavs from Austria-Hungary’s control. Violent activism got Princip expelled from school in 1912 – he put on brass knuckles, and threatened fellow students who were lukewarm about joining him in a demonstration against Austria-Hungary.

After the expulsion, Princip walked 170 miles to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, joined guerrillas who raided across the border into Austro-Hungarian territory, then got recruited by Black Hand terrorists. The Black Hand trained, armed, and equipped Princip and a team of fellow terrorists, and sent them to assassinate Austria’s Archduke in June of 1914. Princip fired the fatal shots, then swallowed a cyanide pill. However, it had expired, and he was captured. Princip was convicted, but he was only nineteen at the time – twenty-seven days short of the twenty-year-old minimum age under Austro-Hungarian law for the death penalty. So he received the maximum sentence of 20 years. In prison, Princip caught tuberculosis, of which he finally died on April 28th, 1918, nearly four years after sparking WWI.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Anna Strong using her laundry as code, as depicted in the TV series ‘Turn’. AMC

11. An Enterprising Spy Helped Win the American Revolution With Petticoats

Anna Smith Strong (1740 – 1812) of Setauket, New York, played an important role in the American Revolution’s most important espionage network, the Culper Spy Ring. Abraham Woodhull, the ring’s leader, traveled to New York City under the cover of his occupation as a farmer delivering produce. There, he gathered information about British units in the city, their dispositions, and any news overheard from talkative Loyalists and British officers. Close questioning by inquisitive Redcoats during one visit drove home to Woodhull the risks he was running. To reduce his exposure, he began recruiting spies in the city, and using their reports instead of his personal observations. Woodhull then delivered the intelligence to Caleb Brewster, a courier and smuggler who ran a whaleboat. Brewster delivered it to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who finally delivered it to George Washington.

It was a time-consuming process that was eventually shortened by using couriers to collect the information in NYC, and speed it to Setauket, 55 miles away. Anna Strong, a neighbor and friend of Woodhull and Brewster, used her laundry as a code to coordinate when intelligence was ready to gather, and where it should be collected. When Brewster was ready to pick up Woodhull’s reports, Anna would hang a black petticoat in her laundry as a signal to Woodhull. Woodhull would then finish compiling a report, and stash it in a prearranged hiding spot in one of six nearby coves. Anna would then hang up white handkerchiefs to dry, their number corresponding to the code number of the cove where Woodhull had stashed the report. Brewster would then go to the cove, pick up the report, and deliver it to the Patriots.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
‘The Death of Empedocles’, by Salvator Rosa. Wikimedia

10. Trying to Prove He Was a God Backfired Big Time For This Philosopher

Empedocles (circa 492 – 432 BC) was a Greek philosopher and poet from Akragas, in Sicily. He is credited with originating the theory of the four classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water, which sought to explain the complexity of the universe by reducing all matter to simpler substances. Empedocles was born into a prominent family, and his father was a pro-democracy local bigwig who played a prominent role in overthrowing his polis’ ruling tyrant in 470 BC. Empedocles followed in his father’s footsteps, and helped overthrow an oligarchic government that took over Akragas after the tyrant was removed. He was reportedly offered his city’s sovereignty, but declined. Empedocles was also a loon who thought he was a god and died trying to prove his divinity.

Empedocles was considered to be one of his era’s greatest intellectuals and most talented physicians. His ability to cure diseases and avert epidemics won him widespread acclaim. The accolades went to his head, and he eventually came to believe that he possessed miraculous powers, such as the ability to control old age, destroy evil, and control the winds and rains. Empedocles’ delusions peaked after he cured a supposedly incurable woman, whose illness had stumped all other healers. So he claimed he was a god. To prove his divinity to skeptics, Empedocles gathered a crowd, and led them to the top of an active volcano, Mount Etna. There, he declared that as proof of his immortality, he would jump into the volcano, and return as a god after his body was consumed by the fire. Empedocles jumped into the volcano, but twenty-five centuries later, he has still not returned.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Admiral Darlan, with Marshal Petain and Herman Goering. WW2 Gravestones

9. A Lunatic Relieved the Allies of a Huge Headache

Admiral Francois Darlan (1881-1942) was commander in chief of the French Navy at the start of WWII. After France was defeated in 1940, Darlan served the collaborationist Vichy regime, and became its deputy leader. When the Allies invaded French North Africa in 1942, they cut a deal with Darlan, whereby he ordered the forces under his command to surrender. In exchange, Darlan got to govern French North and West Africa. However, the agreement became a PR embarrassment, because it favored the collaborationist Darlan against the Free French under Charles de Gaulle, who had never stopped fighting the Nazis. The embarrassment was finally lifted when Darlan was assassinated on Christmas Eve, 1942 by Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle.

La Chapelle was a member of a Resistance group that decided to kill Darlan. He secured a pistol, received absolution from a priest, and on December 24th, he waited for Darlan near his office in Algiers, and shot him when he showed up. La Chapelle was tried by a French military court the following day, and was sentenced to death. However, he convinced himself that he would get a stay of execution, or at worst, that there would be a sham “execution” in which the firing squad would use blanks instead of real bullets. La Chapelle did end up getting pardoned and rehabilitated by an appellate court, which ruled that his assassination of Darlan had been justifiable because it was done “in the interest of the liberation of France“. However, that ruling was handed down in December of 1945, three years too late for La Chapelle, who was executed by a firing squad that used real bullets on December 26th, 1942, one day after receiving his death sentence.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Edward I. Google Art Project

8. The Bad King From ‘Braveheart’ Was Actually One of England’s Greatest Monarchs

Braveheart painted Edward I (1272 – 1307) as cartoonishly evil, invading Scotland and wreaking havoc simply to slake his lust for cruelty. In reality, Edward had been invited into Scotland by its fractious nobles, who asked him to arbitrate between rival claimants for the throne, and pick their next king. He decided to keep Scotland for himself, but few back then would have done differently in his shoes. While Edward could be pretty ruthless, he was also capable of being likable and charming. Indeed, until Braveheart wrecked his image, Edward had a good reputation, as the Plantagenet Dynasty‘s most competent king. His long list of accomplishments includes reforming England’s administration and laws, solidifying the common law, conquering Wales, and unifying Britain under his rule by exercising suzerainty over Scotland.

Edward started doing great stuff while he was still a teenager, when he successfully crushed a rebellion against his hapless father, King Henry III, known as the Second Barons’ War. He then went on a Crusade that solidified his reputation as a capable military commander. While on Crusade, he accomplished the rare feat of fighting off a killer of the Assassins cult, who tried to murder Edward in his sleep. After becoming king, he spent decades codifying the legal system and ensuring its uniform administration. He was also determined to enforce his primacy over Britain, and started off with Wales, which he subdued and brought into the English legal and administrative framework. He also increased the role of Parliament – not out of any love for democracy, but because he saw Parliament as a useful vessel for raising taxes to fund his military campaigns.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Mother Bickerdyke. Civil War Talk

7. William Tecumseh Sherman Was Intimidated by a Pioneering Nurse

Mary Ann Bickerdyke (1817 – 1901) was a Union Army nurse and hospital administrator during the Civil War. She helped establish hundreds of field hospitals for the wounded and sick, and after the war, she spent decades helping veterans and their families secure their pensions. Her deep concern for and tireless efforts on the soldiers’ behalf earned her the nickname “Mother Bickerdyke” from the men. It also won the admiration of many of their commanders, including US Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. An Ohioan, Bickerdyke was one of the first women to attend Oberlin College. She eventually settled in Illinois, where she worked as a botanic physician and a provider of alternative medicines, using herbs and plants.

When the war began, a regimental surgeon and friend of Bickerdyke wrote about the abysmal conditions in military hospitals in Cairo, Illinois. Bickerdyke’s community collected $500 worth of supplies, and she was the only volunteer willing to deliver them. She ended up getting appointed as a field agent for the US Sanitary Commission – a private relief agency created to support sick and wounded soldiers. A strong-willed woman, Bickerdyke was determined to let nothing stand in the way of her quest to bring order to field hospitals and improve the lot of the soldiers receiving treatment in them. When an Army surgeon questioned her authority, she retorted that she was acting: “On the authority of the Lord God Almighty. Have you anything that outranks that?” On another occasion, when members of General Grant’s staff complained to William Tecumseh Sherman of Bickerdyke’s deliberate defiance of some regulations, he threw up his hands and exclaimed: “She outranks me. I can’t do a thing in the world“.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Hengist and Horsa arriving in Britain with their warriors. Great Big Canvas

6. Roman Britons Discovered the Serious Downside of Using Mercenaries

Saxon raiders devastated Roman Britain during the fourth century. Reasoning that “it takes a thief to catch a thief”, the Romano-Britons hired Saxons as mercenaries, and settled them on British soil. In exchange, the Saxons promised to defend Britain from other barbarians. However, after settling in, the Saxons complained that the Romano-Britons had skimped on the supplies they had been promised. A meeting to resolve the dispute was arranged between native nobles led by a Vortigern, and the Saxons led by two chieftains named Hengist and Horsa. Unfortunately for the locals, the Saxons’ idea of resolving the dispute was to suddenly murder the Britons during the conference, sparing only Vortigern. Declaring the treaty void because the locals had failed to live up to its terms, the Saxons launched a massive onslaught against Britain, and forced Vortigern to sign a treaty that ceded them southeastern England.

That only whetted the Saxons’ appetite, so they launched a war of conquest to seize the entire province, displace the locals, and replace them with Germanic settlers. They were joined by Jutes, from today’s Jutland in Denmark and Lower Saxony in Germany, plus Angles, from today’s Schleswig-Holstein, between Germany and Denmark. The onslaught lasted for about 30 years, until curbed by a British victory at the Battle of Mons Badonicus, circa 500. That temporarily stopped the invaders, who by then had overrun about half of what had been Roman Britain. It was this period of warfare that gave rise to the stories of King Arthur, the heroic monarch who led the Britons against the Saxons. In the end, however, the Britons lost their most productive lands, and their last independent remnants were pushed into the peripheral regions of Cornwall and Wales.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Charles Maultsby. Anchorage Daily News

5. JFK Got Super Salty at a Pilot Who Almost Got Us Into WWIII

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was the closest the world ever came to a radioactive holocaust, as the Americans and Soviets stared each other down, with itchy fingers hovering above the nuclear launch buttons. It was bad, but most folk who lived through it did not know at the time just how horrifyingly bad it had actually been. As was revealed years later, billions around the world might have perished, because an American spy plane had accidentally blundered deep into Soviet airspace at the height of the crisis.

On October 27th, 1962, at 1:45 PM, President Kennedy was informed that an American U-2 spy plane, flown by Charles Maultsby, flying out of Alaska, had gone missing inside Soviet airspace. The plane was supposed to fly just outside the Soviet border, where it was to test clouds drifting from the USSR for radioactive particles. Its hapless pilot, however, ended up blundering deep into the USSR, and the Soviets scrambled fighters to shoot him down. It was the worst possible moment for such a screwup, as the Soviets might have viewed the incursion as a deliberate provocation. Luckily, the plane made it back to base, but Kennedy, who called its pilot a “son of a bitch”, made sure he never flew a U-2 again.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Celtic mercenaries in Egypt. Ancient Origins

4. The Celts Came Close to Seizing Egypt

During the Classical Era, the Celts were known to the Greco-Romans for the high quality of their weapons, their courage and ferocity in battle, their frightful battle cries, and their terrifying, butt-naked, headlong charges. That reputation made Celts highly sought after as soldiers of fortune. Starting in the 4th century BC – and especially after the fragmentation of Alexander the Great’s empire into warring states – Celtic mercenaries became all the rage throughout the lands bordering the Mediterranean. In addition to fighting for the various Hellenistic kingdoms, Celts also fought for Carthage, and formed a significant part of Hannibal’s army when he invaded Italy. Celtic mercenaries were also a bulwark of Egypt’s Ptolemaic Dynasty and were included in the Egyptian army’s order of battle.

Egypt’s king Ptolemy II hired 4000 Celtic mercenaries, recruited from the Balkans with help from Macedon’s Antigonids. They played a decisive role in beating back a challenge from a usurper who made a bid for Ptolemy’s throne. However, the Celt mercenaries then made a bid of their own to dethrone Ptolemy and seize Egypt for themselves. After crushing their rebellion, Ptolemy dumped the surviving Celts into a small island in the Nile, to die of starvation. Notwithstanding, the Ptolemies continued to hire Celts mercenaries – their lack of local roots made them particularly useful in putting down uprisings by native Egyptians. Celts remained in Ptolemaic service until the end, and the dynasty’s final ruler, Cleopatra, was known to have employed Celtic mercenaries.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Vietnam-era GIs with narcotics. History Channel

3. A Fifth of Americans in Vietnam Became Heroin Addicts

Until 1969, the only drug widely available to American military personnel in Vietnam was marijuana. But starting in 1969, heroin became widely available. It was cheap, and so pure that servicemen could get high smoking it mixed with tobacco. That made heroin more appealing to those who would have been reluctant to inject the drug into their veins with syringes. By 1971, almost half of US Army enlistees in Vietnam had tried heroin, and of those, about half were exhibiting signs of addiction. The addiction epidemic spread from Vietnam to other American military installations around the world, with the US garrison in West Germany being particularly hard hit.

To deal with the epidemic, President Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention. He also ordered further research on military personnel addiction, which revealed that 20% of American servicemen in Vietnam self-identified as heroin addicts. At the time, the US was drawing down its presence in Vietnam, and about 1000 troops were sent back home each day, where most were discharged soon thereafter. It meant that hundreds of active heroin addicts were being released into the US each week, which created huge social problems that rocked 1970s America.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Sir John Hawkwood’s funerary monument. Wikimedia

2. Renaissance Italy Was Terrorized by an English Mercenary

Englishman Sir John Hawkwood (1320 – 1394) was Europe’s greatest 14th century mercenary. A soldier of fortune, Hawkwood played a significant role in Italy’s wars and politics, switching sides on numerous occasions between competing states and factions. He began his career in France during the Hundred Years War, and was knighted by King Edward III for exemplary service. However, that war was temporarily interrupted by a peace treaty in 1360, so Hawkwood left France for greener pastures in Italy at the head of a company of freebooters. Upon arrival in Italy, he joined an English mercenary unit known as the White Company. Hawkwood rose through its ranks, and in 1364, was elected captain-general. He put his stamp on the White Company by adopting the English longbow, and tactics successfully used in France.

Hawkwood also instilled strict discipline, and lightened his men’s armor and equipment, which made them famous for the rapidity of their marches. The reforms transformed the White Company into an elite and highly sought-after unit. The mercenary outfit served the Pope, but was stiffed on payment. So when the Pope sent him to put down a rebellion in Citta di Castello, Hawkwood captured and kept the city for himself. Strapped for cash, the Pope invested Hawkwood with the city to settle the debt. During the 1370s, Hawkwood repeatedly switched sides between the Pope and his rival, the Duke of Milan, whose daughter Hawkwood married in 1377. In 1378, after quarreling with his father-in-law, Hawkwood switched to Milan’s rival, the city of Florence, and was appointed its captain-general. He finally decided to sell his Italian properties and retire to England to spend his last years, but died in 1394 before he could do so.

Odd Details About Famous Historical Events Nobody Talks About
Pol Pot. ThoughtCo

1. Pol Pot Used To Be a Kindly and Highly Regarded Professor

In 1975, Cambodian communist revolutionary Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge into seizing power. As depicted in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, Cambodia was then transformed into a nightmarish dystopia. Pol Pot and his fanatical followers carried out a genocide that killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population. In a batty attempt at social engineering, the cities were evacuated, and the urban masses were forcibly converted into peasants, to toil on poorly run collective farms. Roughly three million were murdered or starved to death before the nightmare ended when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979.

Pol Pot’s background gave little to indicate just how much of a monster he would become. Born Saloth Sar into a prosperous family, he had received an elite education in Cambodia’s best schools, before moving to Paris, where he joined the French Communist Party. Pol Pot eventually returned to Cambodia, where he became a college professor who frequently spoke about kindness and humanity. He was beloved by his students, who remembered him as “calm, self-assured, smooth featured, honest, and persuasive, even hypnotic when speaking to small groups“. Many of those students followed him into the Khmer Rouge, and became the most ruthless executioners of what came to be known as the Cambodian Genocide.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient Origins – Exploring the Little Known History of Celtic Warriors in Egypt

BBC, December 21st, 2009 – Reindeer‘s Wartime Submarine Trip

Cracked – 6 Crazy Facts You Didn‘t Know About Famous Historical Events

Encyclopedia Britannica – Gavrilo Princip

English Monarchs – Hengist and Horsa

First Battalion, 24th Marines – Underwood v. Klonis

Historic UK – Britain‘s Retreat From Kabul

History Today – Victory on Lake Nyasa

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Empedocles

Kakanomics, February 2nd, 2017 – The History of Drugs and War

Kansas Historical Society – Mary A. “Mother” Bickerdyke

Listverse – 10 Incredibly Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece

New York Times, May 16th, 1971 – GI Heroin Epidemic in Vietnam

Patton, George S. – War as I Knew It (1995 Edition)

Ranker – The Most Bizarre Deaths in the Ancient World

Short, Philip – Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare (2006)

Spectator, The, December 18th, 2012 – An Assassination at Christmas

Telegraph, The, March 12th, 2017 – Mutiny on the Bounty: The True Story of Captain Bligh‘s Mutineers

Vanity Fair, June 2008 – Lost in Enemy Airspace

Wikipedia – Edward I of England