Some people were born to lead. You can keep your General Pattons, your Napoleons, Ghengis Kahns and Hannibals; they can’t hold a candle to Jan Zizik. He was such a mighty and effective commander, leading peasants farmers against numerically superior professional troops, that he wanted to continue leading them after death. Also, he was blind. My name…
First, a little background. It’s all to do with the 14th century Czech Reformation, which is not nearly as well known as the Protestant Reformation, though it was also quite impactful. One reason it’s less well known is that most of the original and secondary sources have been published only in Czech. The Czech Reformation produced the first national church separate from Roman authority and the first pacifist Protestant church, the first radical apocalyptic religious movements of the Early Modern period. One prominent figure was a priest named Jan Hus, who broke with Catholic tradition by allowing regular people to drink the wine during Holy Communion, as opposed to only the priest being allowed to drink it. In the year 1414, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund summoned Hus to a council to end the split in the church, but it was a trick. Hus was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.
Four years later, the Hussites started on the road to a full scale revolt against the Catholic church by storming the town hall in Prague to liberate imprisoned fellow Hussites. They meant to keep it low-key, but someone in the town hall threw a stone at them. That flipped the switch and led to The First Defenestration of Prague, where the Hussites stormed the building and threw at least 7 people out a second-story window. The First Defenestration of Prague, thu called because there would be a second one, is widely accepted as the event that kick-started twenty years of Hussite Wars. Luckily for the Hussites, they chose Jan Zizka to lead them when the pope called for a crusade against them. Zizka began his military career as a mercenary, fighting for whomever could pay. It was during that time, at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, that Zizka lost one of his eyes. Not just damaged, removed from his head. Normal humans would crawl to the sidelines, but Zizka was still instrumental in the victory that day.
The Hussites were outnumbered and they were outmatched by the German army. The Hussites were farmers without training or proper weapons, while the Germans were one of the largest and most disciplined military forces of the time. The Bohemian forces included old people, women, and even children. Zizka taught them how to use their grain flails, a long stick with a short stick ties to the end of it to thresh wheat, as effective weapons. Zizka used the terrain of the battlefield better than any other field marshall and would go on to design new military hardware as well as tactics. When King Sigismund of Germany/Hungary invaded, Zizka lead his farmer-soldiers a defensive position on a hill outside the city called Vitkov. From the hill, the peasant forces were able to repel the Crusaders, ending the German siege of Prague. It took a year of constant fighting, but Zizka eventually pushed the Germans out of Bohemia. Sigismund would re-invade later and his forces managed to encircle Zizka and his men. In a daring maneuver, Zizka broke through the enemy lines and returned with an army of reinforcements to cause huge losses to the Germans. Sigismund lost most of his men, and those that remained were put to the death when angry Czechs stormed their last stronghold.
Zizka led his farmer-soldiers on an incredible winning streak, despite being constantly outnumbered and outgunned. He created a system of signal flags to tell the wagons that made up his defensive perimeter where and when to move apart to let their until-that-moment-hidden reinforcement cavalry charge through. Zizka created an armored division nearly 5 centuries before the first tanks would roll across Europe. He had wagons plated with armor from which cannons could be fired, crossbows shot, or rocks thrown if it came to that. The first battle with the armored wagons saw 500 Hussites roundly trounce 2,000 German soldiers. Between battles, the wagons could be used to carry forges to repair their equipment. The Hussite would even roll wagons loaded with gunpowder into enemy lines, to literally blow holes in the tightly packed German columns. Over the course of these campaigns, Zizka began to lose the sight in his remaining eye, until he was left completely blind. At that point, he had to give up leading charges and manage the battles from camp. Just kidding, he rode at the front of his troops, same as always, for *four more *years. At the Battle of Nemecky Brod in 1422, for example, Zizka’s army of 12,000 thwarted an ambush attempt and destroyed 23,000 crusaders. They failed to ambush an army led by a blind man.
Zizka died in 1424, not by sword or cannonball, but of plague. His troops felt as if they had lost a father, not just a commander, and began to call themselves the Orphans. Zizka hadn’t left them completely, though. He had asked his trusted lieutenants to remove his skin after he died and make it into a drum, so he could still lead his people. At least, that’s how some people tell it.
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You can also hang out with other cool people who like learning things in the Brainiac Breakroom, where I post fun facts that I find that don’t go with that week’s topic.
A couple of your friends are from jolly old England, a nation whose “no flag, no country” history is the aggravating factor behind more than a few underdog rebel stories. Of the 200 or so countries in the world, only 22 were never invaded or otherwise interfered with by Great Britain. Take New Zealand, for example. It was settled by the Polynesian people who would become the Maori in the 13th century and though the Dutch discovered the island in 1642, Europeans did not revisit New Zealand until 1769 when British explorer James Cook mapped almost the entire coastline. Once the Maori were able to get their hands on modern weapons, forty years of Musket Wars began, ending with the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, which made them a British colony. The Maori population would drop by 40% in that century, while the British population was bolstered by new immigrants.
The fight wasn’t out of the Maori yet, though. The Tauranga campaign was a six-month-long armed conflict in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty in early 1864, as the Maori continued to fight for land ownership and self-sovereignty. 1700 British troops, led by Sir Duncan Cameron, landed at the northern end of Te Papa, which looked to the Maori like an invasion force. Maori leaders met to agree on a code of conduct, Geneva Convention style rules governing the forthcoming fight. They sent these rules to the British, who ignored them. The Māori selected a site on the Pukehinahina ridge where they designed and built a radical new fighting pā. A pa is a hillfort, a defensive position carved out of and built up from a natural elevation. The one was called Gate Pa, because there was a gate, somewhere, apparently. The years of the Musket Wars had led to a major change in traditional pā design to one of protection against new military technologies such as artillery and rockets, which is good because Cameron’s men has a 110-pounder Armstrong gun, two 40-pounder and two 6-pounder Armstrong guns plus smaller artillery. Picture a hillside with three trenches dug into it, one above the other, mostly covered by a shelter of branches, except for a small firing slit. The trenches were also dug as a zigzag instead of a straight line. This would stunt the explosive and percussive force of any rounds that landed in the trench, rather than letting the force blow down a straight trench to get as many men as were there. The zigzag was also disorienting to invading troops.
There were only about 230 Moari fighters compared to 2,000 British soldiers, so the British felt confident in a fast, easy victory. One division was sent around the pa to cut off the Maori’s escape route and resupply line. At first light on April 29, 1864, an intense barrage began, the heaviest artillery bombardment of the New Zealand Wars at 30 tonnes. Those 30 tonnes only managed to kill about 15 Maori because the flagpole the British were targeting was well behind the pa, not in it as they’d assumed. They even managed to hit some of their own troops. At 4pm, after nine hours and with a breach in the palisade having been made, Cameron gave the order to attack. British soldiers stormed the trench four abreast, only to find the pa empty. For five minutes, there was nothing. Silence. Captain G.R. Greaves, who was with the leading party, left the pā and reported to Cameron that the fort had been captured.
Or so he thought. A volley of shot blasted the British, taking out several officers. The Moari had been hiding in bunkers in the hill. Having been oppressed by British soldiers for so long, they knew what officers looked like to target them. 10 officers were killed, along with twenty one soldiers, and 80 were wounded. The Maori were armed with shotguns, which would have been rubbish in an open field, but were superior in the close quarters. The Brits fled the pa. Reliable details of the battle are thin on the ground. One account holds that the regiment sent to the rear charged the pa, but were mistaken by the Brits at the front as reinforcements for the Moari. It’s just as likely that the British troops were so taken off guard that it became every man for himself.
During the night, out of ammunition and without the supplies to withstand a long siege,
Māori quietly abandoned the pā which had served their purpose, passing through the lines of the 68th Regiment and fleeing across surrounding swamps before dispersing. They took their wounded and what British muskets they could grab and disappeared. Honouring the Code of Conduct, the wounded British soldiers were not mistreated or robbed, but instead given water before they left. Two days after the battle, the British approached the pa again, finding it deserted. The dead and wounded were then carried from the battlefield. There was a great outcry, both in New Zealand and England, that a force of 1,689 soldiers and sailors could have been defeated by 230 Māori.
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If you liked the movie ‘300,’ you should appreciate the story of the Sikh soldiers at the Battle of Saragarhi at least 14 times as much. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae, this underdog story doesn’t have a happy ending. In September 1897, 21 soldiers of the 36 Sikh Regiment fought an army of over 10,000 Afghans troops, killing more than 600 of them before they were overrun.
The North-West Frontier of undivided India, now a part of Pakistan, is a difficult bit of business, both terrestrially and politically. This is where the forts of Gulistan and Lockhart were built. There was no visual contact between the two forts, so Saragarhi was built between them to pass orders by means of signaling mirrors and Morse code. The region has been, and is, home to bloody conflicts and battle-hardened tribes. The Afridi, Orakzai, and Pashtun tribes didn’t appreciate Britain annexing the area and launched repeated attacks on forts Gulistan and Lockhart. The 36th Sikhs, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton, had been moved to the area and had been successfully repelling attacks from the tough, hardy Pashtuns.
On September 12, the frustrated tribesmen changed their strategy. Rather than attack the forts directly, they decided to cut off communication between the forts by attacking the signalling post, with two mud-brick walls only one officer, Havildar Ishar Singh, and twenty soldiers to defend it. The mend of Saraghari could see the tribes on the horizon. The signalman asked Fort Lockhart how many there were. “Over 14 standards,” they flash back. That is over 10,000 tribesmen. The ratio of Afghan soldiers to Sikh soldiers was 476:1. “Can you send help?” the signalman asked. “No,” came the reply. Reinforcements from Lockhart wouldn’t arrive in time and they couldn’t risk leaving their fort unguarded.
There was time for the Sikh to flee before the tribes arrived, but the soldiers decided to fight, to delay the enemy as long as possible so the forts could call in their own reinforcements. To a man, they agree. Twenty men gather weapons and ammunition, while the signalman keeps the forts abreast of what’s happening. The Sikh are experienced marksmen, but twenty guns can only kill so many men out of 10,000. The Afghanis crash against the outer wall like a tidal wave. The first Sikh is shot dead as the Afghans scale the wall. The Sikh manage to melee through all the enemies who’d made it in, but not without more casualties.
The gunfire outside subsides and shouts can be heard. The Afghan tribal leaders shout offers to the Sikh, not only of safe passage, but of wealth and positions in their army, if they give up the post. The Sikh resumed firing at Afghans. Then, the air was filled with smoke; the Afghans had set fire to the dry brush around the post, creating an acrid smoke screen. One of the forts signals that a detachment of Afghans are going around the side of the post and the outer wall is breeched. The Sikh now have to split to defend the main gate and the breech. Each man kills dozens of Afghans, but soon there are only a handful of Sikh left. They needed to fall back behind the inner wall, but doing so would give the enemy the chance to force their way in. Commander Singh ordered his men inside and charges the enemy, armed with sword and pistol. His fight is valiant, but brief, but it does buy his men the time they need to get through the inner wall. No one is operating under the delusion of hope that he might make it out alive. Their goal is to delay the enemy and reduce their numbers as much as possible before being killed. The inner gate fell quickly. The signalman who had been relaying constant updates to the forts asked permission to leave his post to fight; it was granted. He was the last Sikh alive. He killed as many as 20 Afghans before being overtaken. The commander of Fort Lockhart, Col. Haughton, said he could hear the signalman shouting the Sikh battlecry, “Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal,” “Shout aloud in ecstasy. True is the great timeless one.”
When the smoke cleared, the Sikh were dead. But they had held 10,000 Afghans a bay for almost three hours, long enough for reinforcements to reach Fort Lockhart. After the battle, Col. Haughton related to the top ranks of the British Indian Army what he had seen through his telescope and what the Saraghari signalman had sent. As a result, the 21 soldiers who died that day were awarded the prestigious Indian Order of Merit Class III award. It was the first time in history that each and every member of unit won an award like that for a single battle. Today, the 12th of September is celebrated as the Saragarhi Day to honor the sacrifices made by those 21 brave soldiers. It’s observed not only in India, but in Britain as well.
When most people think of WWI, they picture the barbed wire and trenches on the Western Front, of Flanders field and Normany, but much of the heaviest fighting was done on the Eastern Front between Russia and Germany. Russia was a major threat to Germany’s ambitions, putting the Soviets squarely in the Reich’s reticle. One obstacle in Germany’s way was Osowiec Fortress, located in modern day Poland, which not only stopped Germany from advancing past it, but forced them to keep soldiers in the area instead of sending troops to other fronts where they were needed. The fortress was highly defensible for its 500 soldiers, with two lines of trenches and barbed wire around its tall walls from which the Russians could fire down on their enemies. If the attackers made it inside then they would have to fight in deadly close quarters combat. To put a Bristol spin on thing, Russians are well hard. They handily repelled the first attack of over 10,000 German soldiers in September 1914.
The following February, Germany attacked again with numerically superior forces. It took five days of heavy fighting just to force the Russians back behind the first defensive line. Never let it be said they weren’t persistent. The second line of defense fell in only two days. Heavy artillery was brought in to pound the fort. For an entire week, 360 shells would hit the fort every four minutes, 250,000 shells from siege cannons and 1 million shells from lighter artillery. Many of the inner buildings collapsed and the Russians took heavy casualties, but still the fort held.
It would be another five months before the Germans tried again. They brought fewer men, but this time they had sappers and a secret weapon: chlorine gas, which Russians gas masks were not made to handle. Chlorine gas is particularly nasty as it targets soft tissue such as the eyes, esophagus, and lungs. Once it mixes with the water in the tissues, it forms hydrochloric acid that eats away at the flesh. There is no treatment other than to try to flush the chlorine out and try to treat the acid damage. There’s a reason most of the world agrees to stop using gas at that convention in Geneva. It did give rise to a modern old wives tale. If your grandmother caught you making a silly face and said, “If the wind changes, your face will stick that way,” that comes from gas attacks on the trenches of WWI. The Germans waited until the wind was favorable, then launched 30 canisters of chlorine gas at the fort. A greenish yellow cloud quickly spread through the area, turning trees yellow and grass black. The Russians outside the fort died quickly. Those inside the fort watched, but could do nothing for their comrades or themselves as the gas seeped in. The Germans donned their gas masks and stormed the fortress and its remaining 100 badly wounded Russian soldiers.
The Germans made it into the inner fortifications to meet a gruesome sight. 60 Russians with bloody rags wrapped around their chemical-burned faces, other coughing blood and even lung tissue, charged the attackers. Some of the invading troops fired, but many, panicked by the terrifying spectacle and the Russians refusal to die, quickly retreated from the fort. Some were so startled they dropped their rifles and machine guns, leaving them behind as they fled. Some retreating Germans even got tangled in their own barbed wire. The Russians fired on the fleeing Germans with rifles and artillery. That counter attack allowed time for two more Russian companies to move up and retake the fort before the Germans could regroup. All of the Russian soldiers in and around the fort during the gas attack would die from their wounds but their actions were not in vain. Osowiec Fortress held just long enough to protect retreating Russian forces in the area and further hamper the German’s plans. The newspapers called it the “attack of the dead men.”
And that’s… I’ll leave you with one last example, but one where the larger force had started as the underdog, Queen Boudica of the Iceni. After being thoroughly and righteous P.O.’ed by the Romans, she organized the various tribes of Britons and did far more damage to Rome than they ever could have expected. It all came to an end, though, when her forces of between 100 and 200,000 faced a mere 10,000 Romans. Unfortunately for the Britons, tactics and discipline go a long way, even when you’re outnumbered at least 10:1. General Suetonius chose a narrow valley that would squash Boudicca’s troops even more than it was squashing his. A few volleys of javelins from the heavily armored Roman soldiers and the Britons descended into chaos, the own wagons block their retreat. Suetonious sent in his cavalry and that was it for the Inceni, ensuring Roman control of Britain for centuries to come. Remember, you can always find the full script and links to research sources at yourbrainonfacts.com. Thanks…